Learning Cantonese: Liu Wai-tong’s Three Answers to Poetry

In six sweet minutes, the Hong Kong poet 廖偉棠 Liu Wai-tong talks poetry, giving you the many benefits of his long years as a writer. One of my favourite moments comes when he asks

我哋(嘅)語言點樣從一個美麗嘅事物 | 慢慢變成咗我哋日常中我哋只係將佢作為種工具嚟使用呢?

which means, roughly, “Why has our language gone from being such a beautiful thing to a mere tool we make use of in our daily lives?” Perhaps that sentence alone will be enough to start you thinking along poetic lines . . .

From the Cantonese perspective, there is plenty of vocabulary to take away from Liu’s video. Items include 覺悟 gok3 ngh6 = ① come to realize ② consciousness; 歸結 gwāi1 git3 = to sum up; to put in a nutshell; 獨一無二 duhk6 yāt1 mòuh4 yih6 = unique; unparalleled; unmatched; 瘋狂 fūng1 kòhng4 = ① insane ② frenzied; unbridled; 打磨 dáa2 mòh4 = to polish; to burnish; to shine; 素材 sou3 chòih4 = source material (of literature & art); 外星人 ngoih6 sīng1 yàhn4 = a person from outer space; an extra-terrestrial being; an alien; and 習以為常 jaahp6 yíh5 wàih4 sèuhng4 = be used to sth.; be accustomed to sth.

You can watch the video here (the subtitles are, for a nice change, in Cantonese!). For my transcription, notes and very unpoetical English translation, please see below.

Caption: 廖偉 | 詩人說詩

大家好,我係廖偉堂 | 好高興今日可以喺呢度 | 同大家分享我對詩嘅一啲覺悟 | 其實,主要想同大家解答 | 三個經常見到嘅關於詩嘅問題

Caption: 一篇好的詩歌有哪些元素?

第一個呢,就係一首好詩有啲咩要素?| 其實呢個問題嘅答案非常之多 | 噉對於我嚟講呢,可以歸結成三個要素:| 先驗嘅、經驗嘅,同埋超驗嘅 | 聽起上嚟好似係哲學問題 | 其實,對於詩人嚟講 | 先驗指向嘅係佢嘅情感 | 因為詩人嘅情感呢 | 係同成個人類嘅 | 歷史發展以嚟嘅各種情感係交織埋一齊嘅 | 我哋寫詩呢 | 就係要重視、珍惜 | 同埋挖掘自己嘅情感嘅來源

● 覺悟 gok3 ngh6 = ① come to realize ② consciousness | ● 解答 gáai2 daap3 = to answer | ● 要素 yiu3 sou3 = essential factor; key element | ● 歸結 gwāi1 git3 = to sum up; to put in a nutshell | ● 先驗 sīn1 yihm6 = a priori | ● 超驗 chīu1 yihm6 = transcendental | ● 指向 jí2 heung3 = (?) to point at; to refer to | ● 交織 gāau1 jīk1 = to intertwine; to interweave; to mingle | ● 挖掘 waat3 gwaht6 = to excavate; to unearth

Caption: Liu Wai-tong | Poets on Poetry

Hello, everyone. I am Liu Wai-tong. I am very happy to be able to share with you here today some of the things I have come to realize [覺悟] about poetry. Actually, what I mainly wish to give you answers to are three common questions about poetry.

Caption: What are the elements of a good poem?

The first question is about what the key elements of a poem are. Actually, there are many answers to this question. As far as I am concerned, it can be summed up by three key elements: that which is prior to experience, experience [itself] and that which transcends experience. This makes it sound like a philosophical issue, but actually, for a poet, that which precedes experience refers to feelings. Because the feelings of a poet are interwoven with the many different feelings of the whole of humanity in its development through history, when we write poetry, we are valuing, treasuring and excavating the sources of our own feeling.

【1:00】通過咁呢種挖掘呢 | 可以同我哋嘅讀者 | 同我哋嘅同行,同其他藝術家 | 達成一種共情 | 至於經驗呢,非常之重要 | 我哋人生在世 | 可能經過咗十幾年、幾十年嘅歲月 | 我哋遭遇過好多好多獨一無二嘅也好 | 或者係同成個城市 | 成個時代其他人一齊經歷嘅事情又好 | 噉我哋就要從理性嘅角度去 | 喺入面呢,打撈出一啲呢,屬於我哋人類共同嘅智慧 | 呢種智慧可以非常之小 | 亦都可以非常之大 | 但係呢,一定會令我哋嘅讀者 | 包括我哋自己 | 去睇翻呢首詩嘅時候 | 發現到呢,一啲呢,點樣進行我哋未來 | 我哋面對我哋嘅命運嘅,一啲「想像」喺入面

● 共情 guhng6 chìhng4 = (?) literally, “common/shared feeing” | ● 遭遇 jōu1 yuh6 = to meet with; to encounter | ● 獨一無二 duhk6 yāt1 mòuh4 yih6 = unique; unparalleled; unmatched | ● 打撈 dáa2 làauh4 = to salvage; to dredge

By means of this excavation, we can attain to a kind of collective emotion [共情] with our readers, with other poets [同行] and with artists [working in different media]. With regard to experience, this is extremely important. Living here in this world, we might have spent a dozen or so years — or several decades — meeting with both many, many unique [experiences of our own] as well as feelings common to other people in [this] city as a whole, or in this period of time. What we have to do is — from the perspective of reason — to salvage something belonging to our collective wisdom from [all this]. This wisdom can be something extremely minor, or it can be something extremely major, but it has to be able to make our readers — including ourselves — discover when reading the poem something of the “imagination” in it, about how to conduct our future [lives] [or] how to face our destinies.

