Updated: May 13
By Tony Huang
Wu Sheng’s poetry collection My Village: Selected Poems 1972-2014, translated by John Balcom, is a testament to the power of the poet to illuminate social, economic, political, and environmental issues. Wu Sheng, who is a farmer, poet, essayist, and environmental activist, has been mapping the crises that face his Taiwan village through his poetry for over forty years. His writing has gained considerable recognition at home for its commitment to the island's environment, which is often at odds with Taiwan's neoliberal structures of globalization.
One of the most striking features of Wu Sheng’s poetry is its refusal to engage in the dense, nearly incomprehensible aestheticism produced by Taiwan's modernist writers. Instead, Wu writes in a direct and accessible style that eschews difficult language and affected existential angst. His nativist poems about his hometown that began appearing in the early 1970s were very different from the literary scene at the time. They were raw, unpretentious, and, most importantly, true to life.
Wu Sheng’s poetics do not only document the crises suffered by the countryside in Taiwan but also serve as metaphors for the crises suffered by Taiwan in general. The island's most intelligent and ambitious generation tends to be drawn away to the US, leaving behind the villages and creating a decline in Taiwan's economy and morale. In “You Too Have Left,” Wu speaks directly to someone who migrated to the US, someone who used to give the poet courage and hope. The poem is a lamentation of the declining Taiwanese villages and the decline of Taiwan as well. Wu promises to write for those who remain, those who still sweat in the fields, and still labor in the factories. In another of his poems, “American Citizenship,” he questions his older brother, a former village pride who gained US citizenship after graduating from a US university. Wu Sheng confronts him on how he is faring in the US and whether his conscience is bothering him given that he left their poor mother behind.
Wu Sheng's poetics bears the evident and captivating fragrances of soil and rural life. His upbringing in rural Taiwan has bestowed upon his poetry a captivating quality. In his poem "The Poems Father Occasionally Writes," Wu Sheng details his struggles to pen apt poetry, providing glimpses into his attempts to construct verses that avoid heroic claims while also presenting rhythms that avoid being overtly ostentatious. It appears that Wu Sheng always strives to fulfill his role as a farmer-poet who accentuates the rawness of language which accurately captures the village experience and is drawn from the fields or conversations in local stores. In line with this, Wu Sheng's poetry resembles the rural areas he grew up in- minimalistic, grounded, and sincere. Unadorned lines represent closely-knit community relationships, speech patterns reflective of modest lifestyles. In a way, his poems carry the essence of rural life, devoid of any pretentious or affected expressions, thus highlighting the natural eminence of that environment.
Wu Sheng's talent as a poet seems to come at a cost, as he is aware of the toll that the art can take on people’s lives. In his poem "Cold Night," he portrays the sadness and even poverty that often encompasses the life of a poet. Wu cautions his children, warning them to avoid pursuing poetry because of its propensity to breed loneliness, failure and despair. However, despite this warning, Wu's passion for poetry remains undeterred. His undiminished persistence and aesthetics of poetry are consistently reflected throughout his collection, spanning a period of over four decades. In this context, Wu's warning could not simply be regarded as a monition. His insight on the gloom and social dislocation associated with this form illustrates how poetry serves as a kind of afflictive pleasure whose enjoyment frequently comes with a price. The heed for one's passions and vocation has strong undercurrents within Wu's poetry, similar to Oscar Wilde's contention that "all art is quite useless." Thus, Wu's poetry bears witness to his passion for the craft and his understanding of the pain that can come with following one's vision, despite potential challenges.
Notably, Wu Sheng intentionally distances himself from the modernist poetics of his contemporaries. He is a poet whose work is imbued with the ethos of a farmer’s life. To him, real poetry exists and grows from the field. His philosophical and aesthetic views on poetry are vividly epitomized in his poem “I Won’t Discuss It with You,” where he highlights that genuine poetry roots itself in the heart of living realities. Instead of engaging in ostentatious and convoluted metaphors found in modernist poetry, Wu Sheng would like to bring his poet friends who are acquainted with modernist philosophizing on a walk through the broad fields draped with young sprouts, a humble beginning where flora sways in stillness as natural forces nurture it to vitality.
Wu Sheng's poetry emanates the essence of rural culture in Taiwan, underscoring the significance of rural places, modest processes, homely persons, and rustic humor. Indeed, his verse often captures quotidian living enriched by music and poetry, nutty peanut snacks, sweet rice wine, wooden benches, the trials of ox-cart roads, and innumerable stories that shape rural life. Nonetheless, embedded within his poetry is a subtle hint of distrust of industry and sophisticated city life akin to the likes of Henry David Thoreau. Wu is fully alert of conventional urbanism concerns such as societal risks posed by industrialization and environmental degradation that enhance crises confronting Taiwan's rural locations. Wu’s commitment to rural Taiwan is prevalent throughout his work, providing a refreshing contrast to other poets who glorify rapid modernization. The fundamental question presiding and nearly piercing throughout the entirety of Wu Sheng’s work is whether Taiwan can rectify the consequences of industrialization and embrace a new system that nurtures Taiwan's countryside and respects its vibrant life force.
It is clear that John Balcom, the translator, had superior skills that were crucial in the production of Wu Sheng's translated poems. Balcom's exceptional ability to produce a translation that preserves the original's artful simplicity, while also achieving a smooth flow of the text, is truly impressive. His proximity to Taiwan's cultures, languages, and dialects served him well in capturing subtle nuances and shades of meaning that aren't easily discernible to readers of a foreign tongue. Though there were a handful of inconsistencies in the translation, they were relatively minor, including a misstatement in “Wheels,” where the English version incorrectly mentioned a "farmer’s co-op" instead of the school where the narrator taught. In the third line of the second stanza of “Animal Spirit Tablet,” there was an instance where the translator misunderstood the narrator's suggestion to the ghosts of butchered animals to take the butcher's sacrifices. These minor issues barely detract from the overall quality and are mere blemishes in an otherwise perfect representation of Wu Sheng's work in English.
Tony Huang is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Hong Kong Review. He is also the founder of Metacircle Fellowship, Metacircle (Hong Kong) Culture and Education Co., Ltd. and Metaeducation. He works as a guest-editor for SmokeLong Quarterly. His poems and translations have appeared in Mad Swirl, The Hong Kong Review, The Best Small Fictions Anthology Selections 2020, Tianjin Daily, Binhai Times, SmokeLong Quarterly, Nankai Journal, Large Ocean Poetry Quarterly, Yangcheng Evening News and other places. He teaches British and American literature and literary theories at Nankai University.
Copy Editor: Nancy He