Of Peking and Poetry! True Story.

20 12 2010

Ok, so I’m back after an 18 day sojourn in the world’s most populous and (depending on your country of origin, perhaps) in many ways, this decade’s most popular country. I think I just lost all my Tibetan and Taiwanese fans.

I really like China. Its people are pragmatic, yet principled, capitalists almost free in a socialist state. At once, they are intensely private people and yet spend almost all their waking hours in public.

It was about 3AM on whatever time my iPhone happened to be keeping at 35 000 feet over the Pacific Ocean. My hopes for decent sleep on a flight were, as almost always, unfoundedly optimistic. My attention span was nowhere near long enough for an episode of “King of Queens”, let alone a feature film. So I thought “Stuff it! Can’t sleep, I’m going to write a poem!”.

Here, therefore, is:

Beijing:Dusk to Dawn

Kaleidoscope air chokes.

Blanketing smog wields

icy fingers which poke

at barren inch fields,



Chestnuts on her grill cook.

Heavy laden smiles,

Chattering nieu Borgeoise look,

willing winter-philes,

In awe.


Hutong gates clatter brittle.

Children barely wakened huddle,

brash bus clearing skittles.

Traffic in a muddle,

it pours.


Noodles, greasy, steamy

through the grimy window. Gazing

at the gazer. See me

through the veil of glazing.

Our eyes.

Poetry, perhaps like contemporary art, may seem to many not actually in the industry as having lost its way. There is always the debate about technique versus expression. Can you really say you are an artist if you can’t master the techniques required to produce something which at least resembles something in the real world? Apparently, you can. The ‘Alamo position’ defended by such an artist is “Aha! ..but I DID it and you didn’t”. I’m prepared to give them that one, moreso than $10 000 hard-earned for a giant red square or poop sculpture.

Similarly, with poetry, I think it is fair to say that since virtually-free-prose has taken over as the dominant form, the popularity of poetry has perhaps declined. Certainly, most men wouldn’t be caught dead reading poetry, let alone writing it, without a gorgeous woman in pursuit. OK, I have no woman in pursuit these days through I think I’m pretty comfortable dying with some John Donne or Robert Frost in hand. Let’s just pray that it’s a long time from now and that I’m wearing a little more than cartooned boxers!

However, I really like poetry. Reading it and writing it. At the risk of feeling like I have just made the first step of twelve, allow me to explain. I like to see that a poet can work within limitations before breaking them beyond recognition. The piece above is an example of what I like to do with poetry.

Perhaps my biggest criticism with High School English was not the material, but the criticism (or is that “analysis”? I could never much tell the real difference). You see we’d read, then highlight photocopies of commentary on the text which apparently told you what it meant. I was, therefore, rather shocked early in my first year of senior English to learn that such commentaries were not written by authors! I found it hard to comprehend that others could inform the ignorant about meaning which is scarcely more than guesswork. Apparently my view was wrong.

So, since this is my blog, if you’ll allow me, I’ll take all the literary magic away and explain this poem, from an author’s point of view. With a disclaimer akin to the scores being shown for the AFL for other games also being played: “if you don’t want to know, look away now”! That last reference assumes a knowledge of AFL culture AND an interest in poetry???!!! Eternally the optimist!

OK, I guess I intended this one on three levels: structurally, semantically and symbolically. I like the challenge of working the text like gouache within a tight framework. Here, the poem is four stanzas at five lines a piece. The rhythm of each is 27 syllables (plus or minus two). The rhyming is relatively straightforward, terminal at lines 1/3 & 2/4, though the last line of stanzas one and four also rhyme, as do those in stanzas two and three.

I should note that I liked the use of the dominant syllables in these last words/phrases. “Awry” and “Our eyes” not only sound very similar but semantically are linked in this poem. Awry can mean “out of place” and certainly “our eyes” is a cultural reference, perhaps the strongest in Chinese culture which draws fundamental differences on the basis of eye shape to determine ethnicity. Westerners are “Round Eyes” whilst Easterners are “Almond eyes”. Attitudes, expectations and even prices are determined on this one key difference. So, yeah, the words worked this concept with a certain synergy, I guess. The author is certainly “out of place” as determined by “our eyes”.

