Yang Wanli (1127–1206), commemorated as one of the "four masters" of Song Dynasty poetry, was one of the most widely read and influential of the Southern Song poets, although until extremely recently his works were largely ignored by Western scholarship.
Born in Jishui, Jiangxi province, Yang made his career as a bureaucrat, passing the Imperial examination in 1152 and holding several minor government posts.
But his true passion was poetry, which he fervently worked at throughout his life, writing thousands upon thousands of verses. In his early years he was associated with the "Jiangxi School" of poetry, and engaged in a long and systematic study of the poets of the past.
In 1162, however, he experienced a sort of poetic enlightenment at age 35, and burning more than 1000 of his early poetic works, he thereafter broke with the orthodoxies of the Jiangxi School, and pretty much all poetic orthodoxies he knew of, and advocated a fiercely spontaneous approach to poetry that emphasized creativity over mere craftsmanship, and defied deference to traditional poetic authorities.
For example, one practice that was very popular among Yang's contemporaries was following the rhyme schemes of famous master poets of the past. Yang however, reviled this practice, declaring that "Once poems start following the rhymes of the past, poetry is damaged."
Rather than aping the masters of the past, Yang favored focusing on genuine lived experience. He urged poets to eliminated poetic clichés, and argued that intuition and inspiration were more important than diligent practice and theoretical cogitation. In this vein, he wrote a famous poem on poetry:
What is poetry?
If you say it is simply a matter of words,
I will say that a good poet gets rid of words.
If you say it is simply a matter of meaning,
I will say that a good poet gets rid of meaning.
"But" you ask, "Without words and without meaning, where is the poetry?"
I reply, "Get rid of words and get rid of meaning, and there is still poetry.
Future poets would further refine Yang's ideas and push for even greater simplicity, understatedness, and avoidance of hidebound clichés. Later, in the Qing Dynasty, when Qing literary scholars evaluated the history of Chinese poetry, they faulted Yang's poems for their "crudity" by which they meant that his poems lacked a certain soaring quality and sense of erudition, but they declared that almost no one could match Yang's unconventional approach and startling spontaneity.