Wednesday, 30 December 2009 06:50

Drugs, addiction and literature

It is now common place to link drugs to the world of Arts and Literature.From the 19th century onwards, many writers have taken over the subject to describe either its psychical or physical effects. French poet Baudelaire published an essay on hashish and opium in Les Paradis artificiels (Artificial Paradises, 1860) inspired by Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. In the mid-20th century, writers from the Beat Generation in the US put the use and the experimentation of drugs at the center of their works, as for example with William Burroughs’ novels Junky and The Naked Lunch. Since then, the subject has also been exploited abundantly by film directors who have adapted novels such as Requiem for a Dream realised in 2000 by Darren Aronofsky from the eponymous novel by Hubert Selby Jr. published in 1978.

It is certainly very difficult and maybe impossible to objectively assert or analyse the relation between the taking of drugs and creativity, although many writers have evoked their own use of hallucinogenous substances to stimulate their imagination. Indeed, the use of drugs is known for its power of transgression, of modifying the perceptions and also sometimes making the body and the mind more efficient and productive. Drugs could tally with the fantasy of a creator who would not need to sleep or stop in order to achieve his work. For example, Jean-Paul Sartre was reported to having used mescaline and amphetamines by his companion Simone de Beauvoir (in The prime of life); he would have injected himself with mescaline while writing L’Imaginaire because he wanted to study and observe the process of hallucinations while being himself the subject of these visions. In fact, apparently Sartre was also distinguishing different uses for different drugs: he would take mescaline when writing literary works while he would take amphetamines for philosophical works. Pascal Nouvel, the author of Histoire des amphetamines (The History of Amphetamines, 2009) recalls that Sartre would have written La critique de la raison dialectique under the influence of amphetamines as apparently, for him, philosophy was the development of an idea that he already had; then the amphetamines would help him to produce more energy in order to develop this idea when mescaline would be more reserved for the stimulation of creation. Pascal Nouvel also quotes another original use of amphetamines by science fiction author Philip K. Dick. The latter took these drugs to reach a state of paranoia (also called ‘amphetaminic psychosis’) which would inspire him to reproduce this atmosphere of fear and paranoia in his novels.


These alterations and modifications of perception once under the influence of a drug are described by Baudelaire in his essay on hashish and opium, Les Paradis artificiels. In the first part of the book entitled “le Poeme du hashish”, he relates his own experience of hashish; in the second part of the book, named “the Opium Eater”, he analyses the book written by Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), a British writer who related his addiction to opium. Baudelaire describes precisely the different steps of his intoxication, starting with the physical symptoms and the behaviour changes which result. And Baudelaire mentions a hallucinatory phase which he himself compares to poetic analogies, when the senses seem to take a more distinct power:

“It is, in fact, at this period of the intoxication that is manifested a new delicacy, a superior sharpness in each of the senses: smell, sight, hearing, touch join equally in this onward march; the eyes behold the Infinite; the ear perceives almost inaudible sounds in the midst of the most tremendous tumult. It is then that the hallucinations begin; external objects take on wholly and successively most strange appearances; they are deformed and transformed. […]The enthusiast eye of the hashish drunkard will see strange forms, but before they were strange and monstrous these forms were simple and natural. The energy, the almost speaking liveliness of hallucination in this form of intoxication in no way invalidates this original difference: the one has root in the situation, and, at the present time, the other has not." (’The Theater of Seraphim’, Chap.3, translation by Aleister Crowley, 1895)

But the final judgment of Baudelaire is not positive: after the acme of the drug’s influence, there is the ‘comedown’ which he qualifies as “terrible”:

“But the morrow; the terrible morrow! All the organs relaxed, tired; the nerves unstretched, the teasing tendency to tears, the impossibility of applying yourself to a continuous task, teach you cruelly that you have been playing a forbidden game. Hideous nature, stripped of its illumination of the previous evening, resembles the melancholy ruins of a festival. The will, the most precious of all faculties, is above all attacked. They say, and it is nearly true, that this substance does not cause any physical ill; or at least no grave one; but can one affirm that a man incapable of action and fit only for dreaming is really in good health, even when every part of him functions perfectly?“ (’The Moral’, Chap.5)

At the end, Baudelaire condemns this drug because it forces one to abdicate their will and takes away the control of one’s thoughts. Drugs may be a way to reach a certain ideal and to increase one’s imagination but this ideal remains “artificial”, “fake” as the creator should be the master of its own creation and realisation.

Here we can suggest an approach to the definition of addiction. If drugs usage is necessarily a transformation of oneself which is not necessarily a bad experience in itself, the negative ontological effect of using drugs could rely on its potential addictive power, as addiction would be the dissociation of the subject from its autonomy through the alteration and the submission of oneself. Heir of the Beat Generation, Hubert Selby Jr. describes in a very striking way the mechanism of addiction in his novel Requiem for a Dream. The book follows the four seasons of one year to depict the relentless decay of the four main characters: Sara, the mother of Harry, his girlfriend Marion and his best friend Tyrone. The latter are all young heroin users. The addiction of Harry is evoked since the very first pages of the book: in order to get money to go buy drugs, he has established a ritual during which he takes his mother’s television set to the pawn shop where Sara has to re-buy it. It is summer; Sara is a widow who spends her days watching the same television show and eating chocolates. She receives a phone call which announces to her that she may participate in the television show. She becomes obsessed with her appearance as she wants to wear a special red dress on the day of the show and, in order to slim fast, she starts a regimen of amphetaminic diet-pills. It is probably in the middle of the book that the reader becomes conscious of Sara’s addiction when she calls her doctor’s office to complain that she doesn’t feel the effects of the pills, then after the physical addiction comes the mental one almost inevitably follows.

All characters share the same craving for an ideal of happiness which they see as attainable at first. The youngsters have entrepreneurial dreams which define their ideal of success while Sara dreams of seeing herself on television. Harry’s leitmotiv is that there is never anything to worry about: whether it’s when they do not find their dose, when they get into trouble, when he recognizes his mother’s addiction she’s unwilling to admit it etc. But their passivity is what also condemns them; all four are waiting: Sara for the confirmation letter from the television show, the three kids for the stroke of luck which will decide their future. Their will is totally annihilated by the use of drugs and their habits, the automatism of their daily lives which is symbolized by the television set. Whether it is to relax after taking drugs or to feed one’s fantasies, the television is the symbol of this artificial paradise created by addiction. Actually, the author doesn’t only relate the addiction to drugs, he tells more the story of people who have renounced their will and, somehow, their ability of living together and acting their own lives. All their addictions could be exchangeable (Sara for example exchanges her bulimia for anorexia); the drugs are the means and the symptoms of the characters’ meaningless life, which reinforce somehow the idea that anything can be an object of addiction.

So one cannot say that literature, or art, have participated in normalizing the use of drugs as one can see that drug usage and addiction, whether the actor or the object of the writings, belong first to the social sphere: literature and philosophy might be able to help put into words the ‘language of drugs and addiction’ but it is also a matter of knowing what kind of society we want, how we want to consider the margins of our society, if we want to stigmatize them or to help the distressed instead.

Read a study on cocaine (in French)



Additional information
There is no doubt that rehabs for drug addiction can help treat drug addicted people from all walks of life.

Thursday, 23 December 2010 18:01

Translating Modern Chinese Poetry

Jessica Marinaccio is a masters student reading Chinese Literature at National Taiwan University as well as the English Secretary at the Academia Sinica. In this video she talks about her thesis, which details the circumstances of the first anthology of modern Chinese poetry translated into English.

