If it hadn’t been for Ezra Pound and a 20th-century literature course at university, I would never have heard of Li Bai, and even then I thought his name was Rihaku, because in 1915 Pound, who knew absolutely no Chinese at all, published a number of “translated” poems by Rihaku in a collection entitled Cathay.
How many readers of this book will have been subjected to teachers who made them write bad haiku in school? I count myself lucky to have attended a school where such torture didn’t take place, although I am assured that some students actually enjoy the exercise.
Book reviews on Indian fiction and non-fiction from 2018, covering history, literature, sociology, art, culture and international relations.
Ha Jin may be known for his award-winning fiction, in particular Waiting which won the National Book Award for Fiction (1999) and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction (2000), but his poetry collection is an ambitious and original volume that explores the irreplaceable significance of home, the honesty of writing, and the language for freedom.
The West tends to think and speak of ancient India as a spiritual lot, as a place and time which gives extraordinary importance to religion, and other dimensions of otherworldliness. The poet R Parthasarthy goes to the texts, different from the usual epics, that engage with love in all its corporeality.
Is poetry a potent enough protest to move the political needle? In other cultures—the Middle East comes to mind—poetry is fundamental. In a recent article in the BBC, somewhat controversially entitled “Why I became a jihadist poetry critic”, Elisabeth Kendall is quoted as “Anybody who’s spent time in the Middle East knows how important poetry is. Any tin-pot taxi driver in Cairo can recite poetry.” But in English, or in East Asia?
The “thousand star hotel” of the title is a metaphor of the night sky, the roof of the homeless. Bao Phi’s prose poem attributes this to a self-deprecating Vietnamese joke. Who knows? It is just one of perhaps one thousand metaphors, images and turns of phrase that sparkle in this new collection.