Speech and Silence
“That of which we cannot speak,” Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, concluding his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “we must pass over in silence.” In 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, both Wittgenstein and Austrian poet Georg Trakl were both stationed at the Eastern Front—but they never met. Wittgenstein received a postcard from Trakl, and they had hoped to meet, but Trakl was suffering from depression, staying in the military hospital in Kraków. By the time Wittgenstein made it to the hospital, on November 6, 1914, he arrived to discover that Trakl had died three days earlier, of a cocaine overdose.
Philosophers and poets are always missing each other just like this, and the systems of language they work in are often at odds: while Wittgenstein was trying to work out what could be said, Trakl was trying to express the inexpressible. Or to put that another way, poetry starts where philosophy ends.
To a certain degree, speech and silence are the fundamental subjects of poetry, the vast expanses beyond logic. As Lu Ji wrote in his fourth century “Rhymeprose on Literature,” writing “demands presence by divining absence, knocking on silence in search of sound.”
Or, if we might explicate poetry with the help of a poem, I think Paul Celan can bring us further into our theme. In Pierre Joris’s translation:
WITH A VARIABLE KEY
With a variable key
You unlock the house, in it
Drifts the snow of the unsaid.
Depending on the blood that gushes
From your eye or mouth or ear,
Your key varies.
Varies your key so varies your word
That’s allowed to drift with the flakes.
Depending on the wind that pushes you away,
The snow cakes around the word.
This is an important poem—it may even legitimately be called the “key” to Celan’s poetry. Two central images are at work here, words and snow. The first line of the second stanza, “Varies your key so varies your word,」 gives the implication that the key is the word. The third line of the first stanza, on the other hand, mentions “the snow of the unsaid,” where snow represents the unspeakable. Words and snow, then, distinguish the said from the unsayable, and the task of writing poetry is precisely to make the words we speak express the snow of what we cannot: “With a variable key / you unlock the house, in it / drifts the snow of the unsaid.” The key may change, but whether it will open up the house of the unsayable comes down to the skill of the poet: “Depending on the blood that gushes / from your eye or mouth or ear, / your key varies.” The second stanza presents the conditions for writing: “Varies your key so varies your word / that’s allowed to drift with the flakes.” Word here merges with snowflake, presenting the possibility of saying the unsayable. “Depending on the wind that pushes you away, / the snow cakes around the word”: if what the wind represents is suffering and trauma, then the only possibility is to write in a state of resistance.
This, then, is the theme of International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong 2019.
It has been ten years since 2009, when we held our first International Poetry Nights in Hong Kong, to mark the pinnacle of international poetry. This year we are hosting thirty poets from around the world, and in addition to our main arena in Hong Kong, we are also holding events in ten cities in China. As we have said, if globalization is our “continent,” then poetry is our “island.” This brave new world may be defined by contentions and conflicts between civilizations, religions, ideologies, as well as power and money, but the island symbolized by poetry represents the promise of a spiritual homeland for all humanity.
May 17, 2019
(Translated from Chinese by Lucas Klein)