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What Should Today's Poets Write about?
Chinese poets wrangle over what poems should be about and poets' responsibility
 NO. 7 FEBRUARY 15, 2018

(LI SHIGONG)

Guo Lusheng, a renowned poet popularly known as Shizhi, has an important place in the Chinese poetic circle, regarded as the founder of the "misty" genre of Chinese poetry. Yu Xiuhua, a new member of this circle, came from a farming background. Yu, who has had cerebral palsy since childhood, has endured untold suffering in her life. Her poems, however, are now well received by Chinese readers, and have been bestsellers in recent times. Though both are remarkable poets, Shizhi and Yu did not have any interaction until recently, when he openly criticized her at a book launch.

In a recent public speech, Shizhi denounced Yu writing that to her, "an ideal life was to drink coffee, read and talk, and do similar leisurely things." Shizhi scathingly said that Yu has forgotten that a poet's responsibility is to think of the nation and mankind. In Yu's case, he said her responsibility was to write about the pain and misery of ordinary farmers and their pursuit of a better life. In reply, Yu vehemently claimed that Shizhi was insulting others because of his elevated position in the poetic circle.

The public and media have reacted strongly to their altercation, with different people taking different views.

A brave voice

Tang Shan (Beijing Youth Daily): In his remark, Shizhi expressed his concern for the future of vernacular poetry, arguing that poems should reflect the life of the masses and the nature of a nation. He expressed his dissatisfaction with Yu Xiuhua's way of life, instead of her work.

Shizhi is not commenting on readers' indifference to culture, but is explaining the many problems that vernacular poetry faces. This shows his bravery and sense of responsibility. It's a pity that not many such voices are heard these days. Many people misunderstood Shizhi's concerns.

The kind of anxiety embedded in Shizhi's criticism has been there since the birth of Chinese vernacular poetry which is much different from the classical style, plaguing poets for generations.

Chinese society is heading toward diversification, so it's natural to hear different voices. As long as these voices do not distort the facts or exaggerate, they should be shown tolerance. Shizhi could have chosen to keep silent, but he did not. He expressed his worries over the current situation and over the future of vernacular poetry. Even if he is unable to provide a solution, his appeal and introspection are still of significance to Chinese vernacular poetry.

Poets should be free

Wang Xiaolei (blog.sina.com.cn): Even though Yu is a poet now, in Shizhi's mind, she is, first of all, a farmer. Maybe even he himself has not realized yet that he looks at Yu from the perspective of class and identity and then concludes that as a farmer poet, Yu should write this but not that. This is an outdated way of thinking. It's a shame that a modern poet thinks in this way.

Besides, is there any rule that a farmer poet must write about the misery of farmers' lives and their desire for a better life?

In this kind of thinking, it's taken for granted that everyone from a certain class must dress, speak and act in the same way, and even their dreams should be similar. Therefore, a farmer poet must focus on the efforts to achieve a better life, instead of talking about leisure in the afternoon sunshine.

Of course, writing about things closely related to one's life will provide more depth to the writing than if those things were from another background. However, there is no fixed rule that forbids poets to touch upon topics that are not so relevant to their own backgrounds.

Let's come to Yu Xiuhua. What is the kind of misery that she focuses on? What is the kind of life she longs for? I personally find that her poems reflect the kind of misery she feels as a woman, and I don't think there is anything wrong with that. Her sentiments expressed in her latest poems are a far cry from what farmers are supposed to care about, but it's not a fault. As a woman, she is totally entitled to care about female-centric topics.

Not every poet is obligated to write about the fate of the nation or even mankind. Those who write about women's sentiments and feelings are by no means inferior to those who write about lofty things like mankind and the nation.

Reasonable criticism

Tan Kexiu (www.ifeng.com): Shizhi shot to fame because of his talent, not because of his personal situation, and critics have always praised his work. By contrast, Yu Xiuhua became well-known due to her personal situation becoming known to the public. It's readers' recognition that makes her what she is today. Seldom does she get plaudits from a first-class critic.

Shizhi's criticism of Yu is not as bad as some have said and denounced. In the world of modern poetry, poets are free to choose the topics they are really interested in, rather than writing about mankind's fate and the nation's future. Yu became popular as a farmer poet. The public was moved by the kind of melancholy she tried to project through her revelation of the many dark or dull sides of their society in her poems. Today, she has shaken off the farmer poet label and that's why these problems have arisen.

We can try to understand her in this way. After becoming famous, her perspective changed. In her eyes, a cozy and ideal afternoon is filled with leisurely things like drinking coffee, reading and talking. It's alright. Most people who get rich suddenly choose to do so. Shizhi, on seeing this, expressed his dissatisfaction with this kind of mindset. The public went too far in denouncing Shizhi just because he expressed this sentiment.

Yu Xiuhua is labeled as a farmer poet who has undergone various hardships. She is obviously a beneficiary of this label. She certainly has the right to adjust her image as a poet as she is elevated to a higher social class, but the public also has the right to express what they expect from her, based on those works that made her famous.

Li Qinyu (China Youth Daily): How should we look at Shizhi's criticism of Yu Xiuhua? This is a hard question for those who are interested in vernacular poetry. Indeed, to show interest in and concern for the fate of the disadvantaged, the nation, and mankind is an important task for poets. Many of Shizhi's opinions are reasonable, and we need more poets like him.

However, he might have gone too far by criticizing Yu on these grounds. Any comment about Yu and her work must be based on her personal background. She has endured untold sufferings in life as she has had cerebral palsy from childhood. She yearned for a free life but this dream was shattered by an unhappy marriage. In other words, she spent the past decades of her life grappling with fate.

She manages to write moving poems, thanks to her sensitiveness to the brighter side of life. She was able to find poetic melancholy in tedious daily life, which featured such humdrum things as washing clothes, cooking and taking her medicines. It's understandable that she has more to say about ordinary and even dull life than about big topics like the nation and mankind. Besides, her work is not totally lacking in the big topics that Shizhi accused her of missing.

In literary comments, compassion and understanding matters a lot. Shizhi is being rebuked for criticizing Yu Xiuhua harshly, because he lacks basic compassion and an understanding of Yu's case.

However, it's not that whatever Shizhi said about Yu is wrong. Shizhi shot to fame in an era of changes and political passion. His poems were about the fate of mankind and such big topics. At that time, his poems were very much valued. For poets, to focus on idealism is a natural thing. By criticizing Yu, Shizhi may have targeted not Yu personally, but the whole poetry and poets' circle in China, which is tainted by money-worshipping and utilitarianism.

Shizhi is worried about farm life, but Yu retorted that Chinese farmers are not living a painful life. Therefore, Shizhi does not fully understand what Yu is thinking about. They need more communication to clear up their misunderstanding.

The public should not be caught in this war of words or take sides. Diversified cultural values are what the poetic circle in China is asking for. Our poems touch on various topics and aspects of life. This has always been a feature of Chinese culture. China's poetry circle needs poets like Shizhi as well as poets like Yu Xiuhua.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to baishi@bjreview.com

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