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Modern Poetry in China: A Visual-Verbal Dynamic By Paul Manfredi

Chapter 1:  Li Jinfa
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Modern Poetry in China:

one endeavors to see his work, one finds a conglomeration of discrete elements (French-, English-, German-, Italian-language text, references to Chinese classical tradition, names of associates, place names, and so on) arrayed as a whole system, but their fragmentarity often overwhelms this process, resulting in the “missing string” experience discussed earlier.

Detailed analysis of Li’s fragments is very much an archaeological project, one that reveals all the cracks in the teleological edifice of his literary personae but also reveals the ways in which cultural material circulates poetically and imagistically at this point in the development of modern Chinese poetry. The details of each work offer themselves to thick description of Chinese lyrical subjectivity caught in its own act of becoming. In looking at Li’s natural imagery, for instance, one sees Li’s formal education in visual art at work, something reinforced by his recreational life in France. Li and his friends often spent time near Fontainebleau, consciously emulating the activities of the French Barbizon School, painters who bucked the trends of impressionism to more thoroughly and accurately depict nature. Thus, the form is intact, but the displacement and disjunctiveness are also prominent—for Li and his contemporaries, all of these activities were patently new in terms of surroundings, placements, and aesthetics. Combined with this (to Li “modern”) experience, then, is the contemplation of nature in the Chinese tradition, a robust and very long tradition. For the classical Chinese artist (also writer), retirement to natural surroundings for rejuvenation, for reaffirmation, or for acquiring the proper perspective of human affairs was critically important, and Li would have been well aware of such precedent when he set out to do more or less the same with his classmates. The resulting poetry is a mix of traditions, a collection of shadows gathering in the spaces of his imagination. “Nocturne” 夜之歌 (Ye zhi ge), for instance, contains the following lines:

We stroll on dead weeds,
rage and sadness gnarled at our feet.
Pink memories,
like a rotting roadside animal,