Rhyme and reason

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am

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I am quite desperate,' says Bei Dao, the celebrated mainland poet and mastermind of next week's International Poetry Nights festival (IPNHK). He is talking about the lack of imagination in Hong Kong's education system.

'During the different courses I teach on writing, I [see] that my students have lost their creativity. They have become 'one-dimensional [men]' as Herbert Marcuse said half a century ago. But what can we do? You can't fight with a huge machine as Don Quixote did,' he says.

This from the man whose poetry inspired so many of the students who gathered at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, and whose underground literary magazine Today ushered in a new era of hope and enlightenment during some of Beijing's darkest days.

Bei Dao is far from tilting at windmills, and has in part answered his own question. One of the festival's main objectives is to encourage Hong Kong's young people to appreciate poetry in the hope that they will make a difference to the city's 'undetermined future'.

'Political, social and economic situations may change over time, but metropolises like London, New York, Paris and even Tokyo are undoubtedly recognised as 'world cities' because they have developed themselves as the energy sources of culture,' he says.

'If Hong Kong does not want to dim its radiance as the 'Pearl of the East', it should uphold a strong sense of cultural self-awareness.'

The four-day, multilingual event will be hosted by three of Hong Kong's major universities - the Chinese University, City University and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology - and will gather 10 world-class poets from Brazil, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Slovenia, Turkey and the US, as well as 10 renowned Chinese poets from Hong Kong, the mainland and Taiwan.

'Our idea is to make literature a more prominent part of daily life in Hong Kong as it is in other major world cities,' says Bei Dao, whose real name is Zhao Zhenkai. 'Hong Kong's young people deserve to be nurtured in a more diverse cultural environment ... to evoke more imagination, creativity and originality. That's precisely what poetry can contribute.'

The Chinese University Press has published 20 pocket-sized books for each guest poet, which will appear as bilingual or trilingual collections in English, Chinese and the original language. The decision to emphasise the printed and translated form is unusual. Indeed, Bei Dao claims that in more than 20 years of attending international poetry festivals, he has never seen it done. But, he says, 'books will last forever. As the oldest form of literature, poetry will survive with paper. In my mind, poetry is not information that one can get from an iPod.'

What is poetry, then? '[It] is the way of apperception for me,' Bei Dao says, 'It's a knowledge of the spirit, a profound meaning above all empty words, a world map of imagination without boundaries. It's a driving force to get through the darkness of human being.'

Here, five of the authors talk about what poetry means to them.

Yip Fai (Hong Kong): 'To me poetry is the faith of setting [someone] free; it is man's rebellion against being what he is. For Hong Kong, International Poetry Nights is an annual one per cent versus 99 per cent spiritual movement.

'In China, due to political control, and in Hong Kong, due to economic hegemony, all we can hear are the monotonous mainstream ideas of officials and the privileged. We have lost our variety of voices.

'Poetry appears as a voice of rebellion. In China, it allows people to think about dissent from the political doctrine. In Hong Kong, poetry lets people think about the consumerist doctrine.

'[To] use Leonard Cohen's [words], poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash. In my opinion, it is to share the secret sufferings and ash of life selflessly.'

Ling Yu (Taiwan): 'To me, poetry is the first as well as the last fellow accompanying us; it is the smallest cave, and also the largest universe. It is the bright crust, and also the core of darkness. It is the most rigid yet most tender, the most quiet yet most noisy. Poetry is everywhere, everything.

'International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong opens a window. It will enrich Hong Kong as a cosmopolitan city. I always think that poetry is the subject of the human spirit, and the subject of a country's spirit. A country needs the profound knowledge of poets. Taiwan is not an exception. Poetry is even more important in such a fast-moving and materialistic era.

'In Chinese, the word 'poetry' means the temple of language. A good poem is a space, a country, a world.'

Yu Xiang (mainland China): 'Poetry is the spirit of freedom. Its importance is also its basic function: to open up, to communicate between poets and between authors and readers. Poetry is very important to me personally and it is very important to all spiritual [minds]. We have to be more concerned about spirituality in China.

'Good poetry is a personal achievement - 'to live'. 'To live' means to withstand temporariness, to share others' pain and to ask yourself not to despair. I think this is the only achievement of poetry. Other than this, poetry can accomplish nothing. It can only witness.'

Paul Muldoon (Ireland, US): 'Poetry is the way in which I make sense of the world. It's a thrilling way of life. I wouldn't have any other. It's like being an architect, an engineer, a prophet, a plumber and a bricklayer all rolled into one. Also a gardener and cook. What I love about poetry festivals is how they remind me that poetry is found in every culture throughout the world. People may live in deserts, on glaciers, in the jungle. They all write poetry. They've all got that same problem.

'I'd say poetry is very important in Britain and America today. It's not widely enough taught, I fear, within the school system. That means that we all know how to watch a movie, see a play, maybe even read a novel. Poetry has got lost somewhere in there. People complain that they don't understand it. That's a bit like never having seen a car and announcing that you don't understand it.

'At its best, poetry achieves a change in how we see the world. It may last only a moment. But it's a real change.'

Vivek Narayanan (India): 'Poetry is many things. It is a way of investigating the world. For me, it is a synthesis. It cannot be compartmentalised. It tries to bring together everything we have thought or felt or seen or known into a single 'ghost-body' of language. Maybe this sounds strange, but for me the best poems are almost like living beings. They have a mind and presence of their own.

'I think especially the international, multilingual nature of this event will be a powerful, rare experience for everyone who comes. It's a strange paradox: of all kinds of writing, poetry is most closely wedded to words and yet - because it uses sound, rhythm, presence, etc. - it also has this ability to be felt and understood beyond words.

'As with most places today, people in India are too concerned with making money to pay much attention to poems. The poetries that are popular are the fake-romantic, nostalgic lyric usually found in Bollywood film songs or rigid, institutionalised, religious poetry.

'A little shamefully, I find even most elite Indian intellectuals do not read contemporary world poetry; they prefer the 'fast food' of fiction or journalism.

'None of this, of course, can stop good poems from being written. As long as there is language, there will be poetry, and new roads for poetry.

'The very best poems have a physiological effect on the body; they make you want to take them in, to make them a part of your body and the way you move. And then there are these amazing little moments of clarity, of heightened perception and awareness. You look outside and everything, the whole world, seems changed, different than it was before.'

International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong 2011, Thu-Fri. For programme details, visit www.ipnhk.com