“Poetry Written in Porcelain” reads the headline in today’s New York Times about Edmund de Waal, potter and author. The headline asks us to consider de Waal’s carefully crafted vessels as metaphorical poems.

Or are we meant to take the statement literally?

“My making and my writing is one thing,” Mr. de Waal is quoted as saying “Pots turn into words, and words turn into pots.” And later: “When I make something, I hear it.”

This proposed equivalence between poetry and concrete objects isn’t new at all. You’ll find it, among other places, in Keats’ ” Ode on a Grecian Urn” and in Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica.”

If the “practice of criticism” has a theoretical side that consists, in part, of defining the terms in which that practice is conducted, then poetry is one of those terms we’re called upon to define.

What is poetry? Should our definition be broad enough to encompass de Waal’s pots as literal poems? If not, what would our definition require in order for the pots to count as metaphorical poems?


2 Replies to “Po(e)ts”

  1. Without looking too deeply into the theoretical aspects of this question, I would offer up this answer that came to me very quickly: A poem is a poem. A piece of pottery is a piece of pottery. Although there are similarities in their composition and in the passion and strive for expression that creates them, neither poetry or pottery gain anything from trying to be the other. All art shares some key aspects, – I.E. craft, composition, style, efforts at self-expression and transcendence – and it can be valuable for the critic or thoughtful consumer to think about these aspects. Still, calling two distinct art forms the same thing does a disservice to each. If a vase can be a poem, why cant a punk-rock song also be a comic strip? Because I didn’t write a comic strip, i wrote a punk rock song. A huge part of what gives our art its value is the vessel we choose to express ourselves.

    Going further, it seems pointless to stretch the definition of “poems” to include Waal’s pots. The power of words lies largely in their concrete definitions. Again: a poem is a poem, a pot is a pot. Even as “metaphorical poems”, at the end of the day a pot should function as a pot if it wants to be called such and valued as such. As for what a pot could be “metaphorically”, it could be different for everyone but is hardly a selling point.

    We already know what poetry is. It’s an elastic genre of writing that can use repetition, rhyme and shape to express a feeling. As critics, we’d be wasting our time if we needed to debate this every time. That Waal is a multi-talented individual is certainly interesting and whatnot, but i’m sure he’d flinch at the prospect of some 19-year-old judging his poetry on how well it holds flowers.

  2. A discussion such as this must operate on the axiom of what poetry is. I’ll take Nolan’s definition and modify it slightly: poetry is an elastic genre of writing that uses repetition, rhythm and shape to express a spirit or feeling.

    Now I’ll challenge anyone to look at these pictures of his work and say there is no poetic rhythm, repetition or shape.



    What’s truly genius about Mr. de Wall’s work is the clear, unique and powerful style he evokes in a poetic fashion that would be an accomplishment for a poet writing actual words. These pots are not poetry but they do emulate the poetic style of creating to great effect.

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