"Musical thought": An Interview with Chen Yuhong
Chen Yuhong (Wade-Giles: Chen Yu-hung, 陳育虹, 1952–) is a poet whose work combines influences from Chinese and Western literary traditions to explore female experience and subjectivity. Her poetry is musical, lyrical, and expressive of a deep engagement with a global heritage of female poets, from Sappho to Louise Glück. Her poetry collections include About Poetry (關於詩, 1996), Actually, the Sea (其實・海, 1999), The River Flows into Your Deep Veins (河流進你深層靜脈, 2002), Search/Sous rature (索隱, 2004), Enchantment (魅, 2007), In-between: Selected Poems of Chen Yuhong (之間：陳育虹詩選, 2011), and Trance (閃神, 2016). She has translated works by Louise Glück, Margaret Atwood, Anne Carson, and Carol Ann Duffy. She won the 2017 United Daily News Literary Prize聯合報文學大獎, and the 2021 Translation Prize given by the (Taiwan’s) Chinese Literature and Art Association中國文藝協會. Her work has been translated into Japanese and French.
In this interview, we talk to Chen about lyricism, musicality, translation, and feminine writing. The interview is followed by translations of five poems by Chen: “48: Search,” “Dragon Boat Festival,” “At the Crossroads,” “Parthenogenesis,” and “Parenthesis.” These translations are designed to give the reader a sense of the range of Chen’s work.
Q: What is poetry?
A: Poetry is an art that uses language as a creative tool.
Language contains the elements of meaning and sound. The synthesis of visual and musical properties, imagination and rhythm, enables the poem to move easily between the tangible, visual world and the abstract, aural world. To write a poem is to use words to paint a picture, to compose a song.
Poetry is the overflow of the poet’s imagination, balancing creativity with observations from everyday life, experiences of reading, certain skills, and aesthetics. Poetry is a language with melody, a language full of images, and a language that condenses everything, leaving space for reflection.
Poetry must be a proton—a small particle that’s expected to implode. It is tense and compressed, simultaneously weighty and light. A poem is a sharpshooter who nails the bullseye on the first shot. Poetry is a radiocontrast agent, transforming abstract ideas into concrete words that can be felt by eyes, ears, nose, and tongue. A spider web: a growing, transparent connector of its own systems, replete with gaps but still able to ensnare. An apple, a complete organism, a high-density container of life.
“Poetry is the past that bursts out in our hearts,” Rainer Maria Rilke says. Poetry is the old days precipitated in a solid form. A good poem requires tension, condensation, perspectives, precision, layers, harmony. Being able to touch the reader’s eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and all their other senses, including the heart. Starting from, but moving beyond, a technical proficiency with language, poetry must involve a writer’s personal emotion, wisdom, experience, and the sum of a poet’s life.
Poetry must be initiated by feelings and channeled through reason. Profound emotions and imagination must be polished by reason and logic, over and over again. Poetry must always take risks, must walk the tightrope between clarity and ambiguity. Poetry is a knife for a writer to dissect herself; but if a poem refuses to leave something imaginable blank, how can it be a poem?
Perhaps a poem comes from inspiration located in specific time and space, or from a collection of individual experiences and memories. What is important is that poetry must transcend time, place, and individuals, and also must contain a level of beauty, in order to reach the realm of timelessness, its natural home.
Q: Do you pay particular attention to the musicality when writing a poem?
A: When the poet prays for the Muse to come, she may also pray for music. Musicality is the oldest and most basic element of poetry. In the era of the Chinese Book of Songs or that of Greek epics, poems were closer to songs. In order to easily remember and sing, the ancient poets complied with the regularity of meter to write a poem. In the mid-nineteenth century, Western poets began to write free verse with no fixed rhymes or metrical feet; from the May Fourth Movement onwards, form in Chinese poetry was increasingly replaced by a more modern form of free verse where rhyme is not a requirement.
By abandoning these rules, modern poets become like tennis players who instinctually play without noticing the net, or the lines on the court. They ostensibly have more freedom, but they still have to face greater challenges. A sense of musicality is also fundamental for writing a poem in free verse.
“Poetry . . . we call it musical thought. The Poet is he who thinks in that manner,” says Thomas Carlyle. Boris Pasternak also states, “A poet is trying to make music out of the tumult of the dictionary.” When I compose poetry, I pay attention to the techniques that create musicality: repetition, variation, counterpoint, overlap, flow, transition. These are my tools.
Q: Your poems are particularly interested in women: you place your work within the tradition of women’s writing. We’d love to hear you talk more about this aspect of your work.
