Life in poetry

Cel­e­brated poet Ya Hsien has lived a col­or­ful life marked by the tu­mul­tuous events of the past cen­tury. But it is his idyl­lic childhood in North China that pro­vides the in­spi­ra­tion for his work. Mei Jia re­ports.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

Poet Ya Hsien’s idyl­lic childhood in North China pro­vides in­spi­ra­tion for his work.

When a 17-year-old Ya Hsien waved good­bye to his mother in his home­town of Nanyang, Henan prov­ince, to join the Kuom­intang army head­ing to Tai­wan in 1949, he didn’t ex­pect the de­par­ture would be the last time they saw each other. “I left as if I was go­ing on a hike with my school­mates, not know­ing that I would be cut­off from cor­re­spon­dence with the main­land and lose con­tact withmy mother for decades,” the poet says. “I was only able to re­turn home some 42 years later. But when I re­turned, I found my home­town un­fa­mil­iar andmy mother long passed away.”

In the years of sep­a­ra­tion from home and fam­ily, writ­ing po­ems of­fered him a way to ex­press his nos­tal­gia and re­mem­ber his home­town. His most pro­duc­tive writ­ing pe­riod in the 1950s and ’60s earned him quite a rep­u­ta­tion. To­day he is hailed as a phe­nom­e­nal poet who bridges the time be­tween Ai Qing in the 1930s and ’40s and the post-1970s pe­riod of Bei Dao.

He was re­cently awarded the Zhongkun In­ter­na­tional Poetry Prize 2013 from Pek­ing Univer­sity In­sti­tute of Poetry Stud­ies. The bian­nual prize rec­og­nizes the oeu­vre of both a Chi­nese and a for­eign poet with 80,000 yuan ($13,100). Pre­vi­ous win­ners in­clude Zhai Yong­ming, Bei Dao, Syr­ian Ado­nis and Ja­pan’s Shuntaro Tanikawa.

Sit­ting in a cafe at Pek­ingUniver­sity, the birth­place of con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese poetry, or New Poetry as it is also called, the 81-year-old poet be­comes sen­ti­men­tal re­call­ing his home­com­ing af­ter many years only to find his mother had died.

“That is the big­gest pain inmy life,” he says, strug­gling to main­tain his usual gen­tle calm.

He is not a pro­lific poet, but then nei­ther wasWalt Whit­man (1819-92), who spent his life pol­ish­ing Leaves of

Grass, Ya Hsien says. Hong Zicheng, a pro­fes­sor with Pek­ing Univer­sity, be­lieves Ya ex­cels in qual­ity, not quan­tity.

Hong says all of Ya Hsien’s 90-odd po­ems are in a sense, dif­fer­ent ver­sions of his most im­por­tant work

Abyss( the­p­o­emisavail­able in­English

in a trans­la­tion by John J. S. Bal­com).

“With childhood mem­o­ries of liv­ing in the North China coun­try­side his ma­jor source of ma­te­rial, Ya Hsien suc­cess­fully in­fuses both po­lit­i­cal and daily life within the spec­trum of his­tory, giv­ing them sig­nif­i­cance and strength,” Hong says.

“He is con­cerned about peo­ple at the bot­tom, and he re­freshes con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese lan­guage with his works.”

In New Per­spec­tives on Con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese Poetry, edited by Christo­pher Lupke, Steven Riep ded­i­cates one chap­ter to Ya Hsien’s poetry, and points out that the poet was “deeply in­volved in es­tab­lish­ing a mod­ernist aes­thetic that ba­si­cally ig­nored the (then Tai­wan) gov­ern­ment’s cul­tural pol­icy”.

“Ya Hsien’s mas­ter­ful use of irony, his haunt­ing im­agery and his ex­per­i­ments with ter­mi­nal and cir­cu­lar struc­tures set him apart as an an­ti­war poet par ex­cel­lence,” Lupke writes in the com­men­tary’s in­tro­duc­tion.

But to read­ers like Zhu Ling, a reporter with The Bei­jing Youth, Ya Hsien charms them with a true poet’s char­ac­ter.

“Peo­ple write po­ems, but they’re not re­ally po­ets. ThoughYa Hsien has not cre­ated nu­mer­ous po­ems, he is in­deed a poet through­out his whole life,” Zhu says.

Ya Hsien be­lieves po­ets emerge when writ­ing is fully re­spected and val­ued. He is the kind of writer that if he places a let­ter in the mailbox and then re­al­izes there are two mis­placed words, he will cir­cle the box anx­iously sev­eral times, try­ing to re­trieve his let­ter and cor­rect it.

Be­sides writ­ing po­ems, Ya Hsien has been a suc­cess­ful drama ac­tor and me­dia ed­i­tor in Tai­wan.

“What­ever I do, I never be­tray the god of poetry,” he says.

He calls him­self a “poet in ac­tion”, who scat­ters po­etic ro­mance into so­cial life, man­ages mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers with po­etic aes­thet­ics, and also scouts and cul­ti­vates a younger gen­er­a­tion of po­ets.

BornWangQinglin to a ru­ral fam­ily, Ya Hsien’s ear­li­est literary in­spi­ra­tion was the tiny mov­ing “li­brary” of chil­dren’s books on an ox­cart his fa­ther drove to spread knowl­edge among vil­lages in­He­nan.

Af­ter ar­riv­ing in Tai­wan, he started pub­lish­ing po­ems in 1953. He then joined two other renowned po­ets to cre­ate a non­profit poetry mag­a­zine, The Epoch Poetry Quar­terly, which is still pub­lished to­day and marks its 60th an­niver­sary next year.

“In the 1950s, we pub­lished works of Chi­nese po­ets writ­ten in the 1930s, which was banned at that time by the Chi­ang gov­ern­ment for ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons. It’s a mir­a­cle that the mag­a­zine sur­vives to this day and has made it­self a place in con­tem­po­rary Tai­wan,” Ya Hsien says.

In the 1970s, Ya Hsien be­came in­volved in the man­age­ment of a sup­ple­ment of Tai­wan news­pa­perUnited Daily News. Over more than 20 years he turned the sup­ple­ment into an in­cu­ba­tor of young writ­ers like Xi Murong.

Ya has a mas­ter’s de­gree from the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin, and has taken part in the pres­ti­gious In­ter­na­tional Writ­ing Pro­gram at the Univer­sity of Iowa. He now re­sides in Canada with his fam­ily.

He col­lects lots of old items as dec­o­ra­tions in his house in Canada, such as aba­cuses, win­dow frames from old houses, and dif­fer­ent types of gongs, to re­mind him­self of his home­town.

“Gongs re­mind me of the days I trav­eled withmy fa­ther on the ox­cart. Once we ar­rived at a vil­lage, I ham­mered the gong, and at­tracted the vil­lagers to come to read,” he says.

“I still hold that the best way to re­fine poetry is to re­fine the poet’s mind and be­hav­ior,” Ya Hsien says. Con­tact the writer at mei­jia@chi­


Poet Ya Hsien’s writ­ing ca­reer has spanned for about six decades, and he says the best way to re­fine poetry is to re­fine the poet’s mind and be­hav­ior.

Ya Hsien has also pub­lished es­says on poetry.

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