Written Form as Poetry

In his book, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, Ernest Fenollosa, a former professor of philosophy at Tokyo University and curator for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, uses linguistic analysis to illustrate the poetic potential of Chinese characters. Fenollosa was one of the earliest promoters of Asian art in North America. Ezra Pound, his literary executor, compiled and published the book in 1920, two years after Fenollosa’s death. Fenollosa’s analysis assumes that Chinese is strictly a pictorial language. His methods are not universal, because Chinese symbols trigger both the memory of sound and meaning. However, Fenollosa correctly noted the absence of grammatical separation in Chinese language. He says that “In reading Chinese we do not seem to be juggling mental counters, but to be watching things work out their own fate.” Meaning evolves through a specific arrangement of words and, as such, poetry describes the relation of things. As Fenollosa explains, “poetic thought works by suggestion, crowding maximum meaning into the single phrase pregnant, charged and luminous from within.” Metaphor is a device that bridges the visible and tangible with the phenomenal and intangible. Accordingly, great poetry shows, in a concrete manner, the exchanges that occur between things; pictograms themselves act as visible signs of elements interacting. For Fenollosa, “poetic language is always vibrant with fold on fold of overtones and with natural affinities, but in Chinese the visibility of the metaphor tends to raise this quality to its intensest power.” Chinese language arises from a logic of lived experience and dynamism – the logic of process. In this context, Chinese characters are never sole descriptors of things (nouns) or actions (verbs). Fenollosa writes:

A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature. Things are only the terminal points, or rather the meeting points, of actions, cross-sections cut through actions, snap-shots. Neither can a pure verb, an abstract motion, be possible in nature. The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things, and so the Chinese conception tends to represent them.

For example, an eye above a pair of legs represents the character “see.” Thus, the act of seeing describes an eye (noun) in movement (verb). In a sentence such as “man sees horse,” “man” is two legs converging to a point, “see” is an eye propped above legs, and “horse” is a head perched on four legs. According to this logic, the man with moving eyes sees the horse. Fenollosa argues that a the significant function of a Chinese character reveals itself only when in direct relation to a specific order with other words. This is only possible because a Chinese character is simultaneously an object and a verb – a thing and the thing in action.

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