The Art of Poetry
— A Conversation between Vera Schwarcz and Yidan Han
Yidan: Avant-garde poets are now exploring new poetry languages, new ways of thinking, and new ideas. How to explore the freshness in our writing is always a question. I think it can be explored in two aspects: First, a poet should explore new ideas and feelings. A poet should see what other people cannot see, feel what other people cannot feel, and tell what other people cannot tell. A poet must bring to readers the possibilities of a new angle of vision. He must avoid clichés. Second, a poet should explore new ways to articulate his feelings.
Vera: As a poet, I look for the sharp edge of a word, how it can cut through perception knife-like, to the core of a vision, even an idea. Where does a poet get the sharpening-stone for her or his craft? Careful observation of details. I, personally, find that reading poems in other languages adds a whole new angle, a new blade to my poet's knife. Chinese poems, especially, cut through ideas, moods, feelings just by the dense allusions in a single character.
Yidan: We have all benefited from reading poems in other languages. Influenced by classical Chinese poetry, contemporary Chinese poets pay great attention to artistic conception. Their poems are magnificently conceived with dense images. They borrow ideas, experiences and also images from classical Chinese poetry. They also borrow ideas and images from American and English poetry which pay great attention to details. The ways of thinking of east and west are very different from each other—that is the significance of the poetry exchange. Besides, the language and images of contemporary Chinese poetry are very different from that of classical Chinese poetry. A poem belongs to its era.
Vera: Maybe we build too many walls around "cultures." We imagine differences between them to be sky high. Imagine, we think that "a poem belongs to its era" like a baby to its mother. Maybe the sayable and the imaginable knows no cultural boundaries, maybe a poet wakes to a fresh morning and hears only the howl of his own soul and cannot help but find some words for that cry. Our "era" is not like a kind mother. We must find inspiration between the lines, between cultures, between languages.
Yidan: As I always say, poets understand one another. We are not writing something as our ancestors wrote, especially in terms of form. Our “era” is a mixed up monster. Yet poets can find inspiration from anywhere, and anything—landscapes, or the everyday life. A poet hears whispers or howls from his heart. A poet discovers the sayable and the unspeakable. A great poem belongs to a great poet. No matter if it is a surreal poem, a lyrical poem, or a collage. Form is not important sometimes, yet the combination of the new form and new images can create a great poem.
Vera: I like the old Chinese expression for poets' understanding one another: "zhi yin"—to know the "music" of another mind, sometimes without words. You write about the poet hearing whispers and howls. Ginsberg howled, and it lasted for decades…Speaking about surreal, I was musing on one Chinese word today: "mo"—meaning multiple paths, "mo sheng" comes to mean "stranger," "weird"—as if a multiplication of paths and visions strains the mind's eye out of familiar contexts. Maybe that is what poets do best: defamiliarize the familiar.
Yidan: Absolutely. “defamiliarize the familiar” is a good note for poetry. How to write something new, different from the familiar? The way of thinking is important. Nature is a huge garden, in which we can find many treasures. Emily Dickinson found them. Robert Frost found them. And we all found them. Some poets tend to express their angst and anguish, while some others make explorations of pleasure and delight. The grey area is where angst, anguish, pleasure and delight all exist, with mixed color. Anguish can make a great poet, yet a great poet may not necessary be anguished.
Vera: You are so right. Our so called "modern era" has glorified anguish too much. A great poet need not be anguished. What carries the poem farthest is the depth that the poet excavated in language and thought. The gift of the traditional Chinese poets was the very absence of the "I" word—they let nature speak for them. They robed themselves in the sounds of autumn, in the icy blossoms of winter plum. Some mornings, I make myself just hear, silently. Poets are word-obsessed. The room between words is just as precious.
Yidan: Silence is precious, so is the music from Nature. I feel that the heart is like a mirror which reflects the real world, and language is the light reflected by the mirror. And poetry is that language. Contemporary Chinese poetry highlights the “I” word, and contemporary American poetry highlights it as well. To me, every poem is an epiphany and we all have dialogues with Nature.
Vera: I like the idea of poetry as reflected light! There is a modesty embedded here—not to mistake our words, for the wordless realities of nature, history, grief, silence. To use the "I" word is to acknowledge the seer, the one who makes use of reflected light. It enforces linguistically the humility that good poetry should convey. Making do with fragmentary visions may be a poet's best way to hear what you call the fulsome "music of Nature."
Yidan: Today I read Emily Dickinson again. As we know, Dickinson lived in almost total physical isolation from the outside world. Her inspiration came from her love to life and Nature. She demonstrated that a quite, passionate soul would create great works. Some people asked me: How to find a quiet desk in the world now? It is true that we might not hear gunshots from far away, yet we can still look at the world around us, let our hearts be peaceful and quiet for a while. Imagine if all of us pay more attention to Nature…I feel that the fortune that Dickinson brought to us is the thoughts about love and death. When our thoughts go depth, we know what we are doing and we can write something better than we used to write.
Vera: I agree: Dickinson is the explorer of hidden depth and the art of standing still. To know they are connected is to know something important about the art of poetry. I think too much has been written about Emily’s physical isolation. Maybe it was a posture, a myth in the making. For us, in the 21st century, with the deafening noise of the world all around, her isolation grows in significance. It attracts us because isolation maps an inner space which we lose so often in the noises of what you call gun shots—but may more likely be endless web chatter...The question remains: how to guide out thoughts to unexplored depths and how to come up with fresh language for old aches, old dreams, old longings. Nature may seem like the place to start. Dickenson seems ever fresh and reviving, even in the dead of winter. Just think of her two favorite words: Depth and Death. In English, they are only one letter apart! For Dickinson, they both held huge attraction, they were words/ideas consciously linked for a poet’s insights. One of my favorite poems is:
I died for Beauty—but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When one who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room—
He questioned softly "Why I failed?"
