- Voices in Revolution: Poetry and the Auditory Imagination in Modern China
For as long as poetry has been written, it has been heard. Whether recited, chanted, sung, narrated, dramatized, or simply read, the history of poetry in any language is intimately bound to those occasions upon which words become sound, as well as to the efforts poets devote to ensuring these sounds resonate with and are heard by others. This is especially true in modern China, where poetry has been charged with the lofty duty of helping revitalize and modernize the nation, and where poets' voices have, by turns, been coaxed, amplified, suppressed, championed, derided, manipulated, and ignored. The centrality of the human voice to the creation and propagation of modern Chinese poetry is, however, a topic that has been largely overlooked by most scholars of new poetry both inside and outside of China. Voices in Revolution: Poetry and the Auditory Imagination in Modern China charters new territory in its ambitious and broad-ranging exploration of what sound, voice, and recitation have meant to modern Chinese poets from the earliest days of the Chinese republic through today's post-socialist China.
Crespi's book tells us three stories, inextricably intertwined in the development of modern Chinese poetry. The first is a history of the practice of poetry recitation in mainland China, a story that Crespi traces back to long before poetry was ever read aloud with any conviction or regularity, and concludes with his treatment of contemporary poetry recitals and their function in the culture and economy. The second is a chronology of auditory aesthetics: an analysis of modern Chinese poetry's relation to sound, musicality, and the human voice, ascertained from the poetic writings of modern Chinese poets and critics. Finally, Voices in Revolution tells a fascinating, alternative story of China's twentieth-century quest for modernity, as seen through the prism of poetry and voice. The subject matter itself may be relatively understudied, but this narrative is common to almost all scholarly treatments of modern Chinese literature and culture. It involves the struggle over the social and political roles of literature and the people who write it. Furthermore, it addresses the question of how to make China both identifiably Chinese and yet a part of the modern world. Thus, it asserts a newly imagined nationalist subjectivity while holding onto an authentic past, rooted in history, language, and the Chinese people.
The resourcefulness required to pull off a project of this nature should not be underestimated. As Crespi acknowledges in the introduction, poetry recitation is a tricky subject to tackle. For one, there is the question of how to approach [End Page 87] an object of study that is by nature ephemeral. Even if one has access to audio or video recordings of recited poetry (which largely do not exist prior to the 2000s), a recording alone can neither preserve nor fully capture the context, atmosphere, physical environment, human presence, and other factors that constitute the moment of sounded poetry. Furthermore, and partly due to the lack of prior studies on the topic, any researcher faces a paucity of critical vocabulary—a common language with which to describe, analyze, and theorize upon the sounds of poetry as it happens and as imagined by those who write it. Crespi has done a service to future researchers by identifying existing terminology used by scholars such as Charles Bernstein, Paul Zumthor, and Douglas Kahn, who write on auditory culture outside of China (thus tying his scholarship into a broader critical framework related to the study of sound) and by adapting and building upon this terminology to develop a discourse specifically tailored to the Chinese experience.
Another long-standing obstruction to the academic study of poetry recitation in China has been its association with orthodox politics, and in particular its cooption by the Maoist cultural establishment. The Mao-era history of poetry recitation has not just helped shape a widely recognized mainstream "recitational aesthetic" (p. 12...