Wednesday, 08 September 2010 14:45

Chercher et rechercher

Chercher et rechercher, venir pour chercher, s’arrêter pour chercher encore, partir en ayant trouvé autre chose que ce qui était attendu. Le cheminement du chercheur que nous sommes tous est imprévisible et nous avons tous en mémoire des itinéraires dont les bifurcations nous ont surpris.

“Qu’est-ce qu’il cherche dans ce détour incompréhensible?” Justement, l’expérience de l’incompréhensible peut conduire à prendre des sentiers nouveaux, à frayer des avancées inédites, à tracer des sentes à ses risques et périls. Chercher, c’est partir du bien connu en éprouvant une insatisfaction et en désirant une plus grande clarté, une nouvelle lumière. Chercher, c’est se mettre en route à partir d’une histoire et porter en soi ce désir tenace de marcher vers l’avenir en éclairant le présent.

Une pause alors s’impose. M’arrêter pour considérer ce qui a eu lieu, me poser dans mon présent pour prendre acte de qui je suis, tourner mes regards vers l’avant pour découvrir à nouveaux frais ce qui est possible et désirable : chercher est un travail d’enfantement qui peut provoquer des ébranlements inattendus. Chercher est une joie : joie de la naissance, joie de la découverte, joie de la surprise. Chercher et rechercher, jour après jour, c’est tout simplement être vivant. C’est ré-ouvrir chaque matin notre regard sur le monde et sur les autres, c’est ré-entendre le murmure des voix humaines en quête de sens et d’attention.

“Le sol est rude. Et de cette rudesse
je m’éprends. Seule importe au petit matin
l’unique joie parmi les êtres et les choses.
Alors tentons de délier les mots rétifs,
de suivre encore le chemin
par où quelque sentier nous donnera la mer.”

Philippe Delaveau, Petites gloires ordinaires, poèmes. Gallimard,1999, p 95-96.

Accueillir les petites gloires ordinaires est le fruit secret et précieux de la recherche incessante qui nous éveille chaque matin à la beauté fragile du monde. Ces gloires font naître en nous de la passion. Cette passion inventive et incessante pour ce qui est là, chaque jour redonné à notre vigilance amoureuse. Cherchons, cherchons encore, cherchons toujours : la joie sera donnée.

(Photo by Liang Zhun)


Monday, 02 December 2013 15:05

The Mountain and the City

The Mountain is looking at the City spreading. The City tries to rise but just spreads. Building after building, a forest of concrete, steel and glass; how small it looks when you take altitude and see it from above- from the height of a peak!

Thursday, 31 October 2013 13:50

Water in Classical Chinese Literature

The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia and one of the longest rivers in the world. The Yellow River is the second biggest river in Asia and the sixth biggest in the world. Both are the most important rivers in the history, culture and economy of China.

Ever since the early history of China, the water of the Yangzi was used for sanitation, irrigation and industry. The vastness of the river meant it was often used to mark borders and was an important consideration in war tactics.

The Yellow river is seen as the cradle of Chinese civilization. The most prosperous civilizations in the history of China were mostly situated along this river. Therefore, it is not surprising that images of water are apparent in ancient Chinese culture and particularly in Chinese poetry.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013 07:57

Publishing Debate part 2: Are you sure we're still really free?

The Cross-strait Trade on Services Agreement is a mirror into a possible dystopian future, in which appears a undemocratic Taiwan, lacking in freedom. Regardless if you're for or against the opening up, the publishing industry should take this opportunity to reflect on their own problems.

By Sharky Chen (the head of commaBOOKS Publishing House), translated from the original Chinese by Conor Stuart. Photo by 楊忠銘.

Sunday, 06 October 2013 16:19

Publishing Debate part 1: Greater Freedoms Grant Greater Power

The Cross-strait Trade on Services Agreement does not, nominally at least, extend to the publishing industry, but it has unleashed an explosive debate in the publishing industry. Those in favour and those against both agree that 'freedom' is at the heart of Taiwan's publishing industry and that it's a value that must be upheld, but they hold opposing views of the effect that the implementation of the agreement will have on the industry. This special two part series allows two publishers on opposite sides of the argument to air their views, giving the reader a fuller picture of the possible advantages and drawbacks that the agreement will bring. The second article is available here.

What does the publishing industry really have to fear from the Cross-strait Trade in Services Agreement?

By Octw Chen (A long-time publishing industry insider), translated from the original Chinese by Conor Stuart. Photo by 楊忠銘.

Under the pressure of China's large capital is Taiwan left with no other option and destined to go under? The strong "soft" power of the vital and diverse space cultivated by publishing freedom might just exceed our expectations...

Are we really seeing things clearly when we talk about the Cross-strait Trade in Services Agreement?

A new debate has broken out in Taiwan surrounding the signing of the Cross-strait Trade in Services Agreement. What's interesting is that it was in the publishing industry that the controversy first blew up, despite the fact that this industry has no direct relationship to the content of the agreement. Despite the fact that the publishing industry wasn't one of the industries under discussion in this agreement, some of the topics discussed are very interesting and deserve further discussion. However, it's necessary to first state that what follows is limited to the publishing industry and that this essay is unable to make a more comprehensive judgment on the merits of the trade agreement as a whole, or to state with authority what effect it will have on other industries.

According to the views expressed by Hao Mingyi in his piece 'We have less than 24 hours left', which was the subject of much debate, Taiwan's publishing industry is a model for cultural industry that will quickly be swallowed up and obliterated when the market is opened up. Publishers on the other side of the strait need only kill us softly with cash injections and these 'essentially small scale, micro-industries' will 'all be outgunned, unable to escape going under or being bought out'.

Is this true? Is the publishing industry in Taiwan really so weak that it can't even withstand one blow? This assertion really is rather horrifying and it certainly serves the function of scaremongering well, the only unfortunate thing about it though is that it does nothing to explain the status quo.

In a creative and innovative industry it's hard to succeed just with capital

It's true that we have countless micro-publishers. We also have a publishing market that is the most liberal, fortified and competitive in the history of the Republic of China. However, because of this, in the best-seller lists, it is the small to medium sized publishing houses that are strongest when it comes to innovation, influence and competition.

In the 2012 top hundred overall bestseller list, the hundred books came from forty-four different publishing houses. This would be hard to imagine in a country like the United States – the bestseller list in America is the province of six major publishing groups (Oh yeah, that's right, now there's only five!) – the fact that Taiwan's bestsellers aren't concentrated in a few publishing houses is testament to the fact that no one publishing house in Taiwan enjoys market dominance.

The bestseller list has another peculiarity, which is that small to medium-scale publishing houses feature prominently, making up more than half of the total, with even a few legendary one-man publishing houses. These small- to medium-scale publishing houses have little fear of the capital of larger-scale publishing houses and they even outperform them by quite a margin in the bestseller rankings.

'Is this particularly out of the ordinary?' you might ask. Of course it is. This is indicative of the fact that Taiwan's publishing industry is still based on innovation and creativity and that you can't dominate the market with just capital. There have been competing investments from Hong Kong, Japan, the UK and the US in Taiwan's publishing market, but no single publishing group or foreign investor has achieved market dominance and no foreign investor has been able to use their vast capital and resources to defeat the innovative and creative small- to medium-scale publishing houses.

This is the simple reality of Taiwan's publishing market since the end of Martial Law in 1987.

