In an article published last year on a site devoted to Chinese art and literature criticism, Duo Yu set out some of his views on poetry. An excerpt translated from this article spells out the poet’s obsession with human kind's “dark side”.
Inside me, it’s all darkness. Since the beginning, I have been cautiously avoiding these dark corners, covering them up, but they grew steadily bigger until they became alienated and turned into a cancer of the spirit. Since the beginning, this has been the reality of my writing.
I no longer feel ashamed or, to put it another way, I no longer feel shame in those moments of shame. I bite my nails, pick my nose, look down on the poor, tell lies to God, spit in public places, hug myself with pleasure, am narrow-minded, support war without taking part in it, fantasize about sex, am suspicious, block my ears to the song of the swan, no longer regard art as being a kind of gold . . . But this is not the sum total of the blackness I have inside me, and if I could bring myself to face it in its entirety, I know that it would suddenly transform into light!
I see that there are still many people who are ashamed of this darkness. In other words, they feel shame when they no longer feel ashamed. They try to cover it up rather than expel it or face up to it. They cover up the darkness with beautiful, imposing words: REPONSIBILITY, JUSTICE, MORALITY, CLEAR CONSCIENCE, FREEDOM, ABUNDANCE, HUMAN NATURE, MAGNANIMITY, PASSION, AWAKENING, IDEALISM . . . And so the world seems sparkling and radiant, while life becomes appealing and pretty!
We have heard too many of these utterly mediocre and yet stirring cliches. First, there is an attempt to lay down a standard for the new poetry, just like some big meeting to revise the constitution, then, without running the slightest sense risk, moralistic judgements are proposed, coherent appeals, nationalistic . . . With one step one lurches from right to left, from the idealism of utopia to revolutionary-romantic realism, from a revised avant-garde to revolutionary leftism, from a bellicose art for art’s sake to a moralism completely cut of from the world, from that total blackness to the limpidity of a Great Master.
This way of going about things is rather too simple. As far as poetry goes, are these big words self-evident or not? Will they make poetry more abstract or will they bring it closer to reality? More distinct or more murky? When people turn away from themselves and try to shock in a new way, still working with established concepts and systems of categories but wearing a new disguise, will they bring us liberation, breakthroughs and subversions, or new obstacles and threats — perhaps the most terrible of all obstacles?
Under the pretence of a crowd-pleasing aesthetics, and by making use of those impulses towards ingratiation, such new literary tricks do their utmost to cram a large amount of wholly incompatible and mutually contradictory notions into some kind of form, some outline of orthodox doctrine, trying to cover up those irritatingly difficult problems and to sort out chaos for the sake of revolution. As a result, do they undergo, completely unawares, a transformation from resistance to repression? Another question: what kind of poets count as true poets? The ones who take the burden of morality and justice on their shoulders, and who use a megaphone to make speeches to the world? Or is it those meek and pedantic people who, uninterested in public affairs, modestly question this apparently harmless faith in big words in the quiet of their studies?
Great figures such as Tolstoy wavered between their own art and the good conscience of society. Anna Akhmatova said that the only reason why Tolstoy killed off Anna Karenina was to placate the moral standards of his aunts in Moscow. The slightest vacillation in the depths of one’s being can influence the direction one’s writing takes. The darkness of the mind is a fundamental reality. As Simone Weil once said “all truth contains contradiction within it” and “the contradictions the spirit encounters are the only reality, the most real criterion”. Art is a way of dealing with suffering. Loneliness is another, and so is suicide. So Susan Sontag said.
For these reasons, I am fed up with those mediocre sermons and with that Romantic inflation of the ego. Apart from being used to save oneself or to dilute the darkness inside the mind, poetry no longer has any eternal values. Poets have their own specific 'feelers', and all they need do is sniff the smell of the wind to know whether there is a revolution taking place in the public square. Poets have their own doubts and suspicions which await being dispelled. They have no realizations of Truth, they are not prophets (under the influence of supernatural forces) of an abiding truth, nor are they dangerous liars of genius.
What is a poet? This has never been a coherent concept. And so for this reason there are so many people full of revolutionary impulses making startling pronouncements in the realm of poetry. Yang Jian said that he was a poet before Liberation, and was still a poet after Liberation — he is a real poet. The requirements are not difficult: all one has to do is to speak a simple fact. To use another fashionable term, poetry is a form of personal salvation. Real poets confront themselves first and foremost; poetry should become a tongue that speaks for personal salvation. Is it a matter of using knowledge, morality, lies . . . to save a poem, or to save a person by means of a poem? This is the test of a true poetry.
Translated by Simon Patton
First published on the Chinese site Zhongguo Yishu Piping