Wang Liru, PhD student, Department of Taiwan Culture, Languages and Literature, National Taiwan Normal University
With nary a superfluous word or phrase, Xu Daran’s poetry exhibits a sense of neatness and order, yet possesses boundless imagery. Xu Daran, the man, is much like his work – in the Poem 100 video series the laconic bard speaks of his experience of poetry and his own personal history. Hosted and directed by Huang Mingchuan, the documentary was conceived in 1999, when Huang and a group of poets sensed that the rise of digital media would diminish young people’s interest in poetry; hence, the director set out to create an audio-visual record of Taiwanese poets and poetry. From 2005 to 2008 Huang filmed one hundred poets reading and discussing their work, turning script into sound, re-presenting poetry’s music and rhythm in another medium.
Xu Daran is both a historian and a poet. Thus his work blends a poetic sensitivity to language with a deep concern for the history and people of Taiwan. In the documentary Xu reads his poems “Illegal Construction,” “Old Soldier a Long Way From Home,” “Desolation” and other works that show great compassion for the poor and downtrodden. In “Illegal Construction” Xu writes of a family evicted from home because the dwelling violates zoning ordinances, the poet sympathizing with the dispossessed and satirizing the police – henchmen of the powers that be – who drive people from their homes. “On the map of places I long for, Taiwan occupies a vast area,” Xu says. As a founding member of the Bamboo Hat Poetry Society, Xu is both a nativist and a modernist. “Road” and “Old Soldier a Long Way From Home” express tender concern for both Taiwanese history and life’s realities. In “Road,” a clear and concise poem of eight lines, the poet and his forebears all travel along the same thoroughfare – great-grandparents in a rickshaw, grandparents on a bicycle, father in a pedicab, the poet-narrator in an automobile – the progression a metaphor for Taiwan’s historical development. A classic poem of homesickness, “Old Soldier a Long Way From Home” combines a longing for home with war imagery, on the one hand enumerating elements of the old soldier’s history, and on the other employing warfare as a analogy for the silent pain of loneliness.
As a historian, Xu Daran exhibits rationality and humility; when discussing his literary work he displays sensitivity to and love for language. His command of other languages – English, French and Japanese – has nurtured the euphony of his poetic diction; his understanding of the scope and depth of history has fostered his concern for those near the bottom of the social hierarchy. This sense of duty and empathy are also apparent in Xu’s rich, prizewinning body of literary essays – taken together, Selected Essays of Xu Daran (2011) and Xu’s poetry are an important avenue for understanding both the writer’s emotional world and Taiwanese society as a whole.
Xu Daran reading his poems “Illegal Construction” and “Road,” from Poem 100: Xu Daran, a documentary film (Source: National Museum of Taiwan Literature)