The assertion that Taiwan's publishing market is too unconstrained, that it lacks security and as a result is too easy to infiltrate or 'invade', not only demonstrates an inability to understand the status quo, but also an ignorance of the way a free system functions.

The publishing market is already a healthy ecosystem

If Taiwan's publishing industry is defenseless, why hasn't it been monopolized by a major publishing group? I my opinion, this is because of publishing freedom. In Taiwan nobody can stop you starting up a publishing house or starting a publishing branch of your company or even just striking out on your own as a self-published author without need of a company, you just need to apply to the ISBN centre of the National Central Library for your own ISBN – you can even call them up to complain if they're not quick enough about it.

As this industry is so simple, in the past few decades many people working in the publishing industry have resigned their posts at big companies and starting out in their own micro-publishing house, making waves in the book market with a lot more capacity for innovation than bigger companies. This is an industry that is impossible to monopolize, because the industry allows for new people and companies on the scene, not only in terms of the lack of a structural hierarchy but also in terms of the ability to do business. You don't need to have a lot of capital to play the game and there's no burdensome entrance fee. The top hundred bestsellers' list tells us that you can make an impact on the bestseller list with just your own individual intelligence and hard work.

You'd be hard-pressed to find another industry in Taiwan that values individual creativity so much, and this is all due to the individual transactions of the readers as they choose this book or that. Anyone seeking to dominate the market wouldn't be able to do it just by buying up all the existing publishing houses, they would also have to pay off all the editors to prevent them from setting up shop themselves. How can one clamp down on the freedom to start one's own business? And how also, can one dictate reading preferences to readers on a national scale? If capital could warp preferences when it comes to buying books, then the top hundred bestseller list should, by rights, be dominated by big companies.

I believe that Taiwan's publishing market is already a healthy eco-system, it is strong enough and determined enough to withstand 'invaders' from abroad, these 'invaders' could even be said to strengthen the industry by challenging it. This is the truly formidable power of Taiwan's publishing industry.

The best defense is in not erecting walls around ourselves

In an article in Next Magazine under the title 'A great place for reading', Zhan Hongzhi, the founder of Cite Publishing stated, 'Historically, the places where there was most freedom to print and publish often became the places were cultural renaissances took shape amongst a diverse range of voices.' Such was the Dutch enlightenment, wherein many French and English thinkers, because their views were proscribed in their own countries, were forced to publish their most important works in the Netherlands. Freedom and openness pushed the Netherlands to be a country at the forefront of European thought at that time, attracting a talented elite, allowing this small Western European country to cut a formidable figure on the seas in competition with the English and the Spanish. Dutch navigators were more or less engaged in global trade even then.

Freedom and liberty forged the Netherlands' golden era, likewise, publishing freedom is an extremely valuable soft power for Taiwan. It represents not only the collecting together of ideas, but it serves to awaken our minds – only places where there is publishing freedom will win the recognition of intellectuals.

What's most startling about the viewpoints that have been put forward concerning the publishing industry amidst the controversy surrounding the trade in services agreement is that these commentators seem to see Taiwan's clear strength as its weakness. The firm ground of freedom is seen as unable to withstand even one blow. When we should be upholding freedom, we instead build a high wall to cut ourselves off. This viewpoint is blind to the reality of the publishing industry, and underestimates its strength. If this viewpoint becomes the popular one, then that is a pity for Taiwan and if it goes further and becomes government policy, than that will be a tragedy for Taiwan – as our greatest advantage will be destroyed by our own hand.

We do need to protect Taiwan's publishing freedom, but the best way to do this is not to build ourselves a greenhouse, that will, on the contrary, destroy competition within the industry. The best line of defence is to continue to give free reign to competition, only then will the industry continue to cultivate publishers with determination, who will, when unhappy, be able to go their own way and start up influential independent publishing houses. To ensure that the eco-system continues to be balanced, innovative, free and diverse, this is the only way in which we can safeguard Taiwan's publishing industry.

Friday, 27 September 2013 17:45

Thinking outside the box: Inventing words and Chinese variants in Taiwan

When reading in Chinese, particularly literature and academic essays on literature or on certain blogs, you'll notice that the author uses combinations of words that don't exist in any dictionary as compounds - this practice, known as 「造詞」(zaoci), is frustrating when one is first trying to get to grips with academic writing or blogs, but eventually you start to appreciate the wit and creative charm behind it. If you've ever read The Meaning of Liff you'll get an idea of what this achieves and the possible comic effects.

This can be done for several reasons.

The first is to translate a foreign concept (or what was once only a foreign concept) into Chinese, many of these are simple but amusingly to the point, examples include 無政府主義 (no-government-ism) as a rendering of 'anarchism', 天主教 (master-of-the-heavens-religion) for Catholicism, or 利己主義者 (interest-self-ism) as a fancy way to say 'egotist' or for someone who subscribes to a self-interested ideology. A lot of these subsequently end up in the dictionary. More recent and artistic examples of this kind of word include both 「多音交響」(duo1yin1jiao1xiang3) "many-tones-symphony" and 「眾聲喧嘩」 (zhong4sheng1xuan1hua2) "many-sounds-clamouring" which attempt to render Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of "heteroglossia" into Chinese. These are usually found in academic articles and the source language equivalent is normally still placed in brackets behind the word to indicate that this is an experimental attempt. These words are also often translated differently in mainland China and Taiwan. 

Another form of zaoci, however, is simply to create a new word by blending aspects of existing words. This form is more interesting and harder to identify, but can sometimes catch on and enter common usage. The technique is generally taking two words (normally consisting of two characters each) and taking one character from the first and one from the second to make a new word. These examples are quite hard to find, as they are essentially invented by the individual on the spot. Here's a short list of some of the more artful ones that I've discovered so far, feel free to add more in the comments box.

1. 「索愛」(suo3ai4) which blends 「索討」(suo3tao3), "to ask for", with 「愛情」(ai4qing4), "love," to mean someone who acts in a cutesy manner to try and get what they want - a near synonym for the mainland Chinese term 「賣萌」(mai4meng2) and the term 「撒嬌」 (sa1jiao1).

2. 「魘醒」(yan3xing2) which is an abbreviation for 「從夢魘中醒來」, "waking up from a nightmare".

3. 「熹亮」(xi1liang4) which combines 「熹微」, "the faint sunlight just after dawn" with 「光亮」(guang1liang4), "bright", to get a synonym of 「微亮」(faint light).

4. 「憤罣」(fen4gua4) which combines 「憤怒」 (fen4nu4), rage, and 「罣礙」(gua4ai4), worry, to mean a rage born of worry.

5. 「離聚」(li2ju4) which combines 「離散」(li2san4), "disperse", and 「相聚」(xiang4ju4), assembly, to mean when an assembly disperses.  

 Using variants is another way to make your writing more aesthetically pleasing (and also dictionary/foreigner proof). A variant is essentially another way of writing a certain character in Chinese which makes no significant change to its meaning. Some have been lost to standardization, but many are still commonly used - both versions in different settings and registers of writing. A common example is 「角色」 vs 「 腳角」. Another is the 「台」 in 「台灣」and 「舞台」 vs 「臺灣」 and 「舞臺」. Sometimes the variants are interchangeable in every combination like 「台」; at other times the variant can only be used when the word forms a verb or a noun, for example, my colleague Jiahe talks about the difference between 「鋪」 and 「舖」 below: 


Another colleague, loathe to appear on camera, gave me this explanation of the difference between 「掛礙」 and 「罣礙」, which the Ministry of Education online dictionary states to be the same, meaning that here, 「掛」 and 「罣」 are variants of each other:


(Translation: I originally learned to write this word as 「罣礙」, the 「罣」meaning "stuffed up or congested", I interpreted this as one's heart being congested or stuffed up with some worry. However, later I discovered that 「掛礙」was a more common way of writing this word, with the 「掛」 meaning "worry" or "concern". Moreover 「掛」is easier to write, so people are more likely to write the word as 「掛礙」。The two forms of the word can be used interchangably according to the online dictionary of the Ministry of Education. This is because language is essentially just down to convention.)  

