Bei Dao: literature is uninspired


Chinese poet Bei Dao gives an interview to China Daily where he claims:

…today’s Chinese literature is uninspired. “It’s true not only in China but also across the world, and it’s related to many factors, like materialism oriented by consumption, the nationwide trend of seeking entertainment, information dissemination brought by new technologies. All these things are making bubbles in language and literature,” he said.

He pointed out that previously a clear-cut division existed between “vulgar” culture and”serious” culture, but today vulgar culture is swallowing serious culture like a black hole, and unfortunately, many writers are forced to lower their writing standards to cater to vulgarity in today’s society.

There are other reasons for the devolution of Chinese poetry, Bei Dao said, such as the absence of a system of construction.

“Poetry needs good guides, and a good critic is a good guide who can lead or shape a group of well-educated readers through unscrambling and analyzing poets.”

Bei Dao, who was a key member of the Misty Poets, was at a literary conference in Berlin during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. His poem ‘Huida’ (‘The Answer’), which was written during the 1976 Tiananmen demonstrations, was used by protestors both as an anthem and written on posters. Following the protests Bei Dao was not permitted to return to China. He has since been able to visit twice in the past twenty years.

It is hard not to agree with his comments. In the absence of formality poetry is beginning to loose the sonorous quality and complexity both imagistic and syntactic of older works. It is tempting to consider Ezra Pound who claimed his activities were “to keep alive a certain group of advancing poets, to set the arts in their rightful place as the acknowledged guide and lamp of civilization”, and wonder who is able to restore poetry.

Thirteen poems by Bei Dao are published in Jacket Magazine. They are translated by Eliot Weinberger and Iona Man-Cheong.

My back to the window of open fields
holding on to the gravity of life
and the doubts of May
like the audience at a violent movie
lit by drink

except for the honey-drop at five o’clock
the morning’s lovers grow old
and become a single body
a compass needle
on a homesick sea

between writing and the table
a diagonal enemy line
Friday in the billowing smoke
someone climbs a ladder
out of sight of the audience

The week in writing – September 27

It is Banned Books Week in the US. The Hufington Post explains how censorship is alive and well in the internet age.

100 Thousand Poets for Change held events around the world on a range of issues. Visit the site to see videos of events.

75 authors from around the world have contributed stories to Kizuna: Fiction For Japan, an anthology published to raise money for Japan after the devastating Tōhoku Eathquake of March 2011.

The Atlantic list A Visual History of Literary References on ‘The Simpsons’ featuring Amy Tan, Jonathan Franzen, Ayn Rand, Emily Dickinson, Michael Chabon, Gore Vidal, George Plimpton, Dan Clowes, and many others.

Huffington Post interviews writer Scott Snyder who will be responsible for writing the upcoming reboot of Batman.

Michael Ondaatje releases The Cat’s Table; review and interview.

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas will be held in Sydney this weekend featuring, among others, writers Jonathan Safran Foer, Alexander McCall Smith, David Marr, Catherine Lumby, and Slavoj Žižek.

Jorge Luis Borges


Borges Interview

The task of art is to transform what is continually happening to us, to transform all these things into symbols, into music, into something which can last in man’s memory. That is our duty. If we don’t fulfill it, we feel unhappy.

– Jorge Luis Borges

Blake Poetry Prize


Robert Adamson in conversation with Judith Beveridge, Saturday 23 September 2011

This Saturday Robert Adamson spoke with Judith Beveridge about poetry, spirituality and his poem ‘Via Negativa: The Divine Dark’, which won the Blake Poetry Prize.

As usual, Adamson was full of stories about his childhood and early years as a poet, and he spoke about other poets, artists and writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson, Robert Duncan, Garry Shead, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and St Augustine.

You can read or download his poem: ‘Via Negativa: The Divine Dark’

I knew a woman


I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin:
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we make.)

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved.)

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)

– Theodore Roethke

Banned Books

This week Americans celebrate Banned Books Week, September 24 – October 1.

Portrait of Ern Malley by Sidney Nolan (1973). via National Portrait Gallery

Australia has a long history of censorship and most people are familiar with recent films that have been refused classification and banned.