A: In an interview, Margaret Atwood said that she fought for women’s rights because women’s rights are human rights and because women are human beings. The same is true for literature: women’s literature represents all literature. The self is the point of departure for all creative writing. As a woman, it seems the most natural thing for me to write from the perspective of a woman. When Atwood infused her female consciousness in the poems of her early years, her style was sharp and vigorous. By contrast, I try to express the female aspects of myself softly. I appreciate mutual understanding and reconciliation between the sexes. A poet should seek this ultimate harmony.
I prefer to call it not “women’s writing” but écriture féminine, or “feminine writing” in English. The concept of being feminine/masculine refers not so much to the gender of the writer as to the representation of the tone, or a “style” of language. I always think that the best writers must be androgynous, and the best poems should be both masculine and feminine, rigid and soft. The “rigid” is the skeleton; the “soft” is the skin. Only the poems containing both rigidness and softness can stand firm and have grace and beauty.
Q: You have translated a number of female poets, such as Carol Ann Duffy, Margaret Atwood, Louise Glück, and Anne Carson, as well as Sappho’s poems in your poetry collection Search/Sous rature. You are particularly fond of lyrical poetry. Can you talk about lyricism that starts from Sappho in Western tradition and the development of lyrical tradition in Sinophone communities? Is there any difference between these two traditions? How does your work embody the lyric?
A: In Ancient Greece, poetry can be divided into two categories. Epic poetry, represented by Homer, describes history and heroic deeds and appeals to the collective consciousness. It often contains thousands of lines. The second category is lyric poetry. It uses fewer lines in order to express one’s own emotions and experience and appeal to personal consciousness. This is best represented by Sappho.
The English word “lyric” comes from the Greek “lyre”—a seven-stringed harp used by poets and musicians to sing poems in rituals or festivals. Lyrical poetry can be subcategorized into three fields: love poems, elegy, and ode. The word “lyrical” suggests musical, expressive, short poems inspired by personal affects and experience.
The Chinese “lyrical” tradition refers to the aesthetic tradition of Chinese culture. It has influenced people of all generations and has been internalized by them as aesthetic standards for all arts, such as poetry, calligraphy, painting, music, and so on. The phrase shu-ch’ing (抒情, literally, verbalizing intent) corresponds with Western concepts of lyricism but also has its own meaning. David Der-wei Wang argues that shu (抒) is “combing” in Chinese, and shu-ch’ingis “combing out the intent.” I would describe this intent as the emotions elicited by a writer, overflowing and embodied by poetic labor. Three concepts are stressed here: combing out, the subject(ivity), and emotions.
The influence of lyrical tradition on Chinese aesthetics can be located in an abstract but common word, ch’ing-yün (情韻, elegant gestures) in art criticism. In The Criticism in the Sui Garden (隋園詩話), Yüan Mei (袁枚, 1716–1797) illustrates a story with these words: “Yesterday, I heard a poem composed by someone for his wife. It has an excellently elegant gesture. It might be written in the late T’ang Dynasty” (昨聞有人贈內之句，情韻絕佳，當是晚唐人手筆). Chin Kuan (秦觀, 1049–1100) also uses “elegant gestures” to criticize the painting entitled “Five Hundred Arhats” (五百羅漢圖記): “Although the brush skills are not very distinguished, they have elegant gestures and humor, and the dense and subtle emotions are fully represented” (筆畫雖不甚精絕，而情韻風趣各有所得，其綿密委曲可謂至矣). Thus, the ideal “gesture” flows, is graceful, has a music.
My fondness for lyrical poetry began when I first encountered classical Chinese poetry (in particular, T’ang Dynasty poetry and Sung Dynasty lyrics) at university. The influence of classical poetry allowed me to begin forming my own aesthetic: I realized that poetry ought to embody the experience of an inner self. After that, my verse became introspective, lyrical, and impressionistic. I recall writing a 28-word poem called “Impression: Chou Meng-tieh’s Recovery from Illness” (印象：夢蝶先生臥病初癒) in the spring of 2007. It was implicitly inspired by Ma Chih-yuan’s (馬致遠, 1255–1321) 28-word lyric poem “Autumn Thoughts” (天淨沙・秋思). Another poem, “Parenthesis” (中斷), composed in the fall of 2008, uses fractured grammar, but also contains a refrain, which was a feature of the lyrical tradition. In the fractured lines, I even tried to insert Li Ching-chao’s (李清照, 1084–1155) words, “Last night it was drizzling, and the winds were gusting” (昨夜雨疏風驟) from the lyric poem “To the Tune ‘Like a Dream’ ” (如夢令).
I prefer to read lyric poetry. Similarly, the authors I choose to translate are usually well-known lyric poets. In 2004, I combined 61 of my translations of Sappho with 58 poems of my own for a book: Trace/Sous rature. Sappho’s poems are pure emotion, and they seem more unfathomable because they are fragments. They carry the beauty of imperfection. All that absence left space for my own imagination. This was my first experience of translation. It was a profoundly happy one.