 In this second interview, I had the mainlander of the office, Yingying, discuss the variant pairs 「分/份」 and 「姐/姊」:


My interest in this subject really started when I changed to using the Cangjie input system - which is an entry system based on visual components of each character (if you're using a computer in Taiwan, these can be found on the bottom left corner of your PC's keys, or bottom right of your Mac's keys) : 

日 (sun radical) + 月 (moon radical) = 明 (bright) for example

Although it's slightly more complicated to learn, it's helpful in getting characters to stick in your head - but as a side effect of this entry system - sometimes strange looking characters pop up when you get a stroke in the wrong sequence, like the long list that appears when you type a sound in pinyin as shown below:


In writing my thesis the title of the play I was discussing includes the character 「間」written 日弓日, but if you put an extra 弓 on the end, then you get 「闁」, a rare archaic variant of the character 「褒」 - meaning to praise. A mistroke in writing 「且」 written 月一 (and) gets you a variant of 「冉」 which is as follows: 「冄」 written 月一一. This is essentially the same as when you're typing in Zhuyin or pinyin and you have to sort through a list of weird characters, but in Changjie you generally only get one character with each combination you type, except on the rare occasions that two characters share the same canjie code, as above. Regardless if you're interested or not in the different ways to input Chinese characters, this really got me interested in why different people chose to use different variants in different situations. Have you found any interesting characters, variants or new invented words, if so feel free to let loose on the comments section! 



Wednesday, 30 January 2013 14:30

The Immanence of Culture: An Interview with Prof. Jon Tikivanotau Jonassen

In this interview, Cook Islands cultural specialist/drummer prof. Jon Tikivanotau Jonassen shares with us a variety of topics on the different Pacific Asia cultures in terms of indigenous music and language. He starts from a very special story about his own name, signaling us to the hidden force of traditional culture in our modern era, and ends the interview with solemn advice to the indigenous people on how to gain autonomy in a globalizing world...

Friday, 11 January 2013 16:37

Sakinu Ahronglong: Poetry and Song

Ahronglong Sakinu is a full-time police man, working in forest conservation, and an amateur writer, recording the wisdom passed down for generations in his tribe. Here he presents us with a poem and a song which he performed at the 2012 International Austronesian Conference - Weaving Waves's Writings:

Monday, 31 December 2012 15:57

My journey of composition

Bust of Becquer. Photo by Ana Rey


¿Qué es poesía? -dices mientras clavas
en mi pupila tu pupila azul.
¿Qué es poesía? ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?
Poesía... eres tú.

These four simple lines are considered by many people to be some of the most famous and beautiful in the history of Spanish literature. Written by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, a Romantic poet of 19th century Spain, they roughly translate as:

Published in
Focus: Poetry and Song

Tuesday, 18 December 2012 17:31

Poetry: Learn New Words with Song

Wang Xiong was born in July, 1985 in Taipei, Taiwan, where he still lives with his two cats. He graduated from the Department of Chinese Literature and dropped out of the Master's Program of the Graduate Institute of Taiwanese Literature, he is currently working in journalism. He has previously been awarded National Taiwan University Prize for Modern Verse.This poem won the Modern Poetry Judge's Award of the 34th United Daily News Literature Prize.

Published in
Focus: Poetry and Song

Friday, 16 November 2012 13:45

Le poème lignifié / The Poem Lignified: An Interview with Two Artists

At the art exhibition " Le poème lignifié," Amis artist Lin Yu-Tah talks about his piece "Schema," his obsession with objects and tactility, and how he considers malls before 10 am as the greatest archeological site ever. Following the discussion of materiality, Taiwanese artist Chuang Hsin-I explains her concept of "Materiality of Memory," which has been the nexus of her art over the years. In addition, she shares with us a touching story concerning a postcard and the death of a relative and how this experience influenced her work later on...

Friday, 28 September 2012 15:26

The Sweet Burdens of Wu Sheng and Wu Zulin

Father Versus Son, A Revision of the Old Classics

The Taiwanese use the phrase “sweet burden” (tian mi de fu he 甜蜜的負荷) to describe the ambivalent relationship between parent and child. The phrase derived from poet Wu Sheng’s(吳晟) poem “Burden” (fu he負荷). The immense popularity of the poem can be partially attributed to its inclusion as Chinese literature textbook material, even more so perhaps becauseof its colloquial and vivid description of the bittersweet parenting experience that resonates with so many people. “Burden” was written in 1977, that was when Wu Sheng first tried hishand at parenting. Nobody expected that 30 years later, he would join forces with his second son Wu Zu-lin (吳志寧) to give “Burden” as well as his other poems a new life.

Published in
Focus: Poetry and Song

Wednesday, 26 September 2012 13:47

Ordering Poetry at KTV

How do we measure the distance between poetry and ourselves?

It’s not thousands of miles away at the bottom of the Ocean, it’s also not in a star a few light years away. By simply strolling into a KTV we can find vestiges of poetry. By simply humming along to a song, we can fill our heart with poetic feeling, and slowly wash away the dust of time.

Published in
Focus: Poetry and Song

Tuesday, 04 September 2012 15:35

The Muses Hide in Melodies

Translated from the Chinese by Conor Stuart

Everyone, whether to a greater extent or a lesser, has a few melodies or a few lines of poetry which come to mind easily, without a deliberate effort to chase them out; they slip out at just the right moment, nurturing us.

A poem or a song, in context, can become a lover, or a confidante, you understand them, they understand you, and nothing can come between you.

Six lovers of poetry, six songs each with its own story, each revealing a different aspect of life. Then, may we think, is poetry so much farther removed from our laughter or our tears than song?

Published in
Focus: Poetry and Song

Tuesday, 14 August 2012 00:00

Breathing Poetry

Where is Poetry to be found in our life? Like oxygen, Poetry is to be found everywhere – and nowhere in particular. Like oxygen also, Poetry is rarely found pure and unmixed – it reaches us in composition with other gases, and this is what makes us able to breathe and flourish. Still, when oxygen becomes too rarefied we need a bottle of it, and inhale it at its purest. Poems – sometimes only one verse, a couple of lines - are like supply bottles that make us able to go on when we feel asphyxiated. But Poetry comes under many garbs, and likes to mix with the profane and the ordinary.

Living without Poetry makes one wither and dry out. Life has no taste, resonance or nuance anymore, thoughts and projects pile up in the shelves of the mind like strings of empty shells. But Poetry is always at hand. For sure, there are environments that naturally bathe our life in Poetry – when we live near forests, lakes or mountains, when people around us walk at a leisurely pace, when music resonates at our gate. However, breathing Poetry throughout our life is first and foremost a question of inner attention: I am the one who decides to stop my work for a while and to listen to some beloved piece of music or take time to discover an author, some of whose verses I had heard one day. I may choose to go to the park and marvel at the trees and their birds rather than staying at my computer. I can rediscover the smile of the people living near me, and offer them in gratitude the smile I so often forget to illuminate my face with.

