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Thursday, September 21, 2017

"On Poetry" by Ai Weiwei

AI Weiwei's "On Poetry" can be found here [link]

on the transportive quality of poetry


The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's short statement on poetry found in an issue of Poetry Magazine from a couple of years back was recently brought to my attention. As statements on poetry go I don't think much of it: it's disjointed and a bit pell-mell, and mostly empty rhetoric. But at a couple of places, if we take Ai's words at face value, accept them as they are written, there may be something interesting to be found.

Beginning with the statement in the second paragraph.

Reading Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca, and Vladimir Mayakovsky at a young age, I discovered that all poetry has the same quality. It transports us to another place, away from the moment, away from our circumstances.

That is a very often seen claim for poetry, that it "transports us to another place." Unfortunately, it's also a very common claim for prose fiction, which right off the top should make the claim suspect as to its value as regards poetry.

And then we also can consider this:

One gloomy January day in 1863, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, the world's wealthiest and most celebrated painter, dressed himself in the costume of Napoleon Bonaparte and, despite the snowrall, climbed onto the rooftop balcony of his mansion in Poissy.

That's the opening sentence to Ross King's The Judgment of Paris, a book about the rise of Impressionism in painting. It is presenting historical, verifiable fact. And yet, it also can be said to "transport us to another place," making the claim not only trivial about poetry, but one that can't even be limited to literature.

And if you think that, in being a history, The Judgment of Paris holds a kind of kinship to literature, I give you this.

A point is that which has no parts, or which has no magnitude.
A line is length without width.
The extremities of a line are points.

That's the opening to Euclid's Elements (trans. I. Todhunter). It's not even a narrative and yet I would argue that for anyone who can engage the text it too "transports" the reader "away from the moment, away from our circumstances."

My point: any text that engages the reader "transports" the reader. As such, being transportive cannot be considered a defining quality of poetry. Indeed, I argue that Ai's statement is an absolutely trivial claim, something that says, when given any thought, nothing about poetry qua poetry.

Indeed, when push comes to shove, I'm not sure I can even accept it as true. Look at this moment by one of the writers Ai lists as being transportive, Walt Whitman.

The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,
The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,
The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon are ready,
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,
The deacons are ordain'd with cross'd hands at the altar,
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,
The farmer stops by the bars as he walks on a First-day loafe and looks at the oats and rye, (Song of Myself, the opening to §15)

I would argue the intent of Whitman here is not to transport the reader but to ground the reader in quotidian existence. The sound of the carpenter's foreplane "whistl[ing] its wild ascending lisp" is not mean to reveal something new but is meant to be immediately recognizable.

Now, it might be argued that since the section from Whitman does not "transport" the reader it is not truly poetry, which is an argument I would be willing to entertain. (Though, in context, I believe Whitman is attempting to ground the reader in every day reality so that he may then make a statement about every day reality, a statement that might be considered poetic.) As such, it is possible to argue that while saying that poetry transports the reader tells us nothing, saying that if a text doesn't transport the reader it is not poetry (at least to that reader) could have some merit.

But by recognizing that the idea of "transporting the reader" is not in any way a quality specific to poetry, we come to a conclusion that might be of no small value to the pop discourse on poetry: namely, if you are trying to describe or define poetry, the idea of transport should be left out.

But that is prompts no small question: how does one define poetry if the idea of "transport[ing] us to another place, away from the moment, away from our circumstances" is not to be part of that definition?

Ai makes two statements in what follows that might be used as efforts toward an answer to that question. The first is in the fourth paragraph.

In engaging social media and the forms of communication it makes possible, again and again we find ourselves deeply moved with emotion. By anger, joy, even feelings that are new and indescribable. This is poetic.

Taking the language on its face the poetic is nigh defined as that which moves us with deep emotion – it need not even be made of words. Now, hopefully, most of you will in your thinking about poetry have already rejected this idea. To give you the classic refutation, I can bite your ear and move you to "deep emotions" and there will be nothing "poetic" to be found. This is what gets us to the idea of dead puppy poetry: just because the idea of dead puppies is (generally) emotional, does not mean your writing about dead puppies is in any way poetry. It may be that all true poetry generates in the reader an emotional response of some sort or the other, but in no way need that experience be "deep," and in no way is that experience a defining characteristic of poetry.

The second statement – the final paragraph – is more interesting, though we have to clean it up a bit.

To experience poetry is to see over and above reality. It is to discover that which is beyond the physical, to experience another life and another level of feeling. It is to wonder about the world, to understand the nature of people and, most importantly, to be shared with another, old or young, known or unknown.

Most of that – specifically from "to experience" on – can be discarded through the same arguments as used above. The interesting statements are in the first part.

To experience poetry is to see over and above reality. It is to discover that which is beyond the physical,

Now, it is quite possible, and I totally permit this to be true, that by "over and above reality" Ai means something in the nature of looking at the world from above, from a third person perspective, a perspective that pulls us outside of ourselves, a perspective that permits engagement with what is happening below, but nonetheless a perspective that falls in line with what Ai has presented thus far: poetry as (thusly) transporting and emotional. (It might be argued that this reading is affirmed by the phrase in what follows, that poetry is "to understand the nature of people.")

However, it is possible to read the opening of the paragraph a different way: taking "over and above reality" as meaning pulling the reader outside of the known, outside of our rational, categorical experience of reality, into a different kind of thinking, a different kind of engagement with the world (as generated through the poetic text). What does that mean? One way to explore the idea is to ask yourself: What is poetry if it cannot be defined either through the idea of "transport" nor of "emotion"?

Now, one answer to that question is to ignore the ideational entirely and define poetry as a language object that is written with verseform (and some will say – and do say – that poetry is defined even more strictly as a language object written in a formal structure). That answer rests the definition of poetry entirely within the material. But should we – or, even, can we – remove the ideational so cleanly? It seems to me the very history of poetry speaks the opposite: that the meat and measure of poetry lies not in the material but in the ideational. Though not exclusively: the material is still a factor. The two spectra of language – the material aspect (moving from prose to verse) and the ideational aspect (moving from the prosaic to the poetic) – must both be taken into account. For while all true poetry is poetic, not all things poetic need be true poetry. There is such a things as poetic prose (examples are Nightwood, Mrs. Dalloway, Funeral Games). Thus, if we are to find a definition for true poetry it should include the material: true poetry has verseform. However, in the same manner while all true poetry is verse, not all verse is true poetry. There is such a thing as prosaic verse. Indeed, the vast majority of the verse published today is prosaic verse, not what I would call true poetry at all.

True poetry is poetic verse. But, pulling us back to Ai's statement, what is "poetic"? What is the quality of the poetic that distinguishes it from the prosaic? What distinguishes true poetry from non-poetry? Not, as we have seen, the transportive. The prosaic – indeed the scientific – can be transportive. Nor, as we have seen, the emotional, as the prosaic and a great many things besides can be emotional.

What then is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the prosaic – the rational, the categorical, the theoretic? The answer is the symbolic – the irrational, the experiential, the mythical.

Though, it is my suspicion that that is not what Ai had in mind. Someone should ask him.

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