Regarding Carol Ann Duffy, I had admired her work for a long time. Appointed Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom in 2009, Duffy was the first and only female ever to hold this position. Taiwanese publishers were frustratingly unfamiliar with her works, though. Eventually, I got the chance to introduce and translate them. I chose to translate her collection Rapture (2005). In these 52 love poems, I discovered how Duffy had expressed her memories, emotions, and thoughts over a period of ten years. Seeing the various changes in forms and perspectives over time, I got a strong sense of what it takes to be an outstanding poet: vigilance, skill, and a huge knowledge of literature from past to the present. After Rapture won the T.S. Eliot Prize, Duffy spoke about how she had expressed her innermost emotions through poetry. Those poems were not scribblings, diaries, or letters but artistic works transformed from daily trivialities. She says, “Poetry can’t be documentary. I’m not sure that any of the arts should be—but poetry, above all, is a series of intense moments—its power is not in narrative. I’m not dealing with facts; I’m dealing with emotion.”
Atwood, Glück, and Carson are leading poets in the US and Canada. I have admired their work greatly over a number of years. Their styles and concerns are different, but, as a woman, I feel I can enter their imaginations easily, I can appreciate their work and its subtleties.
Q: What is your attitude towards translation? How do you choose the poet you want to translate? What is lost in the process of translation, and what is found?
A: The poets I translate are the ones I have been reading since the 1980s. They all have a number of things in common. They engage with classical literature and use their knowledge of what has come before to break new ground. The poets I translate are mavericks, dedicated to their craft. They insist on their own creativity and refuse to follow literary trends. They are diligent in absorbing foreign literature; some have even mastered a second language, as a measure of that dedication. They all care about the overall structure or completeness of each collection. Their works are elegant and graceful: unrivalled, for me. The only “service” I can do for these poets, whose work I adore, is to translate them. Translation, as a literary practice, allows me to pay tribute, to share my delight. I am, of course, also aware of the responsibilities of my role in introducing these poets to Chinese-speaking readers.
In the introduction to Tomas Tranströmer’s work The Great Enigma (巨大的謎語, Den stora gåtan), the Chinese translator Göran Malmqvist says that the translator is like a faithful lover, slave, craftsman, or actor. The translator needs to have the virtue of being able to negate oneself: they must avoid surpassing the author. In addition to “negating oneself,” poetry, because of its sophistication, makes the choices of specific words more difficult and painful: how to encounter polysemic words, how to represent the musicality, and so on. I only strive to achieve accuracy, fluency, and elegance (信達雅). I look for a balance between metaphrase and paraphrase, being truthful to the original.
The premise of translation is intensive reading. I have two analogies for it. Firstly, a good translation is like a good marriage: it’s based on a mutual understanding. The translator is both parties of this marriage, and her success or failure rests on the text she creates. Secondly, a translator is like a lion tamer. The translator must be experienced and look for nothing less than mastery of two “verbal beasts,” if they are to perform brilliantly at the circus.
Translation is another kind of creation, a kind of creation within a specific scope. It must cooperate with existing texts and play with them. Translated works may be like the reverse of a brocade, or an echo in a wide valley. Translators must try to represent the original as much as possible while travelling back and forth between the two languages. If writing a poem is dancing in fetters, translating a poem is dancing in fetters and handcuffs. When I finish writing a poem, I rarely change it. But I often revise translations obsessively. I won’t let them go until I absolutely have to.
Umberto Eco, whose work has been widely translated, claims, “Translation is the art of failure.” I find this a little over-cautious and discouraging. I gain encouragement, by way of contrast, from Goethe: “Say what we may of the inadequacy of translation, yet the work is and will always be one of the weightiest and worthiest undertakings in the general concerns of the world.” Translation is a task that keeps me vigilant: I cherish it.
You are mine no
longer, no longer showing up
leaving a word so vague
a shred of wind, of smoke
where I can imagine you
You don’t allow me to imagine
I do not know your birthplace
your ancestry, your body, and little else besides
I always hear a call
from trees or deep in the rock
I look back, you are not there
Any other reason
or ways to wait
I can wait for smoke or wind
for a vague word
if you are…
But you are something
that makes me more anxious
perhaps a soul, an invisible
absence, untouchable, floating
How can I wait for nothing
I don’t wait, now I don’t think
You refuse to show up
You are no longer my
Dragon Boat Festival
as though he is pacing outside the house
Moss dapples the lower part of brick walls
Red tiles, ivy, Japanese banana, purple rose
The whole bamboo forest is mid-summered green
Under the eaves, the wind chime sways with no sound
The drizzle is wafted over the laundry
The laundry is wobbling on the rack
No one comes to collect it
A ray of light peeks behind the hanging curtains
What time is it?