It's not so easy, for sure. I am presently living in an apartment located on the 20th floor, and my office is in a tower, on the 26th floor. No matter what window I look out of, I just see roads and groups of towers… At the start, I did suffer a lot from it: the landscape and rhythm of life made me feel dry. Poetry flew away from me, leaving my imagination, my will, my memory, dried out and empty. Step by step, I had to learn again, to find Poetry in silence, prayer, the reading of a book – a new one or an old companion -, the rediscovery of music. I also found Poetry in dreaming over these endless ranges of towers, especially when night is falling. And I gave myself time to create objects of Poetry – drawings and paintings, short texts, emails that were not for “business” but which I took pleasure to carve as if they were little artworks. Also, I decided to walk more. Whatever the environment, there is something in walking that is akin to Poetry. Many poems after all were composed, in ancient times, to accompany the work in the fields, the wandering on the roads, the dance during the ritual…

In new environments, Poetry surges in new forms. For its oxygen to fill and replenish our life Poetry requires from us skills and virtues that are timeless: a sense of playfulness and gratuitousness, a willingness to pause and to listen, and a desire to respond in chants, words and works to the gift we receive when we walk on the road and we breathe Poetry.


Published in
Focus: Poetry and Song

Thursday, 20 October 2011 11:47

The Flesh of Matter, the Light of Colours

Born in 1944 in Orléans (France), Bernard Foucher is a contemporary artist, painter, sculptor and stained-glass windows maker. He illustrates also modern poets (Bernard Noël, Michel Lagrange, Hélène Cadou) in fine arts books gathered in a collection called Alphabet existentiel.

In this video are mixed together animations with music on several of his paintings as well as fragments of interview. Bernard Foucher tells us how he works, how he preserves his artistic freedom and how he wants to respect the differences between paintings and sculptures. He also suggests us the genuine possibility of a conciliation between life and artistic creation.

Saturday, 10 September 2011 00:00

Shakespeare's Songs for All Seasons

Former teacher at the College de France, translator, essayist and poet, Michael Edwards is a specialist in Shakespeare's plays; he's also very keen on classic and modern theater (Molière, Claudel, etc..), poetry and spirituality.

He's written many books about such topics. This interview was inspired by an article published in the French periodical Etvdes (may 2011) and insists on the human and spiritual aspect of the tragedies and comedies of Shakespeare. This interview shares with us the capacity of wonder in the comedies of Shakespeare as well as the great sense of human passion displayed in his tragedies: the songs let the spectator enter into another world within the present tense, a world made of marvels, irony and pains. In the world of Shakespeare, there is no time for idleness; the language of songs tells what can't be grasped within the imperishable movement of voices and dialogues.

This first video introduces  the main features of songs in Shakespeare's plays : the musicians who worked for him, the instrument used, the way the songs were integrated to both tragedies and comedies and the kind of distance it introduces within the narration.

Alternate for readers in China

This second video insists on the genuine "mirth" displayed in the comedies of Shakespeare. The celebration of carpe diem by the lovers expresses a trust in what love means for both man and woman. It opens people to the plenitude of the "now and here" while suggesting with a tender irony a transcendantal dimension of human life.

Alternate for readers in China

This third video speaks of the notion of "atonement" : it signifies a deep and secret correspondance between things, even if remote at first sight. It illustrates the passion for "oneness" at work in the heart of the poet. It points also to the depth of reconciliation that music is able to demonstrate, going beyond contradictions of life and enmity.

Alternate for readers in China


Published in
Focus: Poetry and Song

Friday, 25 February 2011 00:00

A Song for the Spring Goddess Sahohime

If one were to imagine someone's life as the changing seasons, the aboriginal Tsou tribe musician, Gao Yisheng, could be said to have missed out on the plentitude of summer's harvest and skipped straight into the bleakness of autumn and winter.

Published in
Focus: Poetry and Song

Wednesday, 23 February 2011 19:48

Spring in all its states

Spring, it dredges up half-baked images from the collective imagination of baby lambs, flowers blooming, and mad hares, not that there is a large number of baby lambs in the Belfast area during May, nor Taipei in February for that matter (spring starts with Lichun in the Chinese tradition, between the 3rd and 5thFebruary, one month before the Western spring).

Wednesday, 23 February 2011 19:38


This month, we celebrate the passing of the seasons and in preparing for the arrival of spring with its deluge of transformations, hopes and renewal. In search of a different evocation of spring, I stumbled on a poem by Mallarme...

Friday, 24 December 2010 15:17

My first 75 years: looking ahead

The time for looking back is also an opportunity for looking forward because there is still an uncertain number of years ahead of me yet to come.

Tuesday, 07 December 2010 10:42


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Bûcheron, dépose ta hache sous l'arbre de minuit
Et offre un siège ému à l'enfant de l'Esprit
Vois enfin la sève brassée avec la cendre, et le monde en sou neuf
Dévaster l'astre ancien des faubourgs et des temples

Wednesday, 28 October 2009 00:00

Poetry on Progo

While Cruising throught Yogyakarta Province on my rented Honda Mio, I came across Yoyo Jewe. Perceiving the Indonesian judicial system as rife with corruption, Yoyo, the former law student gave up a life of material benefits to dedicate himself to the arts. He now focuses on poetry, dance and performance. Here we are at an Artists retreat on the Progo River, near the wondrous Borobodur Temple. After some blissful nude swimming in the river, we decided to make and film a poetry performance on a raft. Here Yoyo reads ’The Secret of the Fruit’ in English. Accompanying on the harmonicas are Yasmi Setiawati and Rumah Seni...

Monday, 28 September 2009 21:25

As small and immense as a soul: gardens of Suzhou

If gardens are the hidden paradises of China, Suzhou is the paradise of gardens...

Among those she hides within her walls, eight are now included into the world heritage sites. The "Humble Administrator Garden", the "Garden of the Master of Nets", the " Blue Waves Pavilion ’, the “Lingering Garden" are among the most famous of them. Often, they were created by scholar-officials aspiring to escape the worries of their offices Suzhou leads us towards the secret of Chinese gardens: a mystical place, a dream land, a fragile and tenacious Utopia, a garden is also and ultimately a living body, complete with orifices, vessels and limbs.

Orifices, first ... The garden, a small and secluded place, endlessly increases its size through its internal divisions - mounds that break the perspective, walls running along the walkways, partitions all around its pavilions. But these partitions are pierced by openwork windows, round doors and numerous small openings through which the walker can appropriate space and sight, reconstructing the scenes and dividing anew the world ... The space actually occupied by the garden must be kept modest - its bends, its curves, its openings extend it towards infinity, till it spreads over the extent of a soul.

The openings suggest the paths to be followed. Windows and doors gradually reveal the garden to our senses, as the painter’s hand unfolds with pride and caution the scroll on which he made the roaring waterfall, the trail on the side of the mountain, the grove pines and the sea of clouds come to life ... The garden indeed is a scroll, a miniature world opened up and enlarged by our walks and our whims. For whom wanders from one window to another, to the peaceful bamboos, to the banana trees gently whistling in the wind, succeed a rock mimicking the peak of a cliff, a hill of which the summit is hidden, the corner of a roof, or a cut of the sky speaking only of emptiness... Through its countless orifices, the garden multiplies the eyes and the dreams of the one who walks in its midst, till our visions are gathered in an unique glance that plunges into the secret and double soul of the garden and his dweller.

