Poems and Things


Yad Vashem, Jerusalem 1994

In the eleventh century
Wei T’ai has told us how
a poem concentrates upon the thing
the better to convey the feeling.

Be precise, said wise Wei T’ai,
about the thing
but reticent
about the feeling.

When the mind responds, connects
with thing, the feeling shows.
This, he says, is how a poem
deeply enters us.

If poet puts his feelings down
that overwhelm, keeps nothing back,
he stirs us superficially,
says Wei T’ai from

eleventh century darkness.
The poet keeping nothing back
can’t start the hands, the feet
involuntarily waving, involuntarily tapping,

can’t strengthen morality,
refine culture, set heaven and earth
in motion, call up necessary
spirits of the dead.

These are a poet’s attributes
according to the wise Wei T’ai
who speaks from out of
ancient darkness.

Today at Yad Vashem
I visited our twentieth century
darkness and I ask Wei T’ai again
what is a poem, what a poet,

hands involuntarily stilled,
feet frozen, eyes appalled
before a heaven and earth
once set in fervid motion.

From The Gatekeeper's Wife (Brandl & Schlesinger (1997). Fay Zwicky. Used with permission of the author

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