01 November 2010

Wang Ping

When a poet works in a second language, it is easier for her/him to ignore the nuances of the language.  This seems to be what is happening to Wang Ping, at least when she talks about her own poetry:

"When I started reading, I started writing in both Chinese and English. After I began writing for awhile, though, I realized that my style writing in Chinese was very conservative, whereas my English-language poetry was much looser and freer. I felt I had much more freedom in English - my way of thinking in poetic images was somehow quite natural."

I think she feels "somehow quite natural" in a second language because she does not have the restrictions imposed by centuries of Chinese poetic tradition.  It is good and bad that a poet writes in a language other than the mother tongue.  On the one hand, it is good that the poet freely moves around the second language, something those born into that language cannot do because their minds have already been molded by the language.  It is, therefore, good for a language to have second-language poets working with it.  On the other hand, a poet should not forget that poetry, like everything else in life, is structured by history (or as critics like to put it, "constituted").  Veering away from tradition is just ignorance, not skill.  By not having the knowledge that a mother-tongue poet has, the second-language poet runs the real risk of reinventing the wheel.

Take these lines from Wang Ping's "Syntax":

"Language, like woman,
Look best when free, undressed." 

The deliberate use of the ungrammatical verb is in keeping with the general theme of the poem, but the image is not correct.  I am a heterosexual male, but I cannot imagine a woman looking better naked than with a few pieces of clothing.  There is a reason painters and sculptors cover even a small portion of the body of a naked woman:  clothing increases rather than decreases sexual desire.  How else explain the unattractiveness of the naked breasts of some tribal women?  Similarly, to follow the metaphor of the lines, "To be or not to be" looks much better than "Decide."  Undressed language never looks better than dressed or poetic language.

1 comment:

  1. You realise, of course, that you have just spelled out an ars erotica in your final paragraph. LOL.

    Indeed, poetry finds its plenitude in its synecdoches even as the coy habiliments over exposed body parts "increases sexual desire." Unlike Wang Ping, I subscribe to "dressed" language, while I guard against verbal diarrhea.

    Indeed, I use structure, forms, and traditions of second languages like the haiku and hokku to sharpen imagery that I write more conveniently in English (See my posts on "Graveyard Epitaphs" and "Haikus on Twigs"). I intend to write a full post on this that incidentally would validate your point: It is good for language to have second language poets working with it.

    I think Wang Ping neglected to consider that Chinese ideography is not "undressed" -- it draws palpable pictures of a universe of ideas caught in disparate world views. In other words, the mother tongue does not countenance the nudity of language. Within the strokes of its ideographs lie the "dressed woman" who would look her best in her cheongsam.