Pierced with orifices, the garden is irrigated by vessels through which circulate life, breath and seasons ... Water animates a garden - water collected in a pond and divided into channels that flow in its interior; water that makes small garden rocks the mimes of the formidable mountains that the sponsor and the creator of the place have marveled at during their travels before suggesting their majesty in their private compound. The passer-by crosses over miniature seas fringed with dwarfed vegetation on tiny suspension bridges... Ethereal scents mixed with the sounds of faint waterfalls whisper around – the garden stammers our dreams between the lines of day and shade. Nearby the water, are scattered small and pensive trees, and pebbles that speak of the shore and are strung like a string of islands. A flute, a bird leaving traces of their absence...

Irrigated by the vessels that make it a living body, the garden can deploy its limbs, taking the form of a lying dragon, a unicorn, or perhaps one of these Taoist immortals of whom we do not know whether they are men or gods. Its limbs are made of its eminences, these modest mountains that transform the pond into a sea, the channels into giant rivers, and the courtyards into continents. They are also its paths lined with plants and flowers that speak of the virtues shared between the garden and who called it to existence: temperance, courage and longevity ...

And yet ... Though it covers the full extent of a soul, the garden can not forget that it is also so tiny – a grain that condenses the world, but all the same a grain, perishable and insignificant ... And Chinese gardens, throughout history, were often destroyed, burned, redesigned and re-emerging ... Ultimately, the garden is perhaps a boat, the boat which leads us gently to the sea of things impermanent, and which, for a moment, makes its bitterness more bearable...

Friday, 17 July 2009 00:00

Treasure and Treachery

Poetic exploration of a treacherous island.

Wednesday, 03 June 2009 00:00

Beyond illusion: the positive power of imagination

I Dwell in Possibility
A Fairer House than Prose
--Emily Dickinson

Using one’s imagination is always risky. First, it amounts to depart from the common lot, to come up with ideas and ways of expressing oneself that might meet with hostility or bewilderment. Second… using one’s imagination might just lead you to make mistakes, to come up with hypothesis that do not pass the test of time or experience. Do not we say to someone “this is the fruit of your imagination” for decrying what he tells us, implying that he is living in a world of delusion? Our imagination can be aroused by the daemons of jealousy, pride, fear or hatred… and lead us to tragic mistakes. So, let us recognize it from the start: imagination indeed can be a force of evil and destruction.

But the main point is that, indeed, imagination is a force. It cannot be separated from our physical condition (fever awakens in us the power of imagination…), our desires and our memories. However, when these factors are monitored, imagination can fly in the sky like a bird of prey, and open up new horizons. The problem is not imagination per se, it is what we feed our imaginative power with. Our imagination becomes what we give it to eat and drink, so to speak…

To let our imagination run free means that we are able to abstract ourselves from present conditions, to create a distance between oneself and the world as it is introduced and conditioned for our use. At some point, we doubt what is asserted around us… and from this doubt arise new hypotheses. This doubt might no be provoked by our “reason”, but “reason” will be stimulated by what comes from outside. Without imagination and dream, no way to invent non-Euclidian geometry…

Imagination is begotten by dreams – and dreams are begotten by sleep… Only the one who sleeps and liberates his mind and soul during the sleep will be able to imagine a different world. Imagination is in conflict with utilitarianism. Imagination is anchored into gratuitousness. You need moments when you dream about nothing in particular for imagining something so new that it seems to be directly emerging from Nothingness. Conversely, organizations that are fully “rational”, letting no place to chance or fantasy, progressively destroy the imaginative power of the people who work in them. You need imperfection, free space, free time and some degree of fuzziness for giving imagination its chance, so as it might change the world you dwell in. A world too perfect or too rational becomes entropic, and perishes from its own virtues.

Five keys for developing the positive power of imagination
Taking into account what precedes, I’d like to suggest five basic attitudes through which we can nurture our imaginative power and make it a force for changing our environment:

-First, our imagination is powerfully nourished by the contemplation of the human person in her riches and complexity. Persons focus our dreams and desires; entering into relationship with concrete people awakens our eloquence, our passions and senses, and consequently our imagination. As a matter of fact, the first person with whom we deal is “I”, and the relationship I nurture with myself is key for the way I use my imagination. So, let us start by contemplating ourselves, to assess and enjoy our own gifts - and our gratitude for everything we have received will already enhance the positive power of our imagination.

-Imagination is nurtured by a sense of time, there are natural tempos of maturation in nature, in art, in personal growth, or in management. Being too hasty will kill our imaginative power. On the contrary, being stubborn in one’s dream and project while respecting the rhythm of maturation proper to the project and its environment will make our imagination more vivid and powerful.

-Imagination is nurtured by freedom. My own inner freedom makes me able to challenge what I have been taught. The freedom I give to the Other will make her able to challenge our common assumptions and to come up with creative solutions to the problems we are encountering.

-Imagination is nurtured by our spirit of service. When I prove to be sensitive to the needs, disarrays and desires of the people I am living or working with, I develop a new sensitivity to my environment, and I naturally ask myself questions on what is to be done for answering these needs, opening up spaces of growth and creativity. The very fact of not putting myself “at the center” liberates my vision and makes me able to imagine solution that would be unconceivable for someone who puts his self-interest first. It is from the margins that the scene appears most clearly…

-Imagination is nurtured by communication and friendship. When communication is inspired by a desire for truth in respect, i.e. by a common search for the common good, the exchange of words, opinions and emotions naturally awakes ideas and ways of proceedings that could not be imagined as long as exchange was not taking place. Imagination, likes fire, needs wood, and communication is akin to the process of cutting wood and putting it into the flame when one fears it might become extinct.

“Poetry is what is lost in translation”- or so wrote Robert Frost. And if the reverse was true? It seems to me that imagination arises in a kind of “translation process.” When I make the effort to explain to myself with my own words and through my own feelings what had been taught to me, then I discover the limits of the ancient statements I was nourished with, or I discover new truths within them. The fact of “translating” old truths into a new language opens up a window through which new landscapes are discovered. Translation is also what happens when we mutually elucidate for each other what we have understood and how we feel. The exchange that takes place is the space into which “common imagination” arises, so as to become a drive for change. “Translation” of shapes, sounds, feelings and images is also what happens throughout the artistic process. “Imagination is what is gained in translation” – and, so, it is in our power to generate endless supplies of it. Contrarily to oil or to coal, imagination is an inexhaustible energy.

Thursday, 21 May 2009 03:54

Cessation of our tale

Having just seen
the world’s worst decades,
we’re tortoised in our faith,
the world of Hades

and the cessation of
our tale; after all,
for light to come on
the curtain must fall,

it’s a fact, there’s
inner peace there. But as I
was saying we really
should obey the signs.

Conceding quietly
might just work out
for the best. What I
know without doubt,

what I seen with these eyes
lessoned by war,
is that it doesn’t matter
who you are;

what imports
in the end is the way
the body just knows
it’s time to decay.


Photo by C. Phiv

Friday, 28 March 2008 00:00

A Matter of Poetry

Bob Ronald rhymes and Benoit Vermander's poems

A rhymer like myself finds beauty and harmony in the sounds and rhythms of words which he or she crafts into written melodies ready for recitation and enjoyment. There is a message hidden in the rhyme, but it was born giving life and purpose to the composition and versification.

A poet like Benoit Vermander, on the other hand, sees first the beauty and harmony in some insight and transforms it into a moving, stimulating expression of truth that we ordinary mortals have probably overlooked or did not appreciate. An eye on the world has been offered us without which we would go through life oblivious of the realms and the meanings deep down things. Sometimes the poet also instills the composition with rhythm and rhyme, making it even more striking.

