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Let's all write poetry! - the Zhao Lihua affair

JDM060928zhaolihua.jpg
The poet Zhao Lihua.
What are the most popular poems in China this month?

It's an easy bet that these are near the top:

Coming to Tennessee alone
There is no question
The xianrbing I make
Are the best tasting
In the entire world

Under a tree I finally found
One ant
Another ant
A troop of ants
Maybe there are even more ants

Zhang Wuji
Zhang Wuji and Zhao Min kiss
On Zhang Wuji's lip, Zhao Min
Bit and drew blood
This kiss
On TV was handled carelessly

I swear that from now on I will no longer pay attention to you
I'll do what I say
With no more regrets

The poems are by Zhao Lihua, a 40-something poet from Hebei who edits the Journal of Selected Poetry. Someone found some of her unpublished poems from a few years ago and posted them in a forum.

The response was immediate - and harsh. Zhao's bio lists her as a "nationally-ranked poet", so the naivety and awkwardness of some of the poems made them ready targets for attacks on high culture, self-styled intellectuals, and the national cultural apparatus, not to mention Zhao herself, who was given the nickname "Poetry's Hibiscus" in reference to last year's Internet clown, Sister Hibiscus.

Taken out of context, these poems are ripe for parody. Commenters quickly took to breaking their responses into lines of a few words each, and others came up with original poetic compositions. Some highlights:

God
Damn
Turns out splitting
Once sentence into many lines
Can be
Called a poem
Thank you
Grand
Mother
Lihua

Endless Tears
I never ate hot peppers
Now I like eating hot peppers
I feel I have no dignity
Saturday afternoon I cried my eyes out

My daughter said this
Dad
Mom
Why
Do you always
Want me to answer
Which of you I like best
If I say one of you randomly
The other
Will certainly be unhappy
So
It's hard to be human
It's harder to be a child

Mourning
Prof. Zhao Lihua
In America
Is a famous poet
But me
I'm alone in sorrow

Poets
Are disgusting
Experts
Are more disgusting

There were also how-to guides:

Universal techniques to writing Pear Blossom poetry

  1. Find an article, extract a line, break it open, separate into lines, and it becomes a Pear Blossom poem. (If you want to become famous, select a hot news item.)
  2. Record a line from a 4-year-old kid. Following his stops and starts, this is also a Pear Blossom poem.
  3. Of course, of someone is a hesitant speaker, his speech is a brilliant Pear Blossom poem.
  4. A foreigner who doesn't speak Chinese fluently is a natural-born Pear Blossom poet.

and

How to write a Pear Blossom poem
Broken sentences
And
Carriage returns

A website was set up (Zhaolihua.com) that collected Zhao's poems and their online imitations, calling them "pear blossom verse" (梨花体) after a homonym for her name. Devotees of this form belonged to the "Pear Blossom Sect" as the original parodies exploded into a full-blown spoof, the latest egao phenomenon to hit the net.

It's not that they weren't ripe for parody. Even in context (Tennessee, for example, was written in response to Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens), they're not the greatest poems, as Zhao herself acknowledges. In response to the parodies, Zhao posted the following on her blog (item 3, her own taste in poetry, is omitted in this translation):

What I want to say

1. On parody:
I feel that parody is a product of a societal ideology that has developed to a certain point. It is a normal phenomenon in today's era. And the Internet has provided parody with a platform of swift transmission. Whether spoofs of the movies The Promise or The Banquet, or of paintings, or of my own poems - these are all normal phenomena, demonstrating that art is not restricted to a single format or track. You do a serious version, I do a mocking version; you do a reverent version, I do a vulgar version; you do a heavy version, I do a light version...there's nothing wrong with any of these, since we've already entered into a deconstructed society. I'm indebted to instigator of this instance of parody for the effort he expended, setting up a special website in my name, establishing the "Pear Blossom" sect, and publishing lengthy pieces extensively to stir things up; also, media who do business in latching on to the latest hot thing or creating the latest hot thing, who added fuel to the fire, causing me, anonymous and without station, to be known to all.