Clock, no clock, no sound
Guanyin oolong breathes in the translucent teapot
Where is the cup, the one patterned blue and white?
Rice paper, inkstone, inksticks, all get dry
The radio is on and there is no sound
Plum blossom, orchid, bamboo, and chrysanthemum
floating on a yellowing water-spotted picture
framed on the right wall
A hand fan still lies there
The laundry is wobbling on the rack
A Chinese lidded bowl on the charcoal stove
More charcoal to wake up the fire?
The cat, staring at the front, like a sculpture
A deep sunken recliner with thin and smooth straw cushion
Ants silently crawl in a line on it
The drizzle is wafting on the laundry
A few lotus leaves in the water urn are mid-summered green
The wind blows. The door shakes slightly
Is someone passing by?
No one comes to collect the laundry
As though he is appearing outside, his clothes are unsoaked
Maybe he is in the house
Rain keeps raining
Green stays green
At the Crossroads
–For Sylvia Plath
Lady Lazarus, these are busy crossroads
A panther-like Toyota Altis scurries across the street
from the gas station, once its bubble bath is through
A middle-aged man with a baseball cap buys an apple
and drinks a coke outside the 7-Eleven
An urgent letting advertisement; going abroad,
100 square meters, top floor, back alley
Weather forecast: Monday to Saturday
a cold wave hovers
Taipei. January 2009.
The crossroads of the cold wave
85C Daily Café, large latte without sugar
A variation on red, yellow, and green light
changes and doesn’t change
I imagine this is the coldest winter in London
The snow fell in January and refused to melt
in February, you failed to cross…
You do not cross the third road over
Now this is the third time, you say to me
What sort of waste must be
annihilated once every ten years
The third time, you finally annihilate yourself
A pedestrian, a jogger with a dog and a bag
A yellowish passerby, a smoker who
turns left, turns right, and crosses the crosswalk
Women exchange news about
instant brightening serum and rosy visa cards
O Lady Lazarus, I witter on about these things to you
At these crossroads
Teenagers with dyed hair and silver earrings
A little girl takes selfies, old couples yell at each other
People carry laptops, deliver propane
distribute flyers for the postnatal care center
or collect books and bottles for a living,
they turn left and right without hesitation
Lady Lazarus, I’d like to ask you after many years
—Now you must be wise enough to know—
A bar of soap
A wedding ring
A grain of gold inlaid with tooth decay
Are they really not worthy, really valueless after all?
A poppy-red advertising on the overcrowded bus:
“Take care of your life”—the best farewell for the one you love
I ask, how hard is it to refuse to move on
The bell chimes slowly
at the primary school on the corner of the street
The dead voice of Pavarotti has a blast singing
starry starry night in a second-hand clothing store
I have to go, turn left, turn right, go home or not
Lady Lazarus, the best farewell is
from the beginning of love to the end of spring
Your ariel drifting
by my crossroads
Our history begins in the Permian.
We have few desires, and the resin of sago palms can satisfy us.
When it’s warm, we reproduce asexually through the practice of meiosis, ovoviviparity, and all our children are perfectly replicated. When it’s cold, the lack of sunlight and food leads us to birth them with deficiencies. Some are born with amblyopia, others without wings and mouths; all males, of course, with only one X chromosome, which prevents them from regenerating independently.
The slow removal of such defects is a natural law.
We aphids have made a stable, female world.
–Brackets, adjuncts, interludes, pauses, stops, and interruptions
nobody in front of you
the house has been hollow (a house reaches
the sky) my heart is too
at midnight in the mountain in the dream the frogs croak (cross, cross, cross, cross over
I say if it’s across just there across if
it’s just a bolt of blue silk cloth and we) cross the surging ocean
at midnight in the mountain in the dream
who shall I tell shall I tell about
the fog the roaring of thunder
no weight no color the thunderous gray lead
how far can this (hollow
where are you, muffled thunder
you boom out you refuse to talk
) where are you
(due to temperature and humidity and
undulations and friction the sensitive black
energy stars burn and ex(plode) and collapse
the memories splash over over over the bed a hallow cry
and overlap) and withdraw and link with each other
you say they are the same (the same
pull up the hasty night and the wet paint
tomorrow won’t come and the frogs croak (gone across across across
the non-volatile sound last night it was (drizzling
and the winds gusting at midnight in the mountain in the dream
in the dream a thousand hands that flirt
a thousand kinds of mountains’ midnight are you)
非揮發性這聲音 昨夜雨 （疏