Here are some examples. First some rhymes of my own.

The Way To Bounce

The adage is that
When falling, a cat
Will land on its feet.
No way that I can.
I’m only a man.
I’d land on my seat.

It’s the way that you bounce
Not the landing that counts.
If still you can stand
Right after you fall,
Not hurting at all,
Then the landing was grand.

Sky’s Secret

I look at sky
And wonder why
It doesn’t fall.
I know a lot,
But God I’m not.
My mind is small.
I know a bit
How some things fit.
I don’t know all.

I wish I knew
What makes sky blue.
I don’t know yet.
So much to know
Where does time go?
I mustn’t fret.

It’s not God’s plan
That people can
Become so wise
That they can find
What’s on His mind
Or in his eyes.

There’ll be no quiz
About what is
Or how or when.
But when I rest
From all my quest,
I’ll know all then.

Do what I ought.
It’s not my thought
That makes me true.
Just do my best,
I’ll pass the test
When life is through.

Every Second Needs A First

No fruit at the top
Is found on a crop
With nothing below.
Before that, indeed,
There must be good seed
To make it all grow.

The way to be bolder
Is stand on the shoulder
Of someone who’s already bold.
You’ll only be taller,
If once you were smaller.
For only the golden are gold.

No letter, no mail.
There’s only a sale
If something is sold.
No moisture, no hail.
There’s only a tale
If a story is told.


Two plus two
Is quite a few.
Four plus four
Is twice as more.
Six plus six,
You’re in a fix,
For two hands then
Make only ten.
The proper sum
From toes must come.

The range of numbers has no end,
What each one means you cannot bend.
And then to add to all your cares,
There’s plus and minus, roots and squares.
How much nicer would it be
If there were only one, two, three.

Those are my rhymes. Here are Benoit’s poems.

Ghosts and angels

I will not wait on the threshold.
I will wander into wet fields and ghost mountains
Until I lose my way.
I will then call for help,
Hoping for the coming of green and grey angels
Escorted by wild beasts which they tame
If no other mission requires them.

We will all stay in the incandescent shadow
That covers and burns these bounties,
Watching over the luxuriant desert
Where one’s path is found once it’s lost.

Pocket landscape

The soul - as misty
As the winter hills -
Lies down, and the breeze
Soon bares her chest.
Once clouds are gone
Where will be hiding
The soul, the soul just as misty
As are the mornings on the hills?

Moving away

Be the curve of my sight and the touch of my hand,
You, crest of the Southern mountains
That floats from one ocean to the next
With the easy melancholy only mastered
By things that don’t need to stand firm,
The things in which dwells the spirit
Who knows how to move volumes and lines
Till they picture music to the eyes and the breath
- The breath that moves along the crest
of the Southern mountains.

Not moving anymore

Trees and peaks go briskly on the road
As I stand still. The tunes they hum,
I perceive them only vaguely, such is the speed.
The birds are at pain to follow, and finally decide
To gather around the salty dream I have become.
Fruits fallen on the way nourish me, and fonts
Born in my throat flow down towards the roots
Of the ground that transfixes me.

Speak low

A night as blue as a bird’s tail
Speaks low to the ear of the leaves,
Telling of immensurable spaces that are buried
- So says the night - into the cells,
the sand and the foam.

There is a well that collects the white secrets
The night is breathing away,
A well as deep as the palm and the pupil.

Purple is the sound of the sea
When morning comes
– the sea that at dawn returns to the caves
The secrets sung low to the leaves.

The biggest difference between my verse and Benoit’s poems is that strip the rhyme and meter from mine and there is practically nothing left, whereas his thoughtful inspiration without any rhyme achieves its high level of meaning and emotion.

As rhymer, I hope the readers will get a kick out of my plays with sounds and words. As poet Benoit hopes that others will encounter the realty and feel the throbbing pulse throbbing beneath the surface trappings that camouflage what lies below.

Actually, I am more than just a rhymer. I also compose poems that I hope are more than grand sounding songs, as the following suggests:

Some are quite funny;
Some of them sad;
Some full of wonder;
Some of them glad.
Some are pretentious
And meant to impress,
In others I try
To plainly express
The feelings that I
Found deep in my heart.
And sometimes depart
From meter and rhyme
To echo and show
The ebb and the flow
Of my mood at the time.



Published in
Focus: Poetry and Song

Saturday, 08 December 2007 00:00

The Appeal of poetry

People express and communicate ideas and messages through language. Before the invention of alphabets and hieroglyphs and other symbolic ways of preserving and communicating, such as the pounding on hollow logs by African natives, the smoke signals of American Indians and pictographs drawn on cave walls, language was expressed only by gestures and spoken sounds. Nowadays we are bombarded not just by conversations, but by barrages of words spewing out of radios, TV sets, and phones and an endless array of newspapers, magazines and books. Some of these communications are mainly utilitarian, relating news events, imparting information, recording data, instructing, etc. Others are intended for pleasure or amusement, like stories, humor, drama, musical lyrics and finally poetry, which is what this is mostly about.
Written language is generally divided into “prose” and “poetry”. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “prose” as “ordinary speech or writing, without metrical structure.” It is the type of expression generally found in books and newspapers. Some prose, however, is considered to be “literature” in the sense of “imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value (American Heritage Dictionary).” This kind of literature does more than just narrate facts. By its choice of words and the way it describes a scene or event, it portrays colors and evokes feelings and moods and brings out a wealth of subtle, hidden meanings between the words. It is a pleasant aesthetic experience.
Take for instance the famous first paragraph of Charles Dickens’ novel “A Tale of Two Cities”:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Contrast that with the way a journalist or reporter might have put it:

It was the year 1775. To some people everything was as good as it could get. To others things were as bad as ever. Those who had it good wanted nothing to change. Those who had it bad wanted to overthrow everything. There was hope on one side and despair on the other. Just like modern times it generated a lot of tension and uneasiness.
Both versions express more or less the same idea, but Dickens is much more graphic and sensitive and moving. The second one could serve as introduction to a book or article and who knows it might eventually receive a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, but ordinarily literature that is acclaimed artistically is full of color and vivid descriptions and feelings. The reader is left not just with a mass of detailed information, but a sense of pleasant aesthetic experience arising from images created by the writer’s choice and crafting of words.
Take another example, this time the first part of the first paragraph setting the scene for the first episode in the famous novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. An unimaginative writer might have begun like this:

Two men are sitting in a forest. The trees are so close to each other the sun’s rays barely pass through, but there are some open sections through which a person can easily see for some distance.

Contrast that with what the novelist wrote:
In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster. …

The sun was setting upon one of the rich grassy glades of that forest, … Hundreds of broad-headed, short-stemmed, wide-branched oaks, which had witnessed perhaps the stately march of the Roman soldiery, flung their gnarled arms over a thick carpet of the most delicious green sward; in some places they were intermingled with beeches, hollies, and copewood of various descriptions, so closely as totally to interrupt the level beams of the sinking sun; in others they receded from each other, forming those long sweeping vistas, in the intimacy of which the eye delights to lose itself, while imagination considers them as the paths to yet wilder scenes of sylvan solitude. Here the red rays of the sun shot a broken and discoloured light, that partially hug upon the shattered boughs and mossy trunks of the trees, and there they illuminated in brilliant patches the portions of turf to which they made their way. …

The human figures that completed this landscape, were in number two, partaking, in their dress and appearance, of that wild and rustic character, which belonged to the woodlands of the West-Riding of Yorkshire of that period.