However Australia has also had a long history of banning literature. There are some well-known books such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence which was banned until 1965, or the trial of Max Harris, who was charged with indecent publication when he published the poems of ‘Ern Malley’ in Angry Penguins.

A vast range of books have been banned in Australia for reasons including depictions of sex, homosexuality, violence, crime and drug use. In 1935 the responsibility for banning books fell on the Department of Trade and Customs who could ban the import of any book it deemed “obscene, indecent, blasphemous and seditious, or those identified to excessively emphasise sex, violence or crime”.

Prominent novelists and writers who had books banned in Australia include Gore Vidal, Vladimir Lenin, Aldous Huxley, Barry Humphries, William S. Burroughs, James Baldwin, Honor de Balzac, Charles Bukowski, Simone de Beauvoir, Norman Mailer, George Orwell and Leonard Cohen. The James Bond novel The Spy Who Loved Me was banned in 1962 adding Ian Fleming to list. Ernest Hemingway also makes the list; A Farewell To Arms, his semi-autobiographical novel about an ambulance driver at the Italian front during World War I, was banned from 1931 until 1935 possibly because the original book includes the words “shit”, “fuck” and “cocksucker”.

The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger was banned by Customs in 1956. The book was not referred to the Literature Censorship Board presuambly because Customs did not feel that the book was sufficiently ‘literary’. Copies of the book were even seized from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library however the ban was soon lifted in 1957.

American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis is still banned in Queensland. It is available, albeit restricted, in public libraries and for sale to readers over 18 in all other states.

Katharine Susannah Prichard’s novel Coonardoo won first prize in the Bulletin’s annual literary competition. The novel, which was serialised in the Bulletin, details a sexual relationship between a white station owner and an Aboriginal housekeeper. One of the judges of the Bulletin competition declared that no white man was capable of any “higher emotion” than pity for an Aboriginal woman, and in the controversy that surrounded the story it was refused publication in Australia, notably by Angus & Robertson. It was published in London by Jonathan Cape in 1954.

James Joyce also makes the list. Dubliners was banned from 1929 until 1933. Ulysses was banned from 1929 until 1937. Ulysses was accused of being blasphemous and obscene. After the ban was lifted Catholic organisations in Australia campaigned the Literature Board to ban the book again. The book was again restricted in 1941 with the ban being lifted in 1953 after it was considered ineffectual considering how many copies were already in circulation.

James Joyce getting a Face Full of Fart by Robert Goodin

To celebrate Banned Books Week we direct you to the (filthy) love letters of James Joyce.

Joyce wrote a number of letters to his lover Nora Barnacle. Joyce and Barnacle had a complex relationship; they met on June 10 1904 and had their first romantic liaison on June 16 1904 – this date was chosen for the setting of Joyce’s Ulysses and is celebrated around the world as Bloomsday. Although, in 1931, Barnacle eventually married Joyce, she had written many letters to her sister complaining about his personal qualities and his writings.

In 2004, one of Joyce’s love letters was sold for $445,000 USD at auction. The letters are very explicit and seem to chronicle every encounter and desire. As Nora herself wrote about Joyce: “I don’t know whether my husband is a genius or not, but he certainly has a dirty mind”.

Enjoy them in the spirit of Banned Book Week.

You can also read more about banned books in Australia at:

Town of Cats by Haruki Murakami


The New Yorker have published ‘Town of Cats’, an excerpt from the new Murakami novel IQ84.

Young Tengo’s father never sang him lullabies, never read books to him at bedtime. Instead, he told the boy stories of his actual experiences. He was a good storyteller. His accounts of his childhood and youth were not exactly pregnant with meaning, but the details were lively. There were funny stories, moving stories, and violent stories. If a life can be measured by the color and variety of its episodes, Tengo’s father’s life had been rich in its own way, perhaps.

Hold on to your divine blush


At birth we are red-faced, round, intense, pure. The crimson fire of universal consciousness burns in us. Gradually, however, we are devoured by our parents, gulped by schools, chewed up by peers, swallowed by social institutions, wolfed by bad habits, and gnawed by age; and by that time we have been digested, cow style, in those six stomachs, we emerge a single disgusting shade of brown. The lesson of the beet, then, is this: hold on to your divine blush, your innate rosy magic, or end up brown.

– Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume