Monday, 1 September 2014

What's the "Best" Poetry?: An Essay

[the following is never published as commissioned by the editors of an anthology titled Force of What's Possible: Writers on the Avant-Garde and Accessibility, who later promised to carry it in one of their online forums instead, but again never honored their intention - that's another discouragement for me to write any prose work: you put in so much time and effort, but often without any hope of getting it published; fortunately, this essay has appeared in Talking Verse at ]

Die in Poetry, Or Live Forever 

In an age when there seem to be more poets than poems, and more poetry books than readers, it is definitely more difficult for anyone to go to history as an outstanding poets than, say, in Keats’s time, not to mention Li Bai or even Su Dongpo’s. Be that as it may, there are always a lucky few who can win some handsome prizes and much high national or international acclaim from time to time, not necessarily because their poems are truly great, but because some poetry lords and influential academicians with certain idyosycracies happen to notice and handpick their products. In the meantime, numerous practitioners of the art engage themselves, actively or otherwise, in the writing of poetry, as if to hope to die, or live forever there.   

As one of such practitioners – I refrain from calling myself a ‘Canadian poet’ as a gesture to protest against the oppression of notorious Canadian mediocrity, I have been dying a slow death ever since August of 2004, when I first tried to scribble some stanzas in a foreign language, whose alphabet I did not start to learn in China until I was 19 years of age. While I care little about whether I can actually live forever in poetry, I do care enormously about what kind of poetry I should and could write. In fact, I have taught myself (and my teenage son Allen Qing Yuan, who is a quite widely published writer of poetry in his own right) that great poetry is, first of all, avant-garde by nature, if not unanimously by definition. For me, one major criterion for ‘best’ poetry is, and should be, the formal or stylistic innovativeness it embodies. Without breakthrough of some kind in the form, a poem may prove lovely and effective to certain extent, but not really great. To meet this self-imposed criterion, I have been experimenting with various forms as well as the uses of the English language. The best example to illustrate this effort is what I call ‘siamese stanzas,’ a link form which I have invented to allow for simultaneous multi-readings:

Siamese Stanzas: On the Highway

shines the night
the moon looks
foul and foolish
when dreams
come too close
on the fairy road                     failure to turn right
we drive                                  we must drive
our newly painted jalopy        farther and farther
with changed tires                   straight ahead
no less slowly                          in the wrong direction

Apparently, one can read the piece as a whole in at least three different ways, each presenting a new poem. Other forms I have invented or experimented with include ‘mini epic’ in bagua or eight trigrams, ‘one-act play poem,’  ‘ideographic poem’ and ‘wuxing or 5-element poem,’ which are mostly developed from ancient or traditional Chinese folk forms and, hopefully, will turn out worthy experiments. 

Another major criterion for great poetry is its accessibility. While being innovative or experimental is no excuse for anyone to write esoterically, a poem has to be readable if it aims to communicate something at all. As a poetry writer, I draw my inspirations mostly from reading, but alas, contemporary American, British or Canadian poetry often makes reading more of a pain than of a pleasure. On the one hand, I am undoubtedly too stupid to appreciate the beauty of most contemporary poems, especially those featured in high-sounding journals/anthologies or written by high-profiled poets. On the other, there are perhaps some good reasons why much-acclaimed ‘best’ poetry is nonsense even to poetry lovers like me. For one thing, the poet has nothing really meaningful to say in the first place; naturally, she has to say something like personalized codes or dreaming utterances. Second, the poet has something interesting to say, but wants to say it in such a mystifying way as to show that he is extraordinary in his use of language. Third, the all-powerful editor/judge/publisher chooses a nonsense-like poem either because of his personal taste or because of the poet’s reputation. No matter what, if a poet cannot use language in an accessible way, his or her work should be treated as diary rather than poetry.

A third major criterion for ‘best’ poetry may, as I see it, prove even more sociopolitical than the second one: in terms of traditional Chinese poetics, a fine poem ought to contain a ‘poetic eye,’ that is, something really fresh, witty, sensual, intriguing, soul-enriching or imagination-stimulating. As Badiou has strongly suggested, it would be imperative for the poet to say either something relatively new in a well-accepted way or something already existent in a relatively new way. Since the reader, targeted or not, plays an important role in this aspect, the poet becomes deeply involved in cultural politics with or without intention; indeed, the claim of no political stance or interest is itself a political manifesto. Whenever I write a piece, I feel compelled to give my work a poetic eye. For example, I have ambitiously woven the most ancient Chinese myths into a mini epic (titled ‘Chinese Chimes: The Ballad in Bagua’) for the first time in any language (to my best knowledge), not merely to reconstruct the earliest Chinese cultural history, but also to add something new to the English canon. Even when writing a monoline, I would try to live up to such standards, although my work may often fail to do so.

