A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the worth of a word is limited only by the imagination. Take the word ‘chair’ for instance.
When I say ‘chair’ you might imagine a fine cherry wood seat in an elegant dining room, the dirty white plastic chairs in the back yard, a king’s throne, a slab of stone. The possibilities are legion. You might think of the chair you found your aunt slumped in the night she died, patterned with faded roses. You might think of a chair on the Titanic, a chair at the United Nations, an electric chair, your child’s first wooden seat. When you hear the word ‘chair’, you might think of the same word in Italian, French, Serbian, Urdu, Mandarin. You might think of the history of chairs, the construction of chairs, chairs as art, as objects to throw, to prop against a door, to stand on when changing a light bulb or reaching into a high cupboard for dusty muffin tins. The picture of a chair is certainly more restricted than the word ‘chair’, which, in its generic form, leaves almost everything open to the imagination.
Horse moves, slightest of pauses, wagon moves. There is a gap between outbreath and inbreath, between the whippoorwill drawing in its breath and the start of the song; a gap when the pianist has already begun the concerto but no music has yet reached our ears; the gap between seeing lightning in the sky and the word ‘lightning’ appearing in the mind.
That moment of groundless indecision when you don’t know if it’s a star or a shooting star.
It’s intriguing that poetry, that most evanescent of arts, lasts the longest of all cultural artifacts, while architecture, which one would expect to persist as long as the stones of the hills, tends to disappear relatively quickly from the face of the earth.
Thousands of poems of ancient China still exist, can be read today and, what is more astonishing, they can be understood. The poems that deal with the unchanging yet constantly changing world of nature are still extremely accessible, as opposed to those that reference the political world of their time. The four seasons still cycle around today as they did then, maples sprout leaves in the spring, the snow continues to fall each winter and catch in the boughs of the pines, and the mountains mentioned in ancient Chinese poems, while slightly more worn, are still recognizable.
Little remains today, however, of the architecture of ancient China (or any other ancient culture, for that matter, with the exception of enigmatic Egypt). What does remain are those edifices that have been brought low, literally: burial mounds and underground chambers.
Entire cities with their impregnable palaces have disappeared into dust and mist while a simple poem about the moon continues to shine.