2. On my poetry:
The poems that have been spoofed online were extemporaneous compositions made in 2002 when I had just gotten online. At the time, my thought was to discard the vast majority of a poem's weight, responsibility, significance, and educational benefit, and let is become something relying purely on intuition, something flexible, something random, something lithe. Wong Kar-wai said, "Wouldn't it be stifling not to change after success?" Ask me to answer and I would say, "Yes." At that time I want to play around with a different form; of course, I could call it an experiment. I remember one time looking at a Mondrian painting of the sea, not understanding why used only dense clusters of plusses and minuses to represent the rippling of the waves. I thought, can painting be done like this? But afterward I saw an explanation of how Monet and Renoir had rented boats to paint the scenes of the Seine, and especially Monet's La Grenouillère, how they reproduced the way water flashes under sunlight and slight gusts of the breeze, and I understood - what would we have Mondrian do, coming after them? If he wants to follow a new road, if he wants to neither imitate others nor repeat himself?

I bring up this example because I want to say that progress in any art form requires continuous exploration and practice. And this experimentation and practice make it hard to avoid detours. But with my personality, I would rather go astray or come to branch in the road rather then retread the same musty, formulaic old road. But I understand that my experimental pieces are immature and slapdash. So I only tossed them up on the web and was done; I knew they were immature and unsatisfactory, so I didn't publish them in print. Thanks to a few sharp-eyed websites who selected a few pieces out to put in a post. And some poems even had a few lines missing, so they looked even more imperfect. So it does make some sense for this kind of poetry to be criticized. However, I don't regret those experiments; they were necessary for my own individual creativity. I had to go through those experiments. They relaxed my writing style, making me less tight, less rigid, and more able to enter into a free and easy creative state.

4. My views on this affair:
If we ignore the harm this affair has done to my own image and reputation, this might be a turning point for modern Chinese poetry to step out of a small enclave and meet the wider gaze of the world. There are many good domestic poets, and I recommend that everyone read more of their works. Yu Xiang, Zhang Li, Crystal Necklace (Shuijing Zhulian), Shen Haobo, Yang Li, He Xiaozhu, Jin Haishu, Yi Sha, Mu Ye, Tu Dou, Fu Fu, Zhang Xiaojing, Wu Hongfei, Nan Nan (Zhang Yushao), Lu Yue, E Su, Wu Yang, Liu Liu, Su Qian, Sun Lei, Chou Shi, Zhou Gongdu, Xu Xiangchou, Sheng Xing, Bewn Shaoye, Li Hongqi, Pang Hua...they have all written good poetry, and there are many more, which would require a much longer list, who are poets on the stage right now. Of course I will bring out those poems that I am pleased with to face criticism. But if you continue to say, we don't care for these poems, then don't care for them. At any rate poetry has always been the business of a small minority. It's not normal for everyone to write poetry.


Zhao's tone in this piece is generally dismissive of the whole parody business as too much fuss, but her statements here that she doesn't care all that much failed to calm the debate. Readers seized on her last line, calling her elitist and subjecting her to a new round of mockery.

Ai Weiwei, an artist who speaks with a certain authority on poetry by virtue of being the son of Ai Qing, echoed this feeling in an interview with Xinmin Online:

"I'm not saying her poems are good poetry, but you can't say they aren't poems. Even doggerel is poetry!"

Speaking about the "Pear Blossom" poems that are popular online, Ai Weiwei laughed: "Who says that's not poetry? Even a single word, a single sentence is poetry if the poet says it is!"

"Actually, everyone is a poet, though you perhaps aren't aware." On the rising wave of "Everyone writes poetry" sweeping the Internet, Ai chuckled: "This is a good thing! When I was young I wrote poems, too, but I don't know whether or not it amounted to anything."

He even offered up one of those compositions, from 1986 (not translated here).

Starving poet Yi Sha presented a rather more spirited defense, posting in huge characters on his blog that "Parody-poets are rabble", drawing comments that he finally met some of the "people's poets" he pretends to represent. He also posted a transcript of a 2002 dialogue between Zhao and himself in which they discuss various the state of the poetry scene at the time.

But this round of egao is not all negative, according to Wang Ke, a professor of poetry at Fujian Normal University and Capital Normal University. An excerpt of his analysis:

I'm totally able to be called a poetry "expert", the target of the barbs and disgust of those netizens. But when the arrows took flight and struck at my heart, I felt great, not hurt. I broke my own online record and read in a single sitting all 1272 comments; posters were continuing to comment, and I was ready to keep reading and to save them all. This is possibly the "poetry incident" of the online age with the most participants, and likely the first, largest "clash" between poets and readers in the whole century of new poetry, with poets besieged by the greatest number of people, the first crazy farce put on by both poets and readers, and a highly meaningful drama at that. Reading the critiques of the netizens made me feel that the eyes of the people are bright while the eyes of the experts are blind. The people are honest and bold, while the experts are fake and timid. The people, and only the people, are the motivating force creating history; netizens, and only netizens, dare to face the bad practices of the poetry world head-on, to cleanse the trends of poetry, and to be the motivating force preserving a healthy development of new poetry.

