Shanxing Wang, Updike, and Whitman

I recently purchased Mad Science in Imperial City by Shanxing Wang. An interesting interview that helps explain some things in the collection is here. (Thanks, Joe for the links and suggestion!) I am currently working on putting together my capstone project exploring the behavior of light. Wang’s work of poems and prose definitely pushes the limits on form and originality. The voice throughout is completely scientific, and Wang, a native Chinese speaker, is free to play with the English language and word associations that sound similar but mean something different (ex: birch and bitch, he and she, is and it, is and si, etc.). This leads to a playful reading experience amongst a very formal, acedmic voice. I admire Wang for incorporating scientific attiributes to his poetry, using variable for people and places, and equations for situations. I connect with this because I see so many things as equations–not always in the sense of solving but in the sense of representations, replacements, and bridges to other ideas.

The collection starts (seemingly) as a poetic expression of reading an academic paper at a conference. The room is divided into quadraints and we see rotations in the speakers eyes and mind. Before long, we realize that this is not just about reading an academic paper, but talking about poetry, the learning of, the expression of, the interaction with, and the insuing (mis)understanding. By the time the reader concludes the first section, the question seems to be offered: What is poetry? If I stop and listen, can I hear it?

I have been mulling over this work for a month now. At first I was astonished at the newness of this type of writing–freshness. But alas, nothing is new under the sun. I came across a John Updike poem this week, with just as much scientific language and equationary wordings. “Midpoint” is divided into 5 sections, with each section beginning with an Argument. The first section is written in three line stanzas, with a rhyme scheme (loosely) of aba bcb cdc etc.  The second section is mostly photographs, and the third section hammer home the science. The first few stanzas:

All things are Atoms: Earth and Water, Air
And Fire, all, Democritus foretold.
Swiss Paracelsus, in’s alchemic lair,
Saw Sulphur, Salt, and Mercury unfold
Amid MIllenial hopes of faking Gold.
Lavoisier dethroned Phlogiston; then
Molecular Analysis made bold
Foray into the gases: Hydrogen
Stood naked in the dazzled sight of Learned Men.

The Solid State, however, kept its grains
Of Microstructure coarsely veiled until
X-ray diffraction pierced the Crystal Planes
That roofed the giddy dance, the taut Quadrille
Where Silicon and Carbon Atoms will
Link Valencies, four-figured, hand in hand
With common Ions and Rare Earths to fill
The lattices of Matter, Salt or Sand,
With tiny Excitations, quantitively grand.

Later in that same section, Updike turns to equationary language with “T=3Nk is much too neat; / A rigid Crystal’s not a fluid Gas.”

The final stanza is all about Atoms and magnetism. The fourth section dives into the complete abondonment of traditional form and uses diagrams, arrows, text pictures, indentations, and side thoughts. Much like Wang’s Mad Science! Still, Updike provides a further link into history by quoting Whitman in the final two sections.

Wang pushes the limits of questioning form and word choice, thus bringing pleasure to the p-a crowd. But the irony is it isn’t new, as Updike (and I’m sure numerous others) accomplished the same thing. I’m struck that this ties back to Whitman, a seemingly unending source of inspiring newness. So maybe it is impossible to be truly post-avante, truly new, truly original. Maybe that’s a chink in the p-a armor, but it’s a good reminder to simply write; write the best and the most creative work possible. Experiment. Grow. Create. Ah, my poetic dream!

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