Like many people my age who write poetry, I am occasionally uncomfortable being called a poet. The word strikes me as the description of an identity rather than an undertaking: it not only insinuates some level of achievement, it raises a set of expectations about how one might act or think. I get needled by other academics about the contradiction between being a poet and being a “law and order” type—more painfully, I’ve been a participating member of communities of young writers who are searching frantically for some kind of trouble to get into, some sliver of unexplored, consciousness-raising hedonism, an invented and externally legible uniqueness that justifies their art. Writers and readers both have a drive to see poets living out their poetry, or at least living in some way informed by their poetry, and one shape that expectation takes is some combination of the Romantics and the Beats: moony, unwashed, a bit stoned, a little mad, writing out a private drama. It makes sense, in this tradition, to reject any necessary connection between poetry and self-identity, especially considering that the average contemporary American poet of note is most likely a schoolteacher by trade, and can’t afford a life spent on the conceptual or practical edge.

I came to see this situation as an unnatural state of affairs, though, while translating the poetry and essays of Liu Xiaobo, 2010 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Jailed in 2008 for his role in drafting and circulating Charter 08, a petition to the Chinese government for political and social reform, he remains in the Jinzhou prison in Liaoning province. This is his fourth prison sentence; although he has been given many opportunities to claim asylum and protect himself from punishment, he has consistently chosen to stay in the People’s Republic, and embody his spoken ideology by remaining personally liable for what he publishes and teaches.

In addition to the essays that have made him famous, Xiaobo generally writes two kinds of poems. One, best represented in translation by Jeffrey Yang, is a series of poems written for the victims of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, often on the anniversaries of the event. The other is a series of poems addressed to Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia—a number of these appear in English at the end of Yang’s translation, as well as in the collection No Enemies, No Hatred, which I helped translate. The elegies for Tiananmen are persistent, ritual, endlessly harsh: they display not only the cruelty and excess of the government reaction to peaceful protest, but Liu’s own sense of responsibility, loss, and helplessness. He writes, “Even if I have the courage / to be jailed again / it isn’t courage enough / to dig up corpses from memory.”

Xiaobo’s poems to his wife, though, are the most illuminating to me. During some of his stays in prison, he was able to write and send hundreds of poems and letters to Xia. These poems waver between public documents and interpersonal contact. They wheedle playfully: “. . . think of me as a cigarette / now to light, now to rub out / go ahead, smoke!” They reach out: “One letter is enough / for me to transcend everything and face / you to speak.” They often seem, implicitly or explicitly, to apologize: “Beloved / my wife / in this dust-weary world of / so much depravity / why do you / choose me alone to endure.” But they remonstrate and mock, too: a poem on Kant is dedicated to “Xia, who has never read Kant.” Taken together, the poetry enacts a love in progress, a need, a selfless drive to care for and support the beloved that is deeply tied to a simultaneous, frightening urge to manipulate and transform him or her for self-serving purposes.

The reason to read Liu Xiaobo’s poetry is the life he leads outside that poetry: his actions make the straightforwardness and honesty that the poems strive for seem less like a stylistic affect, and more like an article of faith. If you trust Xiaobo—and he doesn’t flinch from self-criticism or self-mockery—the poems become a realist story about a middle-aged couple with a common love of nicotine, books, and travel, who are engaged in a daily struggle between their shared ideals and the shared cost of those ideals. Liu Xia has been under house arrest since 2010—during which she wrote a poem fragment translated here—even though she has never been charged with a crime; her brother Liu Hui was given a harsh 11-year sentence for fraud that many believe is further retribution against the family. Some accounts claim that Xiaobo is no longer allowed to write in jail, and contact between husband and wife is limited to monthly visits. Pinned by decades of this kind of treatment, in the prison quiet of the poems, Xiaobo wavers. He wants to be reassured, he wants to know that Xia will endure—in one poem, he calls her “a little knife” in a fantasy that inverts their great, shared helplessness.

In 2009, Liu Xia wrote, “I have not come to view Xiaobo as a political figure. In my eyes, he has always been and will always be an awkward and diligent poet.” “Awkward” and “diligent” in this sentence are words of praise: they are figured as actions. To be awkward means to sacrifice the shapely line or the best lyric turn for the closest truth or the most humane concept; to be diligent means to persist, to spare no effort. And “poet” seems simply to mean “someone who speaks.” In this context, the key question is no longer whether the craft of poetry must be formally or conceptually tied to experience, but what should we do as people and as poets. Perhaps I would have felt more satisfied with the possibilities for living a poet’s life in America if I had taken cues not from Plath or Berryman, but from Amiri Baraka and Adrienne Rich. This is an uncomfortable feeling, but it may be a good one: it refigures the source of my discomfort when someone refers to me offhandedly as a poet. The question is not what an observer might think about the meaning of the word “poet,” but rather, what do I have to do to make it feel right?

Updated December 4, 2013.