Poems Are the Mark of the Everyday: Xiang Yang at the Fourth Sing Chu Literature Lecture (Part 1)
By Quek See Ling
“Poetry is the sound of silence. Even in the noisiest streets, it is possessed of thunderous silence.” The sweltering 35 degrees Celsius heat in Singapore was almost unbearable. But 24 March 2018 saw the arrival of both a poet and the rain, as though a poetic wind was sweeping through the city state.
Despite the sudden downpour, over 200 members of the public made their way to the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts’ Lee Foundation Theatre to attend the fourth edition of the Sing Chu Literature Lectures. Titled “Time, Space, and the Human World—Poetry and the Everyday”, this year’s lecture featured Xiang Yang, renowned Taiwanese poet and a professor at the National Taipei University of Education Graduate School of Taiwanese Culture. Joining him on stage for the dialogue segment of the event was Associate Professor Tan Chee Lay, a local poet who is the Executive Director (Research & Development) of the Singapore Centre for Chinese Language at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), and Acting Deputy Head at NTU’s Asian Languages & Cultures (ALC) Academic Group.
Engravings: Time, Space, and the Human World
Xiang Yang explained that the topic of his lecture originated from the Chinese concept of “heaven, earth, and man”. The loneliness and unease of man existing between the heaven and the earth led to insights that further developed into sentiments which the artists incorporated into their works to bring heaven, earth, and man together. Hence, the body may perish but art persists, and “poetry will testify to your existence”.
Referring to Zhuangzi, Xiang Yang situated poetry in the everyday. Poetry is omnipresent, found in even the smallest things, such as sweat and tears. At the age of 13, he developed a passion for contemporary poetry, but the book that set him down this path was Qu Yuan’s Li Sao. Xiang Yang would copy, memorise and recite the verses and classical poems, vowing to become a poet. In the short span of nine years, he succeeded, releasing his first collection of poetry, Looking Up at the Maidenhair Tree, at the age of 22. The collection included two decastich poems and dialect poems, respectively reflecting the poetry and political correctness in Taiwan then, and the experimental character of contemporary poetry. Xiang Yang’s poetry emphasises rhythm: “The practice, tuning and mastery of rhythm, these are what I demand of myself in writing poetry.” As such, many of Xiang Yang’s poems have been adapted into songs by well-known musicians.
Subsequently, Xiang Yang collected his decastich poems in a single volume in 1984, and in 1985, released a series of Taiwanese Hokkien poems in The Song of the Earth. Laughing, he recounted how Taiwanese Hokkien poems were banned during that era, but have since become venerated and canonised, taught in high school textbooks today. In 2016, he won in the Best Lyrics category at the Golden Melody Awards with “Dad’s Lunchbox”. Xiang Yang explained that his original motive in writing this Taiwanese Hokkien poem was just to give his father a voice through poetry, while also using it to explore his father’s life.
(Translated by Daryl Li)