2008-01-02

Lee Min-yung, poet

The Taiwanese poet Lee Min-yung is the subject of a story by Joyce Huang in the Taiwan Review (reprinted in Got Poetry?).

Lee stands as a leading light in the Taiwanese literary movement even though most of his own poems are written in Mandarin Chinese rather than Taianese, his mother tongue. Musicians here know Lee as the author of texts in several of Tyzen Hsiao's best known compositions, including 'Ah, Formosa!', the 1947 Overture and the Ilha Formosa Requiem.

'I was born in 1947 when the 228 Incident occurred. [228] marked a stark contrast between life and death,' Lee says. . . . 'But only in my late teens did I come to apprehend the post-228 societal abnormality, and become agonized by the fact that my predecessor generation of Japanese-educated poets was mostly silenced as a result of the official linguistic shift from Japanese to Mandarin.' Unimpressed by KMT propaganda, Lee was more inspired by the cultural legacy left by independent-minded Taiwanese writers such as Yang Kui (1905-1985), who protested oppression under both Japanese and KMT rule in his work. He also respected writers of his father's generation (mostly born in the 1920s) who struggled to overcome linguistic barriers so they could write well in Chinese.
Through these role models, Lee learned about the history of Taiwan, which was not even taught in local universities in 1970, when he became a history major at National Chung Hsing University in Taichung.

. . . .

Since 1971, he has introduced international poems to Taiwanese readers, focusing on the translation of works by contemporaries. He says he is inspired and moved by how 'free people can use literature as a tool to maintain their free minds in difficult circumstances.'

'My intention was to map Taiwan in a global context . . . instead of constraining Taiwan within the "Greater China" myth,' he says. Lee professes esteem for Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, who served in the Polish resistance during World War II and refused to bend to the will of the Communist Party during the Cold War.

Lee, a professor of literature at National Taipei Education University, is this year's recipient of the National Award for Arts in literature awarded by the National Cultural and Arts Foundation. Fired by the same independence of spirit as his French literary heroes, Andre Gide and Paul Valery, Lee has generally turned down government awards and projects.

This orientation began with his 1970 rejection of the Outstanding Young Poet award so he could remain soberly critical of the conservative establishment and politically advantaged groups.

Lee has accepted private awards in the past, including Wu Yung-fu's Cultural Criticism Award in 1990, Wu Cho-liu's New Poetry Award in 1992 and Lai Ho's Literature Award in 1998. He decided to accept the National Award for Arts this year because he thinks it highlights the contributions of his generation of post-war poets.

Lee will accept the award on their behalf.

The generation he honours is known amoung poets as 'the darkroom generation.' The designation itself comes from a poem Lee wrote in 1983: 'The Dark Room.' In it Lee describes the surreal quality of living in a world where reality is one thing and official 'truth' another.

It is a world
Fearful of bright thoughts
It blocks and silences
All the cries
Truth exists here
Only in its negative form
A tiny bit of light
Can destroy it all.

Poetry collections by Lee from the darkroom years include:

Our Island (1978)
A Flower on a Scorched Land (1979)
He Loves Birds (1981)
From the Window Behind the Iron Bar (1981)

Lee, father of two daughters, has maintained his distance from government projects in part by working as a teacher, copy editor and real estate manager while continuing to write. Even so, Taiwan's democracy period has seen him as prolific as ever. Collections published in more recent years:

Landscapes Under Martial Law (1990)
Inclining Island (1993)
Sonatas in the Soul (1999)
If You Ask (2001)
Congratulations to a brave artist.

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