Stagnant Water & Other Poems is a new translation by poet Robert Hammond Dorsett of Wen’s landmark second collection. For many, this volume will serve as an introduction to Wen’s influential work.
The temptation, when evaluating a poet gunned down by his government, is to start there, with the politics that led to his murder. But Wen Yiduo (1899-1946) was much too complex and heterodox to comfortably wear the martyr’s robe, his works too nuanced and unsettled to be a paragon of any revolution. His poems explore religion and rickshaws, contain the chrysanthemums of Chinese folklore and the mud of contemporary times, and dare readers to challenge prevailing conceptions, even to render their own cynicism as hope. Mao blamed the Nationalists for Wen’s death, thus elevating him to something like mythic status, yet the poet needed no such validation. He resisted easy classification. He was a writer whose ballast was in ideas and logic, while remaining fresh to the point of innovation. In Dorsett’s interpretation, we revel in the details of Wen’s work: lyric, ironic, passionate, and above all, politically aware but ideologically free. It represents a long overdue attempt to bring international attention to one of China’s preeminent 20th-century writers.
Audience: poets, translators, and students of Chinese language, literature, politics, and history.
About the Author
Wen Yidou (1899-1946), poet
The son of a well-to-do Hubei family and a product of its privileged status, he was introduced to the West at an early age, eventually studying western painting in Chicago and New York from 1922-25. It was during this time that his first collection of poetry, Hongzhu (Red Candle) was published. Upon his return to China, he became a university professor, a leading literary critic and scholar, and soon an outspoken critic of the Nationalists. His speeches became more political and defiant as the army’s suppression of student demonstrations became bloodier. On June 6, 1946 at 5pm, after stepping out of the office of the Democratic Weekly, Wen Yiduo died in a hail of bullets. Mao blamed the Nationalists, and thus Wen was transformed into a paragon of the revolution. Stagnant Water and Other Poems is Wen’s second and final collection.
Robert Hammond Dorsett, translator
Robert Dorsett studied Chinese at the Yale-in-China Program at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. He received an M.D. degree from the State University of New York and completed his training in pediatrics at Cornell. He also has an M.F.A. degree from New York University, where he subsequently taught creative writing. Robert has translated many individual poems and essays from the Chinese. With David Pollard, he translated the memoirs of Gao Ertai, In Search of My Homeland: A Memoir of a Chinese Labor Camp (HarperCollins 2009). Stagnant Water is his second book of translations. He has also published his own poetry in The Literary Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. Formerly a senior physician at Kaiser Hospital Oakland, he now writes full time.
Huang Xiang, calligrapher
After numerous imprisonments in China due to his advocacy for human rights, and with his work banned there until recently, poet and master calligrapher Huang Xiang left his homeland and became the first writer in residence at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh (2004-06). During his stay there, he created “House Poem” on the façade of the program’s headquarters on Sampsonia Way. He also published Pittsburgh Dream Nest Jotting, a book of Chinese language essays on his experiences in Pittsburgh. City of Asylum/Pittsburgh also commissioned a translation of Mr. Huang’s poetry, A Lifetime is a Promise to Keep: Poems of Huang Xiang, published by the University of California Press in 2008. More recently, Huang has collaborated with American painter William Rock on their “Century Mountain Project.”
Praise for Stagnant Water & Other Poems…
“Wen Yiduo is an exquisite poet, one of modern China's best. Only a poet can do justice to translating poetry, and Robert Dorsett does justice.” — Perry Link, University of California, Riverside
“The virtue of this translation is that it offers a dance, which preserves the essence of the original. Robert Hammond Dorsett is comfortable with the outward trappings of meter and rhyme, devising elegant solutions at every turn and turning.” — From the Foreword by Christopher Merrill, International Writing Program, University of Iowa
“Robert Dorsett's versions of Wen Yiduo give us access to a writer whose poems feel like fresh air. These translations express beautifully the poet's passionate restraint, his exactitude, and his struggle toward self-definition, the sublime and the mysterious.” — Marvin Bell