The Fragrance of the Unread Poem

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There is an orchid that flowers subterraneously. There is an orchid that can weigh up to half a ton. There is an orchid that is pollinated exclusively by a single species of moth with a 30-centimetre-long tongue.

There is also an orchid that sits on the window-ledge of my sitting-room and does none of these things.

Purchased nine months ago during a routine trundle round my local supermarket, it is nevertheless unusual in that it has remained in bloom for eight months. As I write, its final blossom has fallen and it is just about to bloom all over again. It appears remarkably happy in its position, apparently thriving on a mixture of practical neglect and aesthetic admiration. It would doubtless be of no interest to a genuine orchid enthusiast. But it might be of interest to someone who enjoys poetry.

Orchids have been associated with poetry ever since the days of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, who loved these flowers. “The orchids grow in the woods and they let out their fragrance even if there is no-one around to appreciate it,” Confucius once observed.

“Likewise, men of noble character will not let poverty deter their will to be guided by high principles and morals.”

In both classic and modern Chinese literature, the orchid belongs to the “noble four” of plants, alongside the plum, the chrysanthemum and the bamboo. Although in the Western imagination orchids are frequently associated with bizarre extremes and are famously difficult to keep, in the Chinese tradition they are renowned for their hardiness and self-sufficiency. Confucius admired the way that mountain orchids live in the trees. As epiphytes, they are non-parasitic, taking nothing from the trees on which they live except for a little support and protection, and deriving moisture and nutrients from the air around them.


“The orchid grows where others cannot,” said Confucius, “enduring the hardships of hunger and thirst, and is only loosely tied to the things that support it.

And, even with all the difficulty of its life, the orchid graces the world with beautiful colour and rare fragrance. This is like the life of the true gentleman, who sets himself to learn self-discipline, and whose character shines no matter where he is or what he experiences.”

The fanatical obsession with extreme species of orchids – “orchidelirium”, as it is known – is currently fuelling a USD 9 million black market worldwide. The official global retail trade itself is valued at USD nine billion per annum, and is predicted to double every ten years. Orchids are the black tulips of the modern world. Single plants can change hands for thousands of dollars; one went in China for USD 202,000 back in 2005. At the same time, the development of robust and reliable breeding techniques has made the orchid the most popular plant in the United Kingdom, giving it pride of place in homes where the aspidistra sat in the 1930s or the spider plant in the 1970s.

In having a supermarket orchid on my window-sill, I am therefore conventional to the point of banality, following a trend of the day because it is easy and attractive; nothing is simpler than slipping a potted orchid into your shopping-trolley.

To make it worse, I picked mine because it matched the cushions on my armchairs.

Nevertheless I see my orchid, for all its commonness, as a source of poetic inspiration. It asks for very little except not to be killed by misplaced love. In its slow and subtle way, it produces blooms of extraordinary beauty and complexity, presenting these in the air for weeks and even months at a time to be enjoyed and admired by anyone who cares to take an interest in them. And it is trying to be nothing but itself. It is simply being an orchid to the best of its capabilities.

A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of being asked to judge a poetry competition. There was no specific topic for the competition, and it generated some 130 entries, all of which were presented anonymously. In reading them to select the winning titles, I was struck by the repetitiousness of the themes they addressed. For all its diversity of style, tone and quality, that collection of 130 contemporary poems produced a remarkably consistent picture of the human condition. We all love spring, and we all love autumn, but some of us love spring more than autumn, and some of us love autumn more than spring. We all fear death. We all want more sex. And we all want to be loved.

One could take those few observations and, like the mountain orchid beloved of Confucius, require nothing more for oneself in the way of sustenance. There is enough there to write a lifetime of poetry. And if other people, many others, countless others all around the world, are all trying to write their own poems on the same subject, then so much the better.

“The orchids grow in the woods and they let out their fragrance even if there is no-one to appreciate it,” said Confucius. That does not mean that the fragrance does not exist.

Jonathan Steffen is the translator of Dr Karlheinz Senghas’ Orchids: Plants of Extremes, Contrasts, and Superlatives by Dr K. Senghas (Paul Parey Verlag, Berlin 1993 [bilingual German/English edition]).


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