The critiques of the netizens made me feel great! Not just because they played the role of the child in The Emperor's New Clothes, saying the things that poets and poetry critiques are too afraid of offending someone to say. The last few years has seen a flourishing of negative habits in the poetry world; even if people aren't afraid of offending anyone, they are unwilling to speak their aesthetic conscience for fear that if they criticizing someone in the business they will be blamed for "internal feuding." The flourishing of new poetry in the 80s is intimately connected to the escort and protection afforded by the harsh dealings of lofty critics like Xie Mian. Today's world of new poetry criticism is in need of critics who can speak language in truth. It's also because many netizens left their critiques in the form of standout poetry, outstanding poetic compositions, even more like poems than those poems of Zhao Lihua's in the "news item." I used to believe that in this age of materialism, when no life is rich in poetry and there is no way to study language, that there is no way to write poetry, that "highest of the language arts." But the comments of many netizens led me to exclaim, "Good poetry is with the people," and "Good poets are among the people."

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There are currently 13 Comments for Let's all write poetry! - the Zhao Lihua affair.

Comments on Let's all write poetry! - the Zhao Lihua affair

She certainly is a nationally ranked poet.

I, for one, will never forget her ESPN televised takedown of the #4 ranked opponent. After a disastrous haiku she came from behind with a stunning pentameter sonnet. This, mind you, was all after strenuous back-to-back outings against the #5 and #7 ranked poets without the home crowd to support her.

Don't listen to the Coaches Poll, she's #1 in my poll.

Anglo-centric comment: Everyone has their off days.

Here's a bit of Wordsworth's The Thorn, one of the most cringe-worthy poems in the English language:

And to the left, three yards beyond,
You see a little muddy pond
Of water, never dry,
I've measured it from side to side:
'Tis three feet long, and two feet wide…

But he also wrote Prelude and On Westminster Bridge.

Or Coleridge's epic "To a Young Ass" (I kid you not):

Poor little foal of an oppressèd race!
I love the languid patience of thy face:
And oft with gentle hand I give thee bread,
And clap thy ragged coat, and pat thy head

Zhao Lihua should just keep her head down or head for the hills for more inspiration.

1. I think these peoms were actually published a few years ago (but the controversy/criticism was limited to the literary circle).
she said, "当时都发表在《诗刊》等权威杂志上了也引起了很多批评。所以再有人批评,偶都很习惯了。"

I acutally think Zhao made a good parody of some of the "New Poem", and honestly believe that she was making a point in these publications. She was actually happy that people make parody of hers (that should be her original intention). But she was offensed by the derogatory comparison with Fuyong JJ.
see here
“她的诗还素有趣的,但素毕竟只素小聪明。”诗人徐勇韬如此表示,...“她的诗本身素对经典文本和经典诗意的一个反讽,而网友则又对这种反讽进行了反讽”。

2. To appreciate her point of 'parody' you should perhaps translate a few of those "recognized poems" which are not too different from Zhao's. One should also note that the concept of poem in Chinese is very different from what we see today (the Shi and Chi which focus on symmetry, rhymes, intonation and formats). The new poems challenge all these rules and it has always been controversial about the definition of "poem" since about a century ago.

3. i have found a couple hilarious parodies over the forum a while ago.
link
e.g.
a) the MSN chat-log
b) to catch a corruptor.

Laziness Will Make You a Poet

That day when I wrote my blog article "Thanks Giving", I had heard a "sad" story from a close friend during lunchtime. It is a "she". We have not seen each other for a while. Knowing that I was vacating and doing nothing in Beijing, she proposed to offer me a free lunch with a condition. She said she had broken up with her partner recently, and desperately needed someone to talk to and a shoulder to lean upon. I said it definitively was an affirmative, because it would be odd if we just ate without any coversation, and lending her my shoulder or shoulders would be fine. We dined at Morel, a belgian restaurant lying a couple of blocks south of Kempinski. She ordered a single dish and did all the talking as I enjoyed my three-course meal with a bottle of vintage red wine. She was not sad but pretty sober. While she sipped her third glass of wine, she advised me some of her experiences about give-and-take in love affairs. I saw her into the eyes and listened to her story tenderly. I had spared my shoulder(s). When we left, she said I was a great listener and she felt a lot better then. And, I paid the bill.