【2:00】第三點超驗呢,係指詩嘅語言 | 詩嘅語言我哋會覺得,啊,好似好瘋狂 | 或者係好難以理喻喎 | 其實,詩嘅語言呢,就同一個藝術品嘅打造一樣 | 佢係通過對我哋麻木咗嘅、功利性嘅 | 工具化嘅日常語言嘅打磨、變形 | 重新組合、構造 | 嚟帶領我哋呢,發現語言嘅秘密 | 就係我哋(嘅)語言點樣從一個美麗嘅事物 | 慢慢變成咗我哋日常中我哋只係將佢作為種工具嚟使用呢?| 噉當我哋發現到呢個秘密呢 | 我哋就可以嘗試去創造出 | 屬於自己嘅獨特嘅詩歌語言 | 嚟帶領我哋嘅讀者或者我哋自己 | 去重新認識呢個世界 | 呢首就會係一首非常之好嘅詩喇 | 如果做到呢 *nei 三種元素

● 瘋狂 fūng1 kòhng4 = ① insane ② frenzied; unbridled | ● 理喻 léih5 yuh6 = to reason with cf. 不可理喻 bāt1 hó2 léih5 yuh6 = be impervious to reason; won’t listen to reason | ● 打造 dáa2 jouh6 = to make | ● 功利 gūng1 leih6 = utility; material gin | ● 打磨 dáa2 mòh4 = to polish; to burnish; to shine | ● 變形 bin3 yìhng4 = be out of shape; become deformed | ● 組合 jóu2 hahp6 = to make up; to compose; to constitute | ● 構造 kau3 jouh6 = a structure; a construction | ● 嘗試 sèuhng4 si3 = to attempt; to try

[My] third point about that which transcends experience refers to the language of the poem. We all tend to think that the language of poetry is a bit like madness [瘋狂] or something that doesn’t listen to reason. Actually, the language of poetry is just like the making of a work of visual art. By polishing, deforming, reconstituting and structuring everyday language — a language that has become numb, utilitarian, instrumental — [we can let] it lead us to a discovery of the secret of language. Why has our language gone from being such a beautiful thing to a mere tool we make use of in our daily lives? When we have discovered this secret, we can try to create a unique poetic language belonging to us [alone], one that leads our readers — or we ourselves — to come to know the world in a new way. A poem that achieves this third element is an extremely good poem.

【3:00】Caption: 我可以從哪裏去收集寫作的材料?

第二點,我哋就經常會好困惑嘅 | 我哋點樣去攞我哋嘅寫作嘅素材呢?| 我哋生活喺呢 *nei 個非常之忙碌 | 亦都好似好無詩意嘅大都市入便 | 我哋成日都會慨嘆 | 我哋係咪要「為賦新詩強說愁」呢?| 其實根本唔係嘅 | 因為詩意無所不在 | 我哋需要嘅只不過係喺 | 呢 *nei 個城市或者呢 *nei 個當代生活中 | 去搵出可以同古代所謂嘅詩意 | 平等嘅一啲詩嘅素材 | 點樣搵出呢?| 就係我哋永遠要保持一種新奇 | 我哋經常要想像自己係一個 . . . | 比如話 | 「我係個剛剛嚟到地球 *gau(嘅)外星人」 | 比如話:「我係個未來嘅考古學家」 | 咁樣,喺呢 *nei 個我哋已經習以為常嘅生活入便 | 我哋就會覺得 | 咦,呢樣嘢 . . .

● 困惑 kwan3 waahk6 = perplexed; puzzled | ● 素材 sou3 chòih4 = source material (of literature & art) | ● 慨嘆 koi3 taan3 = to sigh with regret | ● 無所不在 mòuh4 só2 bāt1 joih6 = omnipresent; ubiquitous | ● 外星人 ngoih6 sīng1 yàhn4 = a person from outer space; an extra-terrestrial being; an alien | ● 考古學家 háau2 gú2 hohk6 gāa1 = archaeologist | ● 習以為常 jaahp6 yíh5 wàih4 sèuhng4 = be used to sth.; be accustomed to sth.

Caption: Where can we find the material for writing poetry?

