A great deal of recent poetry history is captured in the lives and work of Bei Dao in China and Eliot Weinberger in the USA. Both have challenged accepted literary forms. Both have situated themselves as engaged citizens within the landscape and demands of the imagination.
For insight into Eliot's original thinking and work, there's an excellent interview on Jacket. For an overview of Bei Dao's career and its relation to China's developments we quote here 'A Biographical Note' written by Eliot Weinberger for The Rose of Time, New and Selected Works of Bei Dao:
Zhao Zhenkia was born in Beijing in 1949, less than two months before the birth of the People's Republic of China. From a formerly aristocratic, and later middle class family, he received an elite education until the Cultural Revolution closed down the school in 1966. He was sent into the countryside and worked for eleven years as a concrete mixer building roads and bridges and as a blacksmith.
Back in Beijing in the late 1970s, he and a group of young poets began writing in a way that was a conscious rejection of the folkloric and socialist realist literature that had been required by Mao Zedong since his famous speech in Yenan in 1942. (Though Mao, who wrote classical poems, made an exception for himself.) Their models were the translations written by an older generation of Chinese modernist poets who were not allowed to publish their own work, but who could translate poets with the proper political credentials -such as Lorca, Neruda, Alberti, Eluard, and Aragon- even though this work was radically different from officially accepted content and form. Curiously, and quite coincidentally, many of these same European and Latin American poets were, at the same moment, important influences on a new generation of American poets.
The young poets gave each other pseudonyms, as was common in the Chinese tradition. Zhao Zhenkai was called Bei Dao ('North Island') because he came from the north and his temperament was that of solitude. The poetry they wrote was imagistic, subjective, and often surreal. Although it had no overt political content, its assertion of individual sentiments and perceptions, of imagination itself, was considered subversive in a collectivist society. In 1978, their work became a kind of poetic conscience for the student demonstrations of the Democracy Movement. Bei Dao's 'The Answer' with its simple impassioned 'I -do-not- believe' was the movement's 'Blowing in the Wind', and it was reproduced on countless wall posters. The poets became pop stars, read to stadiums full of fans, and were chased down the street in scenes out of A Hard Day's Night.
The new poetry published in China's first samisdat magazine, Jintian (Today) edited by Bei Dao, was officially denounced during the so-called Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign as menglong. (The word literally means 'misty', but it does not have the same saccharine connotations in Chinese as it does in English: 'obscure' or 'vague' would be more exact.) Jintian was effectively shut down, but the young poets ironically and enthusiastically embraced menglong as the name for their movement.
'Obscure' -or as it is known in the West,'Misty'- poetry would remain the primary expression for the change of consciousness yearned for by the next generation of student demonstrations, those who occupied Tiananmen Square in 1989. I recall an interview with Wuer Kaixi, one of the student leaders, some months after the government massacre that ended the protest movement and sent many into prison and exile. Wuer, a largely uneducated peasant from the far west of China who had been given a scholarship to attend Beijing University, was asked where he had found his political ideas. He replied, 'I got them from reading the poetry of Bei Dao.'
Bei Dao himself happened to be in Europe giving readings at the time of the massacre. He knew that he could not return, and he has been in exile ever since, for many years in various countries of northern Europe (where, as he wrote, he had to speak Chinese to the mirror) and then in the United States. He supported himself by writing regular columns for Taiwanese newspapers, short-term residencies at remote colleges, and by giving readings around the world. For the first seven of those years, his wife and young daughter were not allowed to leave China, and he never saw them.
As is common with poets who became famous young, the appreciation of his work often seems to remain frozen in the early writing. But -as will be obvious from this selection spanning thirty years- Bei Dao is not the same poet that he was in his 'obscure' days. His work has grown increasingly complex, partly owing to his discovery, in exile, of the poetries of Paul Celan and Cesar Vallejo, who have become his kindred spirits, along with Osip Mandelstam, the Chuvash poet Gennadi Aygi, Tomas Transtromer, and, unexpectedly, Dylan Thomas.
By 1990, Jintian was revived a a forum for the Chinese diaspora, and it continues under Bei Dao's editorial direction. At this writing, while none of the other exiled writers have been given permission to visit or return, Bei Dao is still barred from entering China. Recently his books have been allowed to be published on the Mainland, where they have become best sellers, and somewhat surprisingly, he has been permitted to teach in Hong Kong, where he currently lives with his second wife, the editor and publisher Gan Qi, and their son. (Eliot Weinberger, September 2009)