There are no hints in Yi Sha’s poetry, no over-reliance on the imagination of his readers to make something out of next to nothing. He writes what he has to say with minimal linguistic fuss, with economy. “My language is naked”, he claims, and perhaps it is—if we take “dressing” to mean a form of artificial ornamentation.
Yi Sha’s poetry can be thought of an “objective correction” to the subjective excesses of Chinese poetry in the first half of the 1980s, when language and individual psychology were energetically explored by many writers. Poetry in Yi Sha’s mind becomes a place for bare facts, not nuances. He outlines his approach to poetry in the preface to his most recent collection of poetry:
While the speciousness of language and the relocation (or dislocation) of the emotions can create a kind of free-floating [fapiao] poetic quality, what I demand (demand of every poem of mine) is a complete and utter factual poetic quality. On this point, I do not resemble a poet at all—I am more like an engineer.
Why an engineer? Perhaps because Yi Sha insists on solid structure (if such a thing is possible in language) rather than emotional drift. In many of his poems, a teasing, poetic drama is played out. A poetic topic is raised, inviting a predictable emotional response. Yi Sha then dextrously subverts this response and, in doing so, tries to lead his reader towards something less stereotypically “lyrical”, something grounded in everyday, ordinary reality. A good example of this strategy can be found in the poem “Suicide Kid”:
we saw him again
alone in the glow of the setting sun
sitting on the grass
pointing the pistol at himself
he put it in his mouth
with total concentration
no longer interested in us
there’s something strange about that kid
you said I knew
what you meant
but since he lived next-door to me
I knew what was really going on:
every time he went out to play
his mother would fill his water-pistol
this fact from you
in case you were disappointed
The poet protects the “you” in this poem from the less emotive but highly idiosyncratic explanation of the events they have witnessed. The reader, however, is let into the secret. The message is a simple one: don’t jump to (romantic), preconceived ideas about the world; get to the truth—a truth that can have an unsuspected force all of its own.
Another feature of Yi Sha’s work is its ability to express the response of the poet to events through a seemingly banal or irrelevant detail. In “The One Face I Remembered”, a poem about the death of his mother, he focusses on the ugly face of a man who worked at the place (in the Chinese, it is actually referred to as a “factory”) where the remains of his mother were cremated. By concentrating on this fact, Yi Sha is able to keep all sentimentality at a distance. At the same time, this detail is able to convey something of what the poet was feeling at the time, but without any explicit statement.
Another example of the “banal detail” at work appears in the short poem on Vincent van Gogh:
in an art book
I came across
two paintings by Van Gogh
they hadn’t been mounted on bank notes
these two celebrated works
were unremarkable paintings
one was called Gaugin’s Chair
was called Van Gogh’s Chair
although I didn’t go so far
as to buy the book
so moved by what I saw
that I was like
“a chariot driven south
to get north”
and I caught the wrong trolley bus
Rather than try and explain his feelings with after-thoughts inspired by a desire to appear “sensitive”, the poet allows his feelings to speak for themselves in the fact that his familiar routine was completely upset by whatever it was he experienced.
In 2003, I was fortunate to spend two weeks with Yi Sha, travelling to various cities in the west of China. I’ve never met anyone who lived poetry so constantly: he talked about it almost the whole time! On his name card, it says: Yi Sha (Poet). His commitment to the art is incredible. This commitment also applies to his reading of other poet’s work. In conclusion, I’d like to finish off this brief introduction with his advice on how to read:
How does one determine a poet’s “ranking”. I myself follow these three steps: (step 1) I read three of the poet’s most representative poems; (step 2) for those poets that make it through the first stage, I go and read an entire collection of theirs; (step 3) for those who make it past this stage, I go and read all the poetry they’ve ever written. Following this procedure, it becomes obvious what their ranking is. I should add while we’re on the subject, that I appraise my own work in the same way, and make identical demands on myself.
Esi de shiren Poets Starved to Death (poems, 1994)
Yi Sha shixuan Yi Sha's Poems (poems, 2003)