This is a Poem, That is a Fly


Good morning!  It's nice to be back at Argonne and to see so many familiar faces here. People often asked me how did I get interested in poetry.  I always told them that it all started with a fly.  A fly?  They thought I was joking.  But I was serious.  You see,  A Fly is the title of a poem I read when I was young.  It was written by a Japanese poet.  Here is the translation of the poem: 


Don't disturb her

she is rubbing her hands and feet.


            That's all.  Only two lines.  But it opened  my eyes to poetry and the world ever since.  I asked myself:  How come I did not see this before?  What an interesting world it would be if we could all see that, even with something tiny and ugly and dirty like a fly, it has its own beauty and meaning in life.   And if we could all feel and behave like the poet, kind and considerate, not even willing to disturb a fly, our world would become a peaceful and much more livable place indeed.  With such respect and compassion toward life, I cannot imagine anyone could deliberately kill a living thing such as a fly, much less a human being.

            A few weeks ago I was invited to give a talk on poetry at the Chinese American Librarians Association's  Annual Conference at Loyola University,  I used a rather strange title This Is A Poem, That Is A Fly.  When I mentioned the title to my wife before the talk, she jokingly asked me how to tell a fly and a poem apart?  I said that's easy.  If I pound on the desk, and it flies away, then it's a fly, not a poem.   But if you know my wife, you would know she does not give up so easily.  She asked: what if this thing does not fly away?  Will it be a poem then?

That was a rather tough question, because it involved the definition of poetry.  And if you ask 100 poets what is poetry, you would probably get 100 different answers. To me,  poetry is a form of literature that can convey or express the deepest human feeling and emotion with the least amount of words.  In my opinion, there are several things a poem should have in order to be a good poem.  

First of all, a poem should be INTERESTING, having an interesting topic or an interesting form to attract attention.  If a poem is dull and flat, nobody is going to read it, or at least not going to finish reading it. 

Second,  it must give us something NEW.  New insight, new idea, or new meaning.  However, this new insight, new idea or new meaning must be based on our experiences so that we can somehow relate to it.   In other words, this new thing is not really new but it's there all the time.  But because of our ignorance or jaded vision, we overlook or fail to observe it.  Now when a poet points it out to us, we will be surprised and say: Wow!  How true!.  Why didn't I notice that before?  Such awareness or sudden realization can usually touch and inspire us and lead to a better understanding of the world around us.

Third, a good poem must be music to our ear.  By that I don't mean to say that a poem should sound like a nursery rhyme or a popular song.  What we are interested in is the internal rhythm that rises and falls like the heartbeat or breathing of a living thing.  As poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972) once said, and I quote,


 " Poetry withers and dries out when it leaves music, or at least imagined music, too far behind it.  Poets who are not interested in music are, or become, bad poets." unquote.


Last but most important, a good poem should possess several layers of meanings.  If a poem has only one fixed meaning,  it will become boring after you read it a few times.  Nothing new is coming out of it, and it will therefore stop growing like a dead tree, and eventually become a dead poem.    A successful poem should be able to provoke different responses and emotions from different readers, or from the same reader at different times with different moods.   Based on one's own background and experience,  a reader can share the joy of creativity by adding his or her own imagination and interpretation to the poem.  In this sense, a poem is never complete without the participation and cooperation of the reader.  I always like to quote a poem written by William Carlos Williams as an example.  William Carlos Williams was born in 1883 and died in 1963.  He was a physician in a small town in New Jersey.   The title of the poem is called The Act.  Here is the poem:


There were the roses, in the rain.

Don't cut them, I pleaded.

            They won't last, she said

But they're so beautiful

            Where they are.

Agh, we were all beautiful once, she said

and cut them and gave them to me

            in my hand.


Here the poem gives us plenty of room for imagination.  For instance, we could ask: what is the relationship between the speaker and the woman?  are they husband and wife?  If so, has she become so old and insecure that she can not stand the sight of beautiful things any more? Or if they are lovers,  perhaps the reason she wants to cut the roses is because he pays too much attention to the roses instead of her.  Or does she just want to keep the best  images of the roses in her memory before they wither?  Why does the speaker plead for the roses?  Does he do it just for the sake of beauty or for some other reasons?  Anyway, there are lots of possibilities. The poem simply provides us a stage and an act.  How to interpret it is up to the reader.


I myself have a poem called Bird Cage:






let the bird fly






the cage





A colleague of mine at Energy System Division once told me that he really liked the poem, but he wasn't quite sure of its real meaning.  One day he came to my office and said, I got it!  I asked,  what did you get?  He said now I understand the meaning of giving freedom back to the cage.  We are the cage, and OJ Simpson is the bird.  We let him off the hook and now we are all free.  We don't have to suffer and watch the endless TV coverage anymore.  I told him that although I liked his interpretation,  I was sure he would find many more and might have different understanding of the poem in the future.  

Often a  good poem can recall for us some happy event in our life; or bring back a beautiful scene from our memory.  It shows us the world is still full of interesting  and exciting things.  It makes us feel that it is so beautiful and wonderful to be alive.


To quote an English author Ford Maddox Ford (1873-1939)'s words: "The quality of great poetry is that without comment as without effort it presents you with images that stir your emotions; so you are made a better man; you are softened, rendered more supple of mind, more open to the vicissitudes and necessities of your fellow men." unquote.


A few days ago I read a letter in the Voice of the People in Chicago Tribune.  The letter was written by a lady from Chicago.   In the letter, she asked:  "Is it a coincidence that this generation of adolescents expresses their feelings in bullets rather than poetry, paintings and performance? "  When I read it, the scenes of the recent school violence came to my mind and I agreed totally with her observations that learning to articulate one's feelings and thoughts through the arts has always been what has kept us sane.  Only a couple of days ago, an 11-years-old girl standing at a Chicago Southside street corner was struck and killed by a bullet.  This reminds me of a poem I wrote several years ago for a similar event.  The title of the poem is called Hopscotch: 


Standing in the way

of a bullet's joyflight

another little girl fell

on a blood-stained pavement


A triumphant smile

crossed her twisted face

as she finally managed

to plant both feet


in the chalked squares


I know that poetry, like many other things, is powerless before a bullet.  But I do believe that by instilling poetry early into our children's mind, we probably could save a few lives and prevent such violence and tragedies from happening again and again.


So much for my thoughts on poetry.  Now I would like to share with you some poems from my book, Autumn Window.  I can't really objectively tell whether or not they fit my own definition of good poetry.  I believe you, as the readers, are in a better position to judge them than myself.



Presented at Argonne National Laboratory, May 26, 1999, for the celebration of Asian Heritage Month.