Arthur Sze’s poems, like those of the haiku masters he translated early in his career, almost always offer us an immediate impression–a clear image, a question to ponder, an emotional resonance–on first reading. But we also recognize there is much more to them.
In their juxtaposition of deftly rendered images, vivid sensual detail, and subtle shifts in tone and perspective, Sze’s poems invite us to return time and again to savor them. Each time we do, we make little discoveries that often seem to sneak up on us with their emotional resonance. It’s easy to believe these discoveries were also made by the poet as he revisited and reworked these poems. They have the feeling of being the result of prolonged and repeated meditation, and invite the same from their reader.
Their frequent disruptions of narrative syntax should not lead us to mistake Sze for a surrealist or post-modern poet. Although well aware of his contemporaries, the poems are influenced as much by the Asian as by the Western tradition.
In Way Lim-Yip’s introduction to his anthology Chinese Poetry, he writes about its impact on Western Literature, and the difference between English syntax and the Chinese ideogram. In Chinese, ideograms can be placed in a sequence that does not rely on syntax, so the reader moves from image to image, and that rhythm of perception is the experience of the poem. The poem is not built by syntax. It is built by the attempt to create a rhythm of perception.
When William Carlos Williams writes the “Red Wheel Barrow”, he is attempting, according to Lim-Yip, to do the same thing in English. Just as a sequence of ideograms isolates images, allows us to perceive them one at a time, and moves us through a sequence of perceptions orchestrated by the poet, so does the placement of images down the page in English. What’s true of Williams is true of all poetry in English: the basic unit of construction is not the sentence, but the line.
But since the explosion of free-verse, poets like Williams, H.D., Levertov, Snyder, Sze and many others have shown the influence of Asian poetry in their attempts to move the reader from image to image and to create, not only a rhythm in the language, but a rhythm of perception. A poet shapes the reader’s experience much as a filmmaker does the viewer’s.
For example, when we walk through an art museum, we may linger long over one image and barely glance at another. How and where we pause will shape our experience. But watching a film set in the same museum would be very different.
Filmmakers take control away from us and shape our experience by determining for us how long we linger over each image. They know a series of rapid smash cuts has a very different feel from a slow sequence of lingering fade-ins and fade-outs. Editors will labor incessantly over such sequences, shaving off a tenth of a second here, adding another tenth of a second there. (Ignoring a poet’s use of line breaks is like fast forwarding through a film.) An espionage thriller and a romantic comedy shot in the same museum will linger over very different images.
This is exactly what a poet does with rhythm, syntax, line-length, white space and placement on the page. And Arthur Sze is a master. For evidence, read his beautiful “At the Equinox” and some of his other poems on the Academy of American Poets’ here and the Poetry Foundation’s website here.
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