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Sensibility in Bian’s pre-war poetry: a Chinese ‘child’ of Symbolism and Metaphysicalism
Poetic language used to associate all different types of symbols also plays a vital role in transforming them into private symbols. At first glance, Bian’s poems seem to be written in a bizarre Western tone. By using abstract and concrete words, however, Bian links symbols that point to both objective and subjective. For example, T took a sip of the haze in the street’ (‘The Record (iEic)’), ‘O my friend has brought me five o’clock’ (‘The Composition of Distances’), T spit out an “Alas” in the colour of ivory’ (‘Dusk’), and ‘1 remember that once in somewhere, 1 took a handful of its glamour’ (‘The Road (?&)’). In all these poems, symbols that do not exist as substances in the real world are associated with real movements and gestures that only point to an objective existence. This strategy of associating symbols could be seen as the poet’s attempt to transform the state of objects into a state of mind. Although compared repeatedly with Western poets such as Emily Dickinson (e.g. ‘A Quartz contentment, like a stone’), Bian’s strategy of fitting actual words of gestures with abstract nouns resembles the requirement of Hand (&^), meaning ‘smelting poetic words’, in classical Chinese literature. The Song Dynasty poet Su Shi (^$^) (1037-1101) described the practice of lianzi as ‘[To achieve] pure poetry one needs to filter, wash and smelt, so that what [the poetic words] he gets is silver refined from lead (ШтФИу^);®» 7M#fn ФШ)’. Similarly, Bian talks about his preference for ‘filter and wash’ (vfejjzt) and ‘smelt and refine’ (ШЙ!). Refined lines in Bian’s pre-war poetry include ‘cannot disgorge their grief (iMtliWE'EHji&'fti)’ from ‘The Long Road (js:il!)’ (1931) and T took a drink from the haze in the street — ПШ-tlft
ЩШ)' from ‘The Record (гЕзРс)’.
Through lianzi, Bian’s sensibility becomes ‘touchable’ through abstract symbols that usually do not provide readers with sense-related appearances/ existence. Chinese scholars praise Bian’s poetry writing as ‘A song against his tradition’ (Luo 2000: 84) because such sensibility may correspond to Metaphysical Poetry and Imagism in Europe and North America as the movement was ‘driven by conscious desire to overturn traditional modes of representation and express the new sensibilities of their time’ (Childs 2008: 4). Poems by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound put so much emphasis on sensibility that a poem composed of imagery alone is seen as acceptable and comprehensible. Therefore, it is not surprising that Bian relates himself with both Symbolism and Metaphysical Poetry.
Yet it is also notable that sensibility is an important feature that makes classical Chinese poetry beautiful and charming, especially the Shanshui poetry
(lllTKi#)- Eliot and Pound (2007) made a brilliant point when explaining why poets like Bian find ‘an old friend’ in Symbolism. When talking about imagery, Pound referred frequently to images in classical Chinese poetry and even emphasised the Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei’s modernity and his resemblance to the French Symbolists by calling him ‘the real modern-even Parisian-of VIII cent. China—’ (Eliot and Pound 2007: 154). For Pound, the terms ‘modern’ and ‘modernity’ do not necessarily point to the West.
Sensibility, therefore, plays a vital role in Bian’s pre-war poetry. Though writing about his true emotions, Bian rarely employs a direct, subjective expression. Moreover, despite his appreciation of the ‘beauty of intelligence’ (Bian 1936: n.p.) in his poems, he seldom writes about his ideas in a direct and imposing style. The combination of abstract and concrete words in his poems is frequently used; sensibility has played a role in his poetry as much as in Wen Yiduo’s (0—j£), although the latter has claimed to be a disciple of the Imagists.
It is interesting to look at how private symbols carry Bian’s sensibility, especially with reference to his self-reflection and reviews from his close friends. Apart from the image of autumn, dusk and shadows analysed in the first segment of this chapter, in his footnotes of the poem ‘An Ichthyolite (ЙФЬТТ)’ he connects the line ‘I want the form of your embrace; I usually melt into the lines of w'ater (3£HWto Paul Eluard’s ‘L’Amoureuse’: ‘Elle a la forme de mes mains, elle a la couleur de mes yeux’. Bian (2002) wrote: ‘We also have Si Maqian’s “It is only to her lover that a woman devotes her beauty’” (p. 123). Compared to Eluard’s poem of pure expression of love for a woman, ‘An Ichthyolite’ endows the similar symbols with a dynamic role that goes beyond the image of a lover and points to the philosophical idea of relativity. Here, the symbols again become private to Bian and his Chinese readers.
In an article published in 1983, Bian’s friend, Wang Zuoliang (2005), compared the last line with the first three lines of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’: ‘Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky.’ Arguing that both poets use the road as a symbol of the poet’s state of mind, Wang (2005) admires the quality of ‘simplicity (of language) and close association (of symbols)’ in Bian’s ‘Return’. Moreover, Wang attributes these poetic qualities not to T. S. Eliot’s influences, but to the fact that Bian was ‘bred for years under the influence of classical Chinese Liishi and Jueja' (2005: 244). Tang Qi (®Iff), the representative figure of Les Contemporains, also known as ‘the Nine Leaves’ (ЛИч'гА) poets in the 1940s, also wrote that
Bian has absorbed the influence from the French Symbolists and the Modernists from England and America; with which, at the same time, he assimilated traditional Chinese philosophies and artistic creativity. He has developed a new path and crystalized his unique poetics.
(Tang 1990: 19)
Zhao Yiheng (ШШШ) (2013) praised Bian as the first Chinese poet to have
a similar spirit and poetics to T.S. Eliot and Valery that makes Bian Zhilin a poet that synchronizes himself with the literary trend of the world; no poet in the Crescent Moon Society acquires such strong modernity as he does.
The term ‘synchronize’ in Zhao’s critics resonates with Bian’s student Jiang Ruoshui’s (2000) passionate praise for his teacher’s successful reception of Western influences. Similar to Wang Zuoliang, both Zhao and Jiang benchmark classical Chinese poetic elements to those of Western poetry, hence the conclusion of the modern quality in Bian’s pre-war poetry. After almost a century of Bian’s utopian pursuit of modernity by constructing classical poetics in the name of French Symbolism, contemporary Chinese academics still have the perspective that is not so different from Bian and his peers: modernity equals a synchronisation with the West.
Both the ‘new path’ and the ‘style’ and ‘taste’ described what was truly modern about Bian’s pre-war poetry: the repressed and exiled Chinese poetics struggling to be reborn under the self-claimed Western style. Since the rebirth of Chineseness serves as the true goal of poetry, the classical Chinese elements inevitably modify the Western poetics. The Chinese poetics, as well as the true goal of poetry, was repressed and even disdained by Bian, however, thus creating an obstruction to him consciously seeing the transformation of Western poetics and the transition of classical Chinese poetics. This obstruction is reflected in a misplaced understanding: Bian saw his writing as an extension of the Western poetics, which justifies the poet’s construction of New Poetry that is new and Westernised.