The Newsletter 53 Spring 2010

The sound of modern Chinese poetry

Maghiel van Crevel

‘Poets,’ writes Zang Kejia in the late 1930s, ‘Open your throats, / Aside from spirited singing of songs of war, / Your poetry shall be dumb silence.’ Zang’s exhortation of his fellow poets in war-torn China highlights a perennial issue in discourse on cultural expression: literature and art are functional categories, not ontological ones, and many of their countless definitions are fundamentally normative and value-judgmental in nature. For his part, Zang needs but four brief lines to disqualify any and all poetry that is not ‘sung’ – meaning, recitable, and actually recited – and doesn’t aspire to propel its audience into action. Conversely, poets and readers of other persuasions might equally dismiss Zang’s poetry as mere political propaganda, and hence unworthy of the genre.

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