Yang Mu is not only one of the greatest living poets and essayists in the Chinese language, but also an eminent scholar in Classical Chinese poetics and in various fields of research related to Classical Western literature. To him, there are no short cuts to true scholarship: he taught himself Old English in order to appreciate the epic poem Beowulf, Middle English in order to study works by Geoffrey Chaucer and his contemporaries, Classical Greek in order to acquaint himself with the works of Homer and Pindaros, and German in order to translate the first part of Ernst Robert Curtius’ monumental work Europäische Literatur und Lateinisches Mittelalter into Chinese. Masterpieces in both Chinese and Western literature have to some extent served as sources of inspiration for Yang Mu’s own poetry.
As a young man, Yang Mu wrote a series of fifteen essays under the title Letters to Keats. In this “correspondence” with the British poet, which mostly deals with the meaning of life and the condition of man, Yang Mu discusses themes such as Nature, Beauty, Love and Loneliness and the aesthetic and philosophical conceptions that characterize Romanticism. The final verses of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”─Beauty is Truth, truth beauty, that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know─may serve as motto for Yang Mu’s literary and scholarly works.
As an academic teacher, Yang Mu has endeavored to impress on his students the importance of investigating common denominators in Chinese and Western literary traditions. He is a stern master and stresses that poetry is a calling and that few are called. Lifelong devotion and hard work are required of anyone who answers the call. But the creation of genuine poetry also requires that insights and knowledge are paired with personal integrity and a high moral standing.
In several of Yang Mu’s poems, the elusive concepts of Time and Memory play important roles. Just before writing these lines I finished reading a draft translation into English of Yang Mu’s collection of essays entitled Memories of Mount Qilai, a key work in which the author recounts his formative years in his native Hualien. In this work, memory and identity are indelibly linked; subtle observations of inner states of mind and the outer world are captured in neo-classicist, poetically charged prose. A classic of autobiographical writing from Taiwan.───Göran Malmqvist (馬悅然)