Willis Barnstone, editor & translator -->reviewed by John Derbyshire -->

The Belgian sinologist Pierre Ryckmans (pen-name “Simon Leys”) was once asked for his opinion of Mao Tse-tung’s poetry. He replied: “Well, if poetry were painting, I would say that Mao was better than Hitler … but not as good as Churchill.”

Ryckmans’ quip suggests the moral dilemma in confronting Mao’s poetry. Imagine yourself at an art show featuring numerous obscure painters. You spot a piece you rather like. On enquiry, you find that the price is acceptable but then, on the point of buying it, you learn that it is one of Hitler’s Vienna pieces. Do you withdraw from the purchase? Most of us would, I think.

What, then, of a poem...

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