There are many references semantically here that those less familiar with China could easily miss. I will just point out a few here. Firstly “Kaleidoscope air”, I feel accurately describes the scene you typically see in a Chinese environment. The Chinese embrace the duality of deep tradition with rapid change and probably do lights better than anyone. However, you find a Chinese urban landscape has a dynamic quality of light and colour, they like constantly changing colour, thus no two photos will ever be exactly the same of the same street at night. Just like the image through a kid’s kaleidoscope.

“Barren inch fields” is a reference to exposed skin, particularly since the Chinese are not endowed with as much body hair, exposed skin tends to get “poked” a bit when it’s blowing well below zero!! I also liked the macro (the whole atmosphere) meeting the micro (tiny portions of exposed skin) and still causing a reaction!

Hutongs are traditional courtyard villages, usually gated, that used to be very common in Chinese towns and cities. There is sense here of order, family, community in the massive urban sprawl.

Finally, I like glass. It is, despite the myth that it is a slow-flowing liquid, quite solid but has the remarkable ability to look anything but at times. The extreme cold and the overbearing warmth within, combined with years of half-hearted cleaning in a cheap hole-in-the-wall dai pai dong (sorry, only have the Cantonese, I have no idea what the slang is in Mandarin) leaves greasy streaks that the condensation runs down. Thus, it looks more like a curtain in the breeze, affording an incomplete and obscured view.

It is in the last stanza that the symbolism is best summed up. “We only get an obscured view of a culture when visiting, even though the mind tends to take the fragment to create the whole picture as it wants to see it. To somehow make sense of a world too foreign to completely grasp at once.

At its most brutal, cultural differences can be dichotomous. Black, white, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Christian, round eyes, almond eyes. This is not even necessarily a wrong thing, it is not morality discussed in this poem. Purely that in order to comprehend the world through another’s eyes we often contrast the differences with our own, even down to the ‘camera’!

You’re still reading? Wow, this is probably the most self-indulgent blog I have written on this site thus far. If you are still here, you are either: a) on holidays, b) a poetry lover, c) have no wet paint to watch or d) well, you get the picture.. how do I know why you are still reading, but thanks! šŸ™‚

Oh, and Merry Christmas, whatever your particular eye-shape is!




2 responses

20 12 2010

Well, a) and c) especially, Mick, but b) also holds an interest for me. You may also be surprised to know that I, along with at least two of my close friends, am part of your poetry-admiring, AFL-familiar cohort. Who says football and culture don’t go together? Oh, that’s right, Collingwood ;0) Jokes aside, I love your summary of the poem, and your assertion of the subjectivity of such a brief cultural experience. I’m currently in the UK, and am enjoying seeing sides of London that I hadn’t seen before. But, as you eluded to, I’m keenly aware of the fact that my perception of what I’m seeing and experiencing is entirely subjective, based on my own culture, ethnicity, and world-view. My own “round eyes”, if you will. The thing that strikes me most of all, tragic as its consequences can sometimes be, is the way in which we CAN see things so differently.
The mind is truly amazing in the way it can build a picture of so many things–objects, feelings, or even a culture–based on little more than referents and inference. The thing that is even more amazing to me than that is, even though the inference may be entirely wrong, we invest ourselves in the inference so much that we presume it to be true. But I digress…
Even though the mind is possibly one of the most fallible things in the universe, that fallibility has an inherent beauty; reflected in the likes of art and self-expression, such your chosen form–the poem. Without that subjectivity, which I think is the cornerstone of uniqueness, we would have a very bland existence.
Thanks for you uniqueness, Mick, your poem, and your pontifications ;0)
Merry Christmas to you and yours.


20 12 2010

Wow, very nicely written comment Dan!! It is fascinating to think that there are a few blokes out there that like AFL, possibly a beer or two and maybe a stanza or two of poetry in the off-season!! As for the cultural comments I would have to agree that the English are an interesting culture. The older our nation gets the divide between our outlooks seems to widen. I’d have to admit that culturally, we are growing more similar to the US, or, if that gives you a fit, perhaps more Canada. New World with English roots and the perception of distance from the English-speaking world’s McCulture.

Dan, likewise with the seasonal blessings! Remembering our Lord,

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