"For Beauty," I replied—a
"And I—for Truth--Themselves are One—
"We Brethren are," He said—
and so as Kinsmen met at Night—
We talked between the Rooms—
Until the Moss had reached our lips—
And covered up-- our names—
There is so much more in this poem than the old adage that Truth and Beauty are one. Dickinson had the courage to seem them both conversing. The broken lines, the odd capitalization of nouns, the nervous dashes—these are a skilled poet's tools and they send our thoughts chasing into new directions.
Yidan: This poem, like many of Dickinson’s poems, uncovers the invisible, artistic truth with expressive language and simple syntax. Death is shockingly beautiful in this poem. And her imagination leads the poem to a depth, a splendid grayness. When we turn around from the dreamy Nature, if we happen to stand on the mountain of the century, what do we see? People happy and unhappy, worried and isolated, and people in agony, starvation and struggle. Life is short, like a butterfly that lives for only several months after it struggles out from its chrysalis. Everyone is such a butterfly in the endless river of history. On the other hand, I don’t think it matters if a poem is about a cloud, or death, or global warming. If we go back to our souls, ignoring the chaos, we will possibly rush into something that surprises ourselves: the secrets of our souls. The destination of the soul will never be revealed until we reach it.
Vera: I appreciate the idea of poetry as destination of the soul. This is an old theme that you and Dickinson put forth with bracing freshness. It made me thing of the Hebrew expression "shir" which combines “song,” “poem” and soul destination. This is what gives power to the many layered themes of the Shir Ha Shirim, Song of Songs—where lovers descend into gardens/nature to refresh their vision of each other and of the inner self. If poetry manages to touch the soul, it carries what you call "artistic truth." This veracityh must be crafted by ignoring chaos, by overcoming disorder with well chosen words. If poet views her craft as polishing stones, she may acquire the patience to outwit chaos. The "art" of poetry is really in the craft, in the daily, hard work at polishing the gem that is language. Dickinson was a master of this craft. Even as she capitalized Beauty and Truth, she gave them new facets, new sounds, new darkness underground. The poet lives in many worlds, many temporalities at once. A good poem is an amazing thing: it can actually stop the baffling babble of history for a moment. It creates its own stillness for writer and reader alike.
Yidan: You talk about poet’s craft as “polishing stones,” that reminds me of what Robert Frost said: “There are two types of realists: the one who offers a good deal of dirt with his potato to show that it is a real one, and the one who is satisfied with the potato brushed clean. I'm inclined to be the second kind. To me, the thing that art does for life is to clean it, to strip it to form.” I agree that the “brushed clean potato” is what poets need.
Vera: You speak of potatoes and dirt. I imagine traces of soil beneath the fingernails as the poet taking time to brush clean a lowly vegetable. Nothing is too lowly for the poet's gaze, for the poet's art. This is true not just Robert Frost, but also for you and me—especially when we try to take something rough, difficult and even painful into the tight music of our poems. I always wonder: How can a poet make room for the world in our very narrow lines? How can we make room in our work events such as September 11th (which are so huge and fiery that they could burn up the words we use)? Yet, somehow, good poets manage to take it all in and to expand the soul of humanity in the process. If the polishing of self and words works, then, as Galway Kinnell phrased it "each life, put out, lies down within us." The more I think about it the more I Imagine poetry (and the poet) as a vessel, as a capacious ancient Chinese bronze urn that contains what seems un-say-able in the ordinary words.
Yidan: A poem begins with an impulse. It is important for a poet to learn how to blend passion with expressive words. A poet should learn the way of thinking and improve the ability to use language. Language is powerful if we know how to rein it. Writing, observing, meditating, poets challenge their work and the understanding of other people. On the other hand, I think a poet needs to keep his distance from his own poems. He should leave more space for meditation.
Posted January 10, 2007. Update July 3, 2007
Born in Romania, Vera Schwarcz is a poet and a historian. She is the author of seven books, including the prize-winning Bridge Across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory (Yale University Press, 1999) and two books of poetry, A Scoop of Light (March Street Press, 2000) and In The Garden of Memory collaboration with Israeli artist Chava Pressburger (March Street Press, 2004). Schwarcz teaches Chinese history at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and lives in West Hartford with her husband and daughter. Her poems appeared in: Ekphrasis, Taproot Review, Seneca Review, Common Ground Review and Voices Israel.
薇拉-施娃茨的中文名为舒衡哲, 生于罗马尼亚, 犹太人, 现任教于美国康州威斯理安大学, 并从事中国现代史研究。1980年曾作为首批美国留学生在北京大学中文系学习。她曾出版过七本书。
Yidan Han is the author of two books of poetry Standing against the Wind (1993) and Selected Poems of Green Voice (2004, bilingual). She is the editor of The PoetrySky Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Poetry (2005-2006) (PoetrySky Press, 2007) and a coauthor of the first Dictionary of Rhetoric (2000) in China and other four academic books in expounding classical Chinese poetry. She grew up in Fujian, China and has been using Green Voice as her pen name to publish her Chinese poems since 1985. Her Chinese and English poems have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies in China, United States, Singapore and the Philippines, including The Providence Journal, Colorado Review, Shi Kan, The Epoch Poetry Quarterly, and she has received a number of poetry awards in China and the US. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of poetrysky.com and the bilingual poetry quarterly Poetry Sky. She is a member of International Pen—American Center (Pen.org) and lives in Providence, Rhode Island.