Rural Taiwan and its landscape are present in many of Xiang Yang’s poems. Landscape and rural poems have a long history in China, generally depicting the court or city as decadent places exercising a corrupting influence. In many contemporary poems from Taiwan, the sense of alienation one associates with modern life is viewed as a largely urban phenomenon, whereas all healthy values reside in the countryside. But this dichotomy, which is also seen as a shortcoming of such contemporary poetry, is itself a significant part of the local literary tradition of Nativism, which emerged during the Japanese occupation (1895–1945) as writers and artists sought to articulate a sense of Taiwan identity.
The so-called “third generation poets,” such as Xiang Yang, Du Ye, and Lo Qing, wanted to see a resurgence of Chinese national and local culture after years of foreign domination. In Taiwan, this revival was complex and multifaceted: the trend toward Westernization in the cultural sphere was subverted by a resurgence of interest in traditional Chinese culture, and political domination by the Kuomintang from the Mainland was opposed by promotion of Taiwanese language and culture. Xiang Yang himself eventually decided to explore two avenues: to write poetry in his native southern Min dialect and to experiment with formalist verse. “I asked myself what made classical poems so enduring,” he says. “It seemed to me that the strict compositional rules and forms of classical poetry contributed greatly to poetic quality.” He began experimenting with forms and rhyme, finally settling on a ten-line poem broken into two quintets as the form most suited to his temperament. It can be said that form made a poet out of him: formal limitations helped to channel and structure the poetic impulse.
—from the translator’s introduction
Xiang Yang’s poetry stands as elegant testimony to the Taiwan experience. The author of seven volumes of poetry in his younger years, he has, since the publication of The Four Seasons (1986), published but a single collection titled Chaos, in 2005. In the intervening years, he earned a PhD in journalism and moved into academia. He is also an established woodblock artist.
John Balcom is a translator of Chinese literature. Recent publications include Frontier Taiwan: An Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry (contributor), Wintry Night by Li Qiao (co-translator), The City Trilogy by Chang His-kuo and Taiwan’s Indigenous Writers: An Anthology of Stories, Essays, and Poems, which received the 2006 Northern California Book Award. He translated Driftwood and Stone Cell, both by Lo Fu, which were published by Zephyr Press.
Grass Roots, by Xian Yang
from Chinese by John Balcom
ISBN 978-1-938890-07-9 (paper)
6 x 8½