About this second point, we feel constantly feel perplexed. How do we go about gathering the material with which to write our poems? We live in this extremely busy and seemingly unpoetic metropolis and we spend our days sighing with regret and wondering whether we should (as the poet 辛棄疾 Xin Qiji once wrote) “for to compose new verses”, feign our “sorrow and woe”. It is not really like this at all. Poetic meaning is everywhere to be found. All we need do is to find material in this city or in this contemporary life equivalent to what was called “poetic meaning” in bygone times. How do we find such material? We must forever maintain our curiosity. And we must be always imagining ourselves to be . . . for instance “I am a person from another planet who has just arrived on Earth” or “I am an archaeologist from the future”. In this way, in the life that we have already grown accustomed to, we will think: “Hey, this . . .

【4:00】 . . . 又好特別,嗰樣嘢又好特別 | 同時呢,我哋會保持非常之 open(開放)嘅心 | 我哋會讓呢個世界上好多元素呢,進入我哋度 | 包括現實嘅元素,情感嘅元素 | 噉佢哋呢,都會同我嘅心呢,產生一種共鳴 | 或者可以講係一種化學反應 | 因為我非常之 、、敏感 | 我保持到自己嘅敏感 | 我將呢 *nei 種反應再用語言調度出嚟 | 噉其實就係詩喇

Caption: 我可以怎樣讓自己的寫作進步?

最後一點呢,就係我哋都好想知道嘅 | 我哋點樣令我哋寫作進步 | 其實,最基本最基本就係 | 多讀多寫,細讀細寫 | 不斷咁樣磨練自己嘅手藝 | 就好似個工藝人咁樣 | 佢不斷磨練自己嘅手藝 | 又不斷去睇人哋 | 其他我嘅同行做緊啲乜嘢 | 有啲乜嘢我可以做得更好? | 有啲乜嘢係人哋冇做,我要做嘅?

● 共鳴 guhng6 mìhng4 = ① to resonate ② to respond sympathetically | ● 化學反應 faa3 hohk6 fáan2 ying3 = a chemical reaction | ● 調度 diuh6 douh6 = to dispatch | ● 磨練 mòh4 lihn6 = to practise hard; self-discipline | 手藝 sáu2 ngaih6 = craftmanship | ● 工藝人 gūng1 ngaih6 yàhn4 = craftsman

. . . is something special, and that is something special, too. At the same time, we will be extremely open-minded. We will allow many of the elements of this world to enter inside us, including elements of reality and emotional elements. Now these things can strike a chord with us or [create] what we could call a chemical reaction. Because I am extremely sensitive, I maintain this sensitivity of mine and dispatch [調度] this kind of reaction by means of language. This actually is poetry.

Caption: What can we do to improve our writing?

My final point is about something we would all like to know: how to go about improving our writing. The most fundamental thing of all is to read and write widely as well as to read and write attentively, constantly polishing our craft, just like any craftsperson, who constantly works hard at their discipline [手藝]. What things that our fellow poets are doing could we try to do better? What things can we do that others aren’t doing [yet]?

【5:00】有啲乜嘢我覺得人哋做可能仲有其他嘅選擇喎 | 呢 *nei 啲都係令我哋嘅詩呢,尋找突破嘅一個方式 | 噉當然呢,喺呢 *nei 種尋找嘅過程之中呢 | 我哋不斷咁樣去打磨自己(嘅)詩歌藝術 | 啊,美國詩人龐德呢,講過一句話,好有趣嘅,佢話: | 「如果你對詩嘅熟悉、你對詩藝嘅練習 | 比唔上一個中學嘅音樂老師對音樂嘅認識 | 你應該感到慚愧」| 噉我哋應該呢,點樣呢?| 我哋應該將自己作為一個 | 就算我哋真正喺現實生活中我哋 | 可能有其他嘅職業 | 有其他嘅生活 | 但係當我哋寫作嘅時候 | 我哋就知道我哋係進行緊呢 *nei 個專業嘅 | 一個專業嘅人 | 我哋就去用一種專業嘅眼光嚟對待自己嘅創作 | 咁樣你先係會有進步 | 要以比自己高嘅詩嚟要求自己

● 要求 yīu1 kàuh4 = a demand; a requirement

Note: Pound actually said: “Don’t imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music, or that you can please the expert before you have spent at least as much effort on the art of verse as the average piano teacher spends on the art of music.”

In the things people do, what other options do I think there might be? All these things are ways to give our poetry the chance to find a break-through. Of course, throughout this process of searching, we must constantly work on our own poetic art. Ezra Pound once said something that was very interesting: “If your knowledge of poetry and your practice of the poetic art are inferior to a high-school music teacher’s knowledge of music, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.” How should we go about this? We should be bear in mind that, when we are writing poetry, we are exercising a profession, even if — in our real lives — we have other professions and other [forms of] living. We should view our creativity with a professional regard. Only then we can make progress, making demands on ourselves with the help of poems that [fly] higher than our own.

【6:00】「我幾時可以追得上佢?」| 咁樣就係一個不斷進步嘅過程 | 多謝大家!

● 追得上 jēui1 dāk1 seuhng6 = to catch up to

“When can we reach the same level as [such poems]?” Such is the process of a constant improvement. Thank you!

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