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New book uncovers structures of Chinese prose poetry


Nick Admussen began his study of Chinese prose poetry eight years ago with the expectation that the genre would be similar to its counterpart in Western literature: nonconformist poems that reject the structures of most poetry.

But as Admussen, assistant professor of Chinese literature and culture in the College of Arts and Sciences, examined hundreds of Chinese prose poems, he uncovered a unique pattern they all seemed to follow. Unlike Western prose poetry, the Chinese poems shared a method in which they imitated some type of prose – whether it was an advertisement, a travelogue or political speech – and then altered it in some way.

This compositional process is the focus of Admussen’s new book, “Recite and Refuse: Contemporary Chinese Prose Poetry,” which interprets and provides translations of a selection of modern Chinese prose poems.

“What surprised me the most when I started the process is I had read a lot of American and a lot of French prose poetry,” Admussen said. “I had read scholars from other languages, especially from France, who would argue that with prose poetry, it’s this rebelliousness – breaking the rules of poetry and breaking the lines. But a lot of Chinese prose poetry tends toward the obedient.”

Admussen traces the origins of this genre of Chinese poetry to a political development called the Hundred Flowers Movement, when Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, in 1956, proclaimed a “policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom” as a way of encouraging open expression in the arts. A year later, however, Mao abruptly changed his mind and imprisoned those who criticized the Chinese regime.

During this period, prose poets insisted that their art was an obedient socialist genre, yet while they claimed to recite the official forms of prose, they filled them with subjective, individual and eccentric elements. Admussen traces the development of prose poetry through the 1980s and beyond, when the publication of state-sponsored literature proliferated in mainland China.

“The People’s Republic of China runs a very large infrastructure to pay writers,” says Admussen, who has published four chapbooks of his own poetry. “Materially, it’s a sweet deal. You produce work, and you make appearances. It's a living.”

On sabbatical in Taiwan, Admussen is now conducting research on the restrictions cultures around the world place on speech, as viewed through the perspective of Chinese poetry. Last year, he received a $20,000 grant from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange to work on the project.

Although the restrictions on poetry in China are often implicit, cultural and economic, Admussen says they are more intense than in some other parts of the world. Chinese poets, for example, cannot publish work that openly criticizes the Communist party and finding publishers for truly original work is quite difficult.

In the United States, Admussen says, publication restrictions are sometimes based on the type of poetry that can be taught in academic settings. “It’s a partially consensual set of rules in which people are trained,” he says. “Most poets get trained and initiated by university professors who are poets themselves.”

Admussen moved to Taiwan for the academic year to conduct his research, because he wanted to study restriction from multiple angles. “It’s a place that has been subject to many different kinds of cultural stricture in the past,” he said, “but presently doesn’t do much to control research.”

Sherrie Negrea is a freelance writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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