Sir Walter’s description is much more vivid. A mood is created and we have details with which to create a mental picture of the scene.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “poetry” as “a piece of literature written in meter; verse”. There are several things that distinguish poetry from prose. Traditionally poems are written as a series of lines in each of which the words are arranged in more or less identical patterns of accented and unaccented syllables (the meter), which gives the poem a cadence when read aloud. The last words of each line are usually expected to rhyme. Another important thing that distinguishes poetry is its choice and use of words. To fit the meter, the order in which words are presented is often different from that in ordinary prose, but even more significantly, the words are often selected for the way they sound or they are given underlying meanings and nuances or evoke images that create a mood or symbolically express ideas about reality that go beyond the literal meaning of the words. Poetic diction often uses verbal devices like assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia and rhythm, which often leave the poem deliberately vague, ambiguous, suggestive, mysterious, ironic, or symbolic.
The reader of a poem is not only entertained by the poet’s literary style, but is moved to see reality in a new light. As one expert put it (Polish historian of aesthetics Vladyslaw Tatarkiewicz in an article “The Concept of Poetry”, quoted in “Poetry,” Wikipedia Free Encyclopedia) poetry is “an art based on language” and “expresses a certain state of mind”. According to poet Archibald MacLeish (same source) “A poem should not mean / but be”.
Here are several examples illustrating the differences between prose and poetry. In the first, look at a brief observation someone might make about trees:
No poem is as nice as a tree, which rooted in the ground lifts its branches to the sky, alternately washed by rain or covered with snow. Sometimes birds build their nests in it. Anybody can write a poem, but only God makes trees.

That is all very true, but so dull and ordinary, no one will ever remember it or quote it. Not so the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

As a second example, look at what this person who is not a poet might have written in a letter to his mother:

I was walking along and came upon a lot of flowers on the edge of the lake under the trees. There were thousands of them blowing in the wind. It was a very pleasant sight that I recall with pleasure.

Contrast that with the poem “Daffodils” written by William Wordsworth:

I wander’d lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine And twinkle on the Milky Way, They stretch’d in never-ending line Along the margin of a bay: Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they Out-did the sparkling waves in glee: A poet could not but be gay, In such a jocund company: I gazed -- and gazed -- but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie In vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye Which is the bliss of solitude; And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Finally, here is how a rather dull preacher might express himself about man’s disregard for God’s creation:

Why don’t men recognize or heed the signs of God’s presence in the world like the flashes of lightning, the reflections of light or the properties of oil? Men are spoiling and destroying the world by the senseless ways they act. In spite of all this God continues to renew and bless nature with his loving care.

Compare this with the way that the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says the same thing in his moving poem “God’s Grandeur”.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Not everyone appreciates poetry. Collections of poems seldom, if ever, rate high on bestseller lists. Many readers of fiction and non-fiction and subscribers to magazines that cater to special interests look down on poetry, consider poets as idyllic dreamers at best or soft and unmanly at worst. They lack the patience and the inclination to waste time on such pretension for playing around with words.
They don’t know what they are missing and have no desire to find out.
The earliest poetry that has survived to the present is the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamish from the 3rd century B.C. There were many epics in ancient times. The poetic form might have made them easier to remember and recite by storytellers. Since then poetry has evolved into many forms including free verse, that is, poems with lines of unequal length, no rhyming and sometimes no meter. Their emphasis is on expressing ideas in a poetic way. There are also examples of prose that are considered poetic because of the way the ideas are expressed in language similar in style or content to what is found in poems.
There are many kinds of poems. Some tell stories; some are meant to instruct; some are meant to convey the writer’s feelings or reflections about reality; some just use meter and rhyme as ways to entertain saying things that are clever or satiric or are whimsical or funny.

Friday, 23 February 2007 00:00

Treacherous Island

Two birch-trees and one monsoon frog
Converse under the majestic archway
That leads to Treacherous Island’s principal deity.
Tea leaves cover the slopes of the iceberg; rice fields
Give harvests of chestnuts; stones, shells and blades
Render the same tenuous sound; the wave never
Reaches the sand, the sand never offends the wind.

Birch-trees and monsoon frogs have little in common,
A few words, none of them coming from their mother tongues,
A few words left by Gulliver when he left these banks, a few
Words - just enough for their evening entertainment.
The principal deity remains mute, leaving ordinarily the talking
To the stars and the crabs, to the deer and the figs.

Here, men and trees are entrenched in bitter rivalry.
It seems that long ago men had roots, trees were free.
The trees were protecting these dwarfs from vultures and hyenas,
And, when the assault became too ferocious, the king tree
Consumed a sacrifice for the sweetest of the maiden, planting its feet Into the soil and freeing her from the same links, unknowing
That her descent one day would ax the fairest of its sons.

The evening is green and salty. On the top of the hill, the trees
Again recount past deeds with slow motions of the branches,
And the birds try to remember which foliage belongs to whom
Before hiding within the trunk - for these birds fear the stars.

The deity suddenly yawns, her hand raised up to the nostril.
Everything stops. Nothing happens. And the stars and the crabs
And the deer and the figs elaborate a bridge of bites and sounds
That overwhelms the poor talking of the frogs and the trees.

Below the majestic archway used to live an old witch
Hidden within a small sanctuary built for a long-forgotten hero.
She is gone now. She flew away the day a young woman
With green, curved eyes came from nowhere and silently took on
The witch’s duties.
The young woman has no name, no voice, no genealogy.
She is seen sometimes in the wood,
Speaking in her own fashion to the dead.

Such are the ways of the island.
Things just happen because it should not be that way.
And the stars and the crabs and the deer and the figs celebrate
The treacherous deity who lets them live and speak and again speak.

Frogs and birch-trees know far too much for joining in the feast

Where will I go after the night?
Into the limitless whiteness.
And I will sit there, with slow motions of the two hands.
As does a wind-up monkey with a drum.
I will sit there. In the Nowhere.
In the Nowhere so white as to defy the Artic tongues.
The countless words for “snow.” The meager word for “death.”
The whiteness has no banks.
The silence has no banks.
Except for the short night that still is to be crossed.

I fear and love water as I fear death
And try to love the thought of it,
A thought as small as these fishes purple and blue
Ten meters below the level, a thought
Sometimes as big and grey
As the monsters, lower, I never saw.

Reefs all around the island, reefs
Before and maybe after death, reefs
Green and black, reefs within me,
And the sea dugs deeper when she sees
The rocks that do not dare defy the rising waves.

Under the level of the sea,
Stories evolve into fishes,
Grainy philosophies into the stones and their flora,
And as to the giant waves that surge from the below
Nobody knows for sure what they were like before there was the sea.

This is not a country where you will find an apple-tree,
It is too shrewd or innocent for hosting fruits like these,
The fruits it grows bleed when you speak to them
And cry the cries of love once in your mouth.
The fruits are that treasure that disappears as soon as discovered.
This is not a country where you will find an apple-tree.

Fishes as sweet as pebbles are wandering
Throughout the night of the sea, and my eyes
Are lost in the drawer that hides the stars and the candies.
I have grasped the tree of coral, and the bliss
Of being alive reverberates into my knees.
Treacherous Island, I love thee, I love
The deceptive sound of the waves, I love
The insidious poison that makes the palm-trees grow
From the scars of the sea to the salt of the sky.

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