The Heart of Poetry by Ai Aida

All words represent things only when there is a perceiver. Put another way; they are nothing until the perceiver shows up to decode and render their meanings. But even then, after the advent of the conscious mind, words are still forever empty. “I” for example, is devoid of content not only because it’s a pronoun which substitutes for a noun and which is literally nobody until somebody uses it, but because when one says/writes “I am a mother” or “I am a student” the word “mother” (m-o-t-h-e-r) or “student” (s-t-u-d-e-n-t) has no relevance whatsoever to the very thing it signifies. For words are not the things themselves and are empty of everything that is. This lack of thingness or is-ness is expressed in Buddhism as sunyata (a Sanskrit word for emptiness) and articulated in the following passage of the Heart Sutra:

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form

Emptiness is not separate from form, form is not separate from emptiness

Whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form

This emptiness is not only real but also physical because it is this emptiness –or the nothingness of things– that we feel when we touch flowers with our hands or when we soak our feet in water. We never come in contact with the “flowers” or the “water” but only with their reality; that is, their nothingness or their indescribable-, unsayable-, unnamable-nature. And the purpose of the above passage is to make us realize this fact so that we can transcend words/language and be free from the suffering caused by the linguistic “game” whose rules we created but with which we tie ourselves down endlessly.

Now, my question is: What is poetic language? And my answer to this is: It’s a language that is beyond language and therefore is closer to the emptiness or the nothingness of things mentioned above. In poetry, there is no fixed signified behind the signifiers which work on multiple levels and which are forever open to interpretations as they renew themselves every time they are read. The poetic words are meant to speak the silence of existence, no matter how impossible or contradictory that may seem. In this sense, it can also be said that the poet is someone who serves her end when her voice is no longer hers. The poet’s work belongs to the Universe. Poetry is the absence of the poet, and the poet is nobody in her poetry.


Ai Ebashi (pen name: Ai Aida) is a Japanese-born writer and translator, who holds an M.A. in English Language and Literature from Istanbul Yeditepe University and an M.A. in English Literature from San Francisco State University, and who is currently an M.F.A. candidate in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. Her plays have been seen in the Bay Area, California, and her poems, translations, short stories, non-fiction stories, and illustrations have appeared in New American Writing, National Geographic, Di-Vêrsé-City Anthology and Mainichi ga Hakken Japan, among other publications. She is a winner of the Leonard Isaacson Award Browning Monologue Contest and The Austin International Poetry Festival 2017. She has previously worked as a translator, journalist and children’s book author in Turkey, where she lived for seven years, and presently works as a Japanese language teacher and as a Creative Writing instructor at San Francisco State University.

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