Needless to say, there are always tensions between my audience, my compositional practices, and my imagination. While other practitioners may have different ways to navigate these tensions, I have a good pilot for myself: just as the king in The Alchemist advises Santiago to follow his heart, I follow my imagination. Although keenly aware that my poetic work does not have a ready appeal to most readers, I never go out of my usual way to cater to the taste of my targeted audience, not do I have a specifically intended audience in mind to begin with. For me, it is always more important and intriguing to write the best and worthiest kind of poetry I can than to find a particular group of readers. Unlike many other authors of Chinese origin who may purposefully try to write something nasty or negative about Chinese reality to appeal to the taste of certain western readers, and thus may become much more popular or better-recognized, I am not so concerned as they are about whether (contemporary) readers, editors or critics like what I have been writing, although I do believe my poetic work deserves notice. 

In the most recent interview, I have mentioned that poetry seems to run in the blood of my family. My father had always wished to be a poet, though he never got anything published during his lifetime. Growing up in an impoverished Chinese village, I fell in love with poetry and dreamed about living like Li Bai at the age of 14 when I had my first exposure to poetry of any kind. Although I never got a single poem published before moving to Canada to pursue my graduate studies in English, I have been writing and publishing much more poetry than I myself imagined about eight years ago. Just before last Christmas, my poetry finally begun to appear in Chinese media, but ironically only after I became an internationally published practitioner of the art. More important, on the Remembrance Day of 2012, I and my younger son Allen Qing Yuan formed a ‘father-son comraderie in poetry,’ as some editors like to call us, to publish our own literary e.zine called Poetry Pacific (, which has been growing much more robust than we anticipated, and which we plan to develop into a major platform to promote poetic/cultural exchange between English and Chinese in the near future.

For me, the meaning of life, if any at all, is to create a meaning for it – that is why and how I write what I do.                                                                             [1,315 words]

Dear Changming Yuan -

First off, I hope you know what a HUGE fan of yours I am. 

Next, and the whole reason of this email is that I'm compiling an anthology with Joshua Marie Wilkinson called The Force of What's Possible: Writers on the Avant-Garde and Accessibility. It would mean the world to me if you can spare a few words. I know the deadline is tight, but there is some wiggle room. 

In a recent article in The Boston Review, Marjorie Perloff argues that “by definition, an ‘avant-garde mandate’ is one that defies the status quo and hence cannot incorporate it.” 1

Alain Badiou, in his final thesis on contemporary art, writes, It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent.” 2

With these two claims in mind, I am writing to ask you to contribute a short piece on what you believe to be elemental about your work as a writer:

1. What does Perloff’s ‘avant-garde mandate’ mean for your own work as a writer?
2. Should a writer be accessible in their writing and what does this mean to you?

3. In light of Badiou’s claim, what is imperative to you about a piece of writing in terms of the political, the social, the unconscious?

4. How do you navigate the tensions between audience, your compositional practices, and your imagination?

5. In short, what compels you to write what you write and why?

It is my plan to collect these into a new volume on prose and poetics, co-edited with Joshua Marie Wilkinson, for Night Boat Books (2015).

Suggested essay length: 500-1000 words

Deadline: June 15 2013

Please send to:

If you would like to participate, please write what you wish. You need not answer any of these directly or even all of them. If they spark your thinking—toward whatever end—I will be eager to learn what you discover. I welcome thoughtful interrogation of the questions themselves, of course. Other contributors so far include: David Shields, Mary Caponegro, Dennis Cooper, Kate Bernheimer, and Rikki Ducornet, among many many others.

In anticipation & gratitude,

Las Cruces, NM

1 “Poetry on the Brink: Reinventing the Lyric,” Marjorie Perloff. Boston Review. May/June 2012:
2 “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art,” Alain Badiou. Tr. Peter Hallward. Lacanian Ink. No. 22. Fall 2004:

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