Introduction to Yang Lian’s “Literary Works” Section
Let’s get back to the text – the poem will always say more and say it better than the poet.
I have divided my literary writings into three sections according to the geographical changes in my life: they are called, respectively, “China Manuscripts”, “South Pacific Manuscripts” and “Europe Manuscripts”.
“China Manuscripts” are the works I wrote while living in China. They also include a longer poem, “Yi”, which I started writing in China in 1985 but did not finish revising until living in New Zealand in 1989. This poem sums up my thoughts so far on the Chinese language and Chinese reality. I believe that no poet can find the ‘self of the poem’ immediately upon putting pen to paper. This is particularly true in China, where the substitution of poetic values for ‘social effects’ means that aside from maintaining a genuine and sincere attitude towards poetry, the poet has no other surroundings or tradition to rely upon. Considering my own writing in this way, I take the poems I wrote before 1982 to be ‘prehistoric’ practice pieces, and have unceremoniously deleted them from my poetry selection. The only two poems I have kept from this period are “Ritual Soul” and “Yi”, for the simple reason that they both possess in full my poetic character, from my feelings about life to my linguistic consciousness and poetic views. The intense and often painful experiences I encountered before reaching a certain point in my writing seem to echo China’s dramatic and epic transitions throughout the 1980s. “Only birth in the manner of death is true birth” – this line of poetry seems to encapsulate the fate of the nation, the individual and language during this time.
“South Pacific Manuscripts” refers to my poetry written in the years between 1988 when I left China and the end of 1993. This was my first period of exile abroad, during which time I was based in Australia and New Zealand. In terms of the pressures and poignancy of existence, these first few years of being ‘sent down to a foreign land’ really can be compared with the calamities of the Cultural Revolution. But perhaps the true question for myself as a poet was: could I carry on writing in this linguistic environment, distanced from my mother tongue? If so, how could I continue writing? And how could I continue to push my writing towards previously unattained depths? During this period I wrote my first few collections of shorter poems, “Mask and Crocodile”, “Non-Person Singular” and “Where the Sea Stands Still”. The six six-line poems in “Mask and Crocodile” purposefully contrast with the linguistic extravagances of “Yi”. “Non-Person Singular” is in fact a selection of shorter poems written between 1981 and 1991, including the cycle of poems entitled “Scenery in a Room”, which can be considered the prelude to my later exile poetry.
1993 (the year of Gu Cheng’s tragic demise) was the darkest of those first years of exile. I had lost hope of returning to China but despite my loneliness had not given up on life abroad; I simply did not know where my future would lead me. Yet it was around this time that I became more assured of my uprooted existence, began to take ‘homelessness’ as my home, the ‘infinite end’ as my eternal beginning, and gradually developed my faith in life and faith in writing. The poetry cycle entitled “Where the Sea Stands Still” marked the first time that I had used a larger poetic structure outside China; its completeness was based upon the completeness of my own philosophising on life. “This is gazing down from the bank upon the place where I set to sea” – I was taking the entire distance I had travelled so far and with one sweep bringing it into my own spiritual journey. There is no ‘turning-point’ between going abroad and staying at home; it’s all the same thing in life, a ‘setting out to sea’. Perhaps it was precisely the resonance between the ‘sea’ in this poem and the azure blue of the south Pacific that inspired New Zealand’s Auckland University to purchase this poetry collection and add it to its library collection. Those words will forever listen to the sound of the waves that brought them into being.
“Europe Manuscripts” are the works I have written from 1994 to the present. They include the epic poem “Concentric Circles”, poetry collection “Poems of Sixteen Lines”, the poem cycle “Notes of a Blissful Ghost”, poetry collection “The Poetry of Li Hegu”, and a selection of erotic poems completed in 2004 entitled “Erotic Poetry”. These works not only continue my pursuit of the profundity of life as begun in the previous two sets of “Manuscripts”, but also engage in a more self-conscious deepening of form. As I have said before elsewhere, each of these works should not be considered a ‘poetry collection’ but rather a ‘poetry project’: a complete renewal of ideas, form, language, and means of addressing life. Take for example “The Poetry of Li Hegu”: the more consciously I used local images to describe the entirely man-made, foreign ‘locality’ in which I had lived for four years, the more apparent my ‘international emptiness’ became. Or, for instance, the poems in “Erotic Poetry” which mark a return to rhyme (my self-styled musicality): apart from revisiting China’s ancient and beautiful tradition of erotic literature, they also recapture the exquisite elegance that is the standard of Chinese traditional poetry.
Most of the poems you can see on this website are from the “Europe Manuscripts” – as an inveterate champion of the pen, my earlier works do not exist in electronic form. I thus apologise for not being able to include poems from the “China Manuscripts” on this website. Lately, at least with my most recent manuscripts, I have been typing up my writings on a computer, not suspecting how convenient this would be for setting up my own website. I am unable here to sum them up using one line of poetry, as these manuscripts are far from being completed.
Aside from writing poetry, I also write essays. In my opinion, Chinese essay writing is another great tradition capable of rivalling poetry. Not only is the history of essay writing as long as that of poetry, what is even more amazing is that from its very beginnings it already possessed the characteristics of mature individual writing. My essays could be considered ‘anti-casual jottings’. My two essay collections, “Ghost Talk” and “Seven Lunar Eclipses”, both written outside of China, use the musical rhythms of language to order my documentation and descriptions, emotions and deliberations, fantasies and even surrealist imaginings. My ultimate intention is to restore to essay writing the visage of ‘pure literary creation’. Again, due to a lack of electronic versions, I have only been able to include on this website the piece “Urn of Ashes” for you to enjoy.
I’m well aware that in this confused and frenzied day and age my writing will not well suit most reading habits. However, I do not mind – the conflict between individual writing and its environment can be summed up in the line ‘do not yield to history’. If one stunts oneself purely in order to match the poverty of the times, then I say there are far more interesting ways to waste one’s life. Therefore, those people who cannot stand my work would be better off not reading it.
"And just supposing you are one of those friends who enjoy being tormented, then remember this: in the end, when all my ‘projects’ have been catalogued and collected into the same piece of work, you will witness, together with me, how these ‘manuscripts’ ultimately converge with my inner original.".
Yang Lian, 24th November 2005
(Translated by Heather Inwood)
NOTE: ABOUT TRANSLATORS
All poems published here are translated by Brian Holton, excipt:
Where the River Turns: by Polly Clark and Yang Lian;
Stroller: by W.N. Herbert and Yang Lian;
The Journey: by Pascale Petit and Yang Lian;
The Valley's Surname: By Pascale Petit and Yang Lian;
Personal Geography: by Antony Dunn and Yang Lian;
A Night in the Purple Tulip Palace (Adagio): by W. N. Herbert and Yang Lian.