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Reviewed by:
  • Chinese Poetic Modernisms ed. by Paul Manfredi and Christopher Lupke
  • Joseph R. Allen (bio)
Paul Manfredi and Christopher Lupke, editors. Chinese Poetic Modernisms. Leiden: Brill, 2019. xi, 403 pp. Hardcover $232.00, isbn 978-90-04-40288-1.

Many of you will want (and should own) this volume of essays; yet, with a price tag of $232.00, few will be able to afford it—unless you have a very generous research budget. No doubt the essays will have a robust afterlife as individual PDFs circulating the cyber world. That is good for many reasons, but it is also unfortunate. For, although any given essay can be profitably read as a stand-alone piece, each and all are much richer in the dense intratextual environment of this collective volume. Thus, it is odd decision not to include any cross-referencing between the essays themselves. Perhaps the editors thought that such cross-referencing would have been too dense to be useful. But one thing such internal cross-referencing would have done is leave residual traces of the whole admirable, integrated project within the individual essays as they float detached through the PDF ocean: always a reminder of what is missing.

For almost all these essays there is an elephant in the room, sometimes acknowledged, often ignored: that is, the looming shadow of the Chinese classical poem and its language. Paul Manfredi states the problem most clearly:

Chinese New Poetry, which labored to emerge from under the oppressive weight of its predecessor, classical verse, was not as fortunate as visual art in terms of its ability to change modes of expression without sacrificing its claims to expressive object. … Poets therefore confronted a sort of stubborn tabula rasa, a free verse that was, from the point of view of most of the Chinese reading public, indistinguishable from prose.

(p. 341)

Lucas Klein backs into the argument through a refutation of Michelle Yeh's refutation of Stephen Owen's now well-known argument that much contemporary Chinese poetry is merely international poetry written for translation. Klein says:

But if Chineseness is, for Owen, best located in Chinese poetry's premodern traditions, then in Yeh's intent to rebuff Owen by asserting that "Modern [Chinese] Poetry embodies a new paradigm that is radically different from the [End Page 61] revered paradigm of Classical Poetry" ("No Camels," 24), she actually ends up re-consecrating Chineseness as the product of the past, rather than the present.

(p. 307)

The problem appears two-fold. Many readers (both native and foreign) still place very high value on the classical Chinese poem. And second, modern Chinese poetry is written in the same medium as the classical poem so it bears the burden of tradition more clearly than other modern artistic forms, as Manfredi suggests. That is not just because both poetries are in Chinese languages, but also because the porousness between those languages with its shared morphemes makes it is very easy to slip from the vernacular language into a classical form, either intentionally or by happenstance—see Lupke, p. 213, on this.

And that brings us to the central concern of the fourteen essays: modernism or, as the editors emphasize, the plurality of modernisms in Chinese poetry. The editors have eschewed an encompassing definition of modernism, allowing individual authors to develop their own understanding of the concept and practice. There is a core statement from the editors:

The goal of our research, moreover, is not simply to attempt to fix "modernism" within the cultural record, Chinese or other. We aim, rather, to narrow the aperture enough to enable in-depth discussion of one style and geographic and genre pairing, Chinese modernist poetry, while at the same time allowing for at least some of the intellectual anarchy Xudong Zhang describes in his 1997 discussion of Chinese modernism, a cultural phenomenon that is "never a neatly developed, fully secure, and glamorously ossified object waiting gentlemanly scholarship; it is always in a moment of painful birth, and profound ambiguity, mired in its formal and political promises and fragility."1

(p. 2)

Here I will use the essays' "intellectual anarchy" in the engagement of modernism as a window into the each...


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