Living in Language: Take the Poem-Shaped Bits Out of the Poems” by Yu Yoyo 余幼幼

2024-03-08 ☼ translations

What is it, I sometimes wonder, the magic of poetry that we receive and relay, in the west and in the east, in Greece and in China, across millennia of history? To my mind it is not only the spiritual element, the encounter with the sublime; the emergence and perpetuation of poetry must be understood as being bound up in and being of the reality of life, birth, existence.

The majority of the works in The Book of Songs, China’s earliest collection of poetry, deal with the joys and hardships of ordinary people, transformed into ballads to be passed on orally. There are a couple of minority languages in China that, to me, seem like an externalisation of poetry: Tibetan, and Yi. I am told, for example, that when Tibetans want to settle disputes, they wield poems as arguments. These two languages are spoken in a way that corresponds perfectly with poetry; the addition of line breaks would perhaps make poems of their conversation. There is something miraculous about a form of language that so naturally forms poems, and surely occupies the position closest to poetry.

Writing in Mandarin Chinese, I am also trying to create something resembling a naturally formed poem, but the word natural is the antithesis of fashioned, just as there are some innate talents that cannot be acquired. But actual writing must be fashioned.

Read the complete essay in Living in Language, an anthology of international essays on poetic craft from the Poetry Translation Centre.