To record the gathering, I blogged that night. I actually had not much to write about. As I closed the essay "Thanks Giving" and found that it was short and there were a couple of rhymes in the sentences. So, I broke them up and keyed off the punctuations. It looked "poetic" and I was quite happy with it.

Today, I looked up Danwei and found this article. I learn now that the way I manipulated with my essay is called "pear blossom verse" (梨花体) in poetry writing. Of course, I have never seen it as a poem. I was just lazy. Ai Weiwei said in the aforementioned article that even doggerel is poetry. I am quite happy with his "endorsement". Afterall, it is worth paying for the "free lunch". Thanks should be giving to my heartbreaking friend. Now, I become a poet too.

sun bin, The article you cite doesn't inspire much trust in its veracity. I'd rather take Zhao Lihua's own explanation of the poems than the word of some entertainment journalist who peppers his article with net-speak and quotes things like "《诗刊》等权威杂志" that seem calculated to stir up a reaction.

I also doubt that Zhao was parodying this kind of poetry when she originally wrote the pieces - even those of her poems that have not been mocked in this affair are heavily 口语化, colloquial, and since there has been quite a bit of good poetry written in the ninety years since Hu Shi wrote "Butterflies" (how that would be mercilessly torn apart in online forums today!), mocking Xu Zhimo and others for their excesses became passe in the 40s.

Richard: Those are classics, I tell you! I didn't translate the best of Zhao's set, since I couldn't work the subject inversion in the time I had:

《傻瓜灯——我坚决不能容忍》
我坚决不能容忍
那些
在公共场所
的卫生间
大便后
不冲刷
便池
的人

...which ought to be used in a "Poetry in the Community" campaign and posted in Beijing's public toilets.

AbsurdFool: Congrats on your discovery. When can we expect a collection of your poetry to hit bookshelves?

joel,

now that i found her own blog, you are probably right.
there are so much noise when googling zhao these days :)

I always think
Joel
Your
Translation
Are
The best
I've
Ever
Seen
Really

:)

Hey! My s**t is better than Ms. Zhao's!

Check it!

The city never sleeps,
full of villians and creeps
That's where I learned to do my hustle
had to scuffle with freaks.

Be havin dreams that I'm a gangster,
drinkin Moets, holdin Tecs
Makin sure the cash came correct then I stepped
Investments in stocks,
sewin up the blocks
to sell rocks, winnin gunfights with mega cops

Yo!

Joel:Not really, I dont have a "collection" of those doggerels. But I will let you know if I could end up writing something like these:
(by Yu Guangzhong,余光中)

1.忽然有誰說:
「喂我說余光中那小子
去了那裏頭
該再也寫不出詩來了吧!」
切勿切勿
就在你背後
冷沁沁地
一個死不服氣的鬼﹐咦﹐怎麼
豎起

2.吾愛哎吾愛
地下水為什麼愈探愈深?
你的幽邃究竟
有什麼樣的珍藏
又我這麼奮力地開礦?
肌腱勃勃然,汗油閃閃
鶴嘴鋤
在原始的夜裏一起一落

3.撲鼻的體香多誘人啊
還有豔紅而豐隆的體態
豈是畏妻的禁令所能抵擋
一刀偷偷地剖開
觸目的隱私赤裸得可怕
但一切已經太遲了
懷著外遇的心情,我一口
向最肥沃處咬下

Sorry that they are in traditional chinese.

This is not
poetry

or is it

please save me
from all the
line
breaks.

William Carlos Williams started this nonsense in English:

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow

It's funny, so let it be!

her eyes were blue. like the midnight sky. as she sat all alone. like the bodies in a grave! with just her phone, she called him to come home. she was all alone. sudenly she was alert to the sounds of footsteps closer and closer. deeper and deeper like a pool of water that never ends. and she asked the time. Now she was not alone, its you he replied. harsh his voice was, like a burst of water echoing in her ear. Scared she was! there eyes stared focosing still like ice glaciers still they appeard to the eye it was not true, They moved. he came closer and closer like a new day! The day was not far away. the night was dying. like a zebras neck, at the jaws of lions, suffocation only to happen again tommarow. she talked alot to him, and they faced each other, so in love, it seemed, like a holiday romance, the sun rised. just them alone like 2 swans in a lake. He closed his eyes grabbed her body tight and they passionatly kissed, to the sun rise! so happy not to be alone like man and dog like cat and dog like ones soulmate to be together forever. She was not alone....

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