Affections and Disaffections — Beyond the Lyric: Poems by Bai Hua

Bai Hua
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

Translator’s Note

To begin with a general observation, Bai Hua’s poems contain intertextual allusions to ancient odes and cultural references. One of the four poems featured in this issue, “Ancient Tune of Guangling” is inspired by one of the oldest musical manuscripts, a melody originally written for the ancient zither, qin. While the music itself contains a forceful tempo that necessitates the mastery of silence and breath, the poem recreates/re-presents modern images with a modern linguistic sensibility that nonetheless engages in a classical poetic meter via two movements.

The cultural references… embody personal significance for the author, who constructs poeticism not from intellectual impulses, but from concrete emotions and associative memories.

Bai Hua is a highly respected poet in China today. His lyrical writings command a strong readership. While he is widely canonized as an influential figure of the post-“Obscure” (or post-“Misty”) poetry movement, more admire him for his intertextual approach toward the gap between the tradition and the contemporary in Chinese writing, as well as influences from the Western literary canon. When questioned about his role in this “movement,” Bai Hua offers an answer that reminds me of Theodore Roethke’s notebook entry, “A ‘movement’ is a dead fashion.” On his work, Chinese critic and poet Zang Di (1964- ) once remarked in an important essay entitled “Toward A Writerly Poetry” (1993):

In Roland Barthes’ words, as cited by Todorov, outstanding poetry is “that which possesses superior expression without entering the personal… It is secret while being open.” Based on this criterion, two important post-Misty poets are exemplary: Bai Hua and Zhai Yongming. They display a genius in handling the relationship between the special characteristic of the tradition without antecedents of writing modern poetry and traditional poetry. Their writing is not simply a product of a consciousness of style but manifests an even greater comprehension of the essence of modern poetry.

The cultural references — particularly those conjuring archetypal images of an ancient China — that inhabit Bai Hua’s writings do not necessarily attest to larger historical contexts. Rather, they embody personal significance for the author, who constructs poeticism not from intellectual impulses, but from concrete emotions and associative memories. Places and seasons serve as the driving force — notably summer and specific cities such as Chongqing and Nanjing. The title of the poem “March,” for instance, is sufficiently self-explanatory, while its narratives are much more oblique — without betraying a penchant for sentimentality, the poet sees both affections and disaffections as empowering possibilities in depicting landscapes and social situations that are timeful and timeless.

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