Prose from Poetry Magazine

On Poetry

The Cultural Revolution—and the necessity of culture.

My father, Ai Qing, was an early influence of mine. He was a true poet, viewing all subjects through an innocent and honest lens. For this, he suffered greatly. Exiled to the remote desert region of Xinjiang, he was forbidden to write. During the Cultural Revolution, he was made to clean the public toilets. At the time, those rural toilets were beyond one’s imagination, neglected by the entire village. This was as low as one’s condition could go. And yet, as a child 
I saw him making the greatest effort to keep each toilet as clean and as pleasant as possible, taking care of the waste with complete sincerity. To me, this is the best poetic act, and one that I will never forget.

My father was punished for being a poet, and I grew up in its consequences. But even when things were at their most difficult, I saw his heart protected by an innocent understanding of the world. For poetry is against gravity. Reading Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca, and Vladimir Mayakovsky at a young age, 
I discovered that all poetry has the same quality. It transports us to another place, away from the moment, away from our circumstances.

In my own work, the process of creation always requires the understanding of aesthetics in relation to morality, to the pureness of a form, or to a personal language, one which extends us clearly to another. Many of my projects have poetic elements. In 2007, 
I brought 1,001 Chinese citizens to Kassel, Germany, for documenta 12. For many, it was their first time traveling outside of China. This was Fairytale. In 2008, we researched, under extremely harsh and restrictive conditions, the aftermath of the Great Sichuan Earthquake and unearthed the names and birth dates of 5,196 student victims, otherwise buried forever.

I used to say that Twitter is the perfect form for poetry. It is the poetry of society in the modern age. In engaging social media and the forms of communication it makes possible, again and again we find ourselves deeply moved with emotion. By anger, joy, even feelings that are new and indescribable. This is poetic. It makes today a unique time.

To experience poetry is to see over and above reality. It is to discover that which is beyond the physical, to experience another life and another level of feeling. It is to wonder about the world, to understand the nature of people and, most importantly, to be shared with another, old or young, known or unknown.

Originally Published: July 1st, 2015

Ai Weiwei is an artist. He resides and works in Beijing, China. He is an outspoken advocate of human rights and freedom of speech.

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  1. July 2, 2015
     poet nyein way

    I agree with Ai Wei Wei that 'poetic contexts and content have moral and aesthetic component.

  2. July 2, 2015
     Surazeus Simon Seamount

    Toilet Poet
    2015 07 02

    Exiled to desert wastelands of Xinjiang,
    and forbidden to write poems about truth,
    Ai Qing cleans toilets with artistic grace.

  3. July 3, 2015
     michael isaac

    I need to get your poetry magazine.

  4. July 10, 2015
     Sallee Bonham

    Sad to read what happened to Ai Qing for expressing
    himself as a poet. As a poet, I interpret what I see,
    feel, and hear through the lens of my own experiences. Apparently this is a dangerous way of thinking when a
    government wants to enslave an entire population.

  5. July 28, 2015
     scot lee

    I should find no greater inspiration nor a
    greater sense of humility in considering
    myself a poet from the words of Mr Ai
    Weiwei as inspired by his father, Ai Qing,
    whose act of strength and humility in the
    face of his captors could not have shown
    a greater strength or purpose of

    I shall, as best I am able, hold these
    men's spirits with mine.

  6. August 26, 2015

    I would like to read more articles by Ai Weiwei. Please ask the writer to contribute more to Poetry.

  7. August 30, 2015
     Antoinette Roche

    "He was a true poet, viewing all subjects through an innocent and honest lens." This and beauty makes poetry.

  8. August 30, 2015
     Judy Liggett

    I was most profoundly struck by Ai Wei Wei's comments on Twitter. Rather than being a Twitter cognoscenti, I am a Twitter dabbler, hesitant, curious, but overwhelmed by other things. Now my eyes are opened. Wow! What he wrote shows an open heart to the NOW and is the function of the artist, to see things radically anew. As for toilets, here is my story. A supervisor I once had was ribbing me about money, my low wages and willingness to get excited over small increases of income. She said, "I make a lot of money because I don't want to have to clean toilets. I hire someone to do that." Preferring to write poetry and having a small income, I clean my own toilet. Now I will do it with care and artistry as I am in the lineage of non-judgment and compassionate humanitarian perception. As Zen says, "It is not what is done but the mind with which things are done that is important."

  9. August 30, 2015
     Kady Hoffman

    Yet again giving form to the formless.
    Thank you Ai Wei Wei for that

  10. August 31, 2015
     Maryrose Carroll

    For poetry is against gravity. –Ai Weiwei

    What a great, mystic statement in only five words!