Language at Play

All language is poetry.  Each word is a small story, a thicket of meaning.  We ignore the picturesque origins of words when we utter them; conversation would grind to a halt if we visualized flamingos whenever someone referred to a flight  of stairs. We clarify life’s confusing blur with words. We cage flooding emotions with words.  We coax elusive memories with words.  We educate with words. We don’t really know what we think, how we feel, what we want, or even who we are until we struggle “to find the right words.” What do those words consist of?  Submerged metaphors, images, actions, personalities, jokes.  Seeing themselves reflected in one another’s eyes, the Romans coined the word pupil, which meant “little doll.”  Orchids take their name from the Greek word for testicles. Pansy derives from the French word pensee, or “thought “ because the flower seemed to have such a pensive face. “Bless” originally meant to redden with blood, as in sacrifice. Hence, “God bless you” literally means “God bathe you in blood.”

We inhabit a deeply-imagined world that exists alongside the real physical world .Even the crudest utterance, or the simplest, contains the fundamental poetry by which we live. This mind fabric, woven of images and illusions, shields us.  In a sense, or rather, in all senses, it’s a shock absorber.  As harsh as life seems to us now, it would feel even worse–hopelessly, irredeemably harsh–if we didn’t veil it, order it, relate familiar things, create mental cushions.  One of the most surprising facts about human beings is that we seem to require a poetic version of life.  It’s not just that some of us enjoy reading or writing poetically, or that many people wax poetic in emotional situations, but that all human beings of all ages in all cultures all over the world automatically tell their story in a poetic way, using the elemental poetry concealed in everyday language to solve problems, communicate desires and needs, even talk to themselves.  When people invent new words, they do so playfully, metaphorically–computers have viruses, one can surf the internet, a naive person is clueless. In time, people forget the etymology or choose to disregard it.  We dine at chic restaurants from porcelain dinner plates, without realizing that when the smooth, glistening porcelain was invented in France long ago, someone with a sense of humor thought it looked as smooth as the vulva of a pig, which is indeed what porcelain means.When we stand by our scruples, we don’t think of our feet, but the word comes from the Latin scrupulus, a tiny stone that was the smallest unit of weight.  Thus a scrupulous person is so sensitive he’s irritated by the smallest stone in his shoe. Later, Paul will be talking more about the fascinating, secret lives of words.  But, for the most part, we are all unwitting poets.

When we create with words, in the literary arts, we raise the stakes.  Then we stare straight at our inherently poetic version of life, make it even more vigorous and resourceful.  Poetry, for example, speaks to everyone, but it cries out to people in the throes of vertiginous passions, or people grappling with knotty emotions, or people trying to construe the mysteries of existence.  At a stage of life remarkable for its idealism, sensitivity and emotional turbulence, students tend to respond for all three reasons.

Sometimes when I pass a basketball court I’m transported, thanks to the flying carpet of memory, back to my first real teaching job in the early Eighties.  At the University of Pittsburgh, I taught various undergraduate writing and literature courses, but I remember most dearly the graduate poets I taught.  Not much older than most of them, younger than a few, I found their blue-collar enthusiasms a tonic.  All the elements of their lives breathed with equal intensity. They played as hard as they worked as hard as they loved as hard as they wrote.  It was typical of them to discuss Proust in the stands before a hockey game.  They bought poetry, read poetry, wrote poetry in the seams between work and family, met at a bar after class to drink Iron City beer and continue talking about poetry.

After class one evening, we all went to a nearby basketball court so that one of the students could teach us “fade away jump shots,” an image he had used beautifully in a poem.  Sometimes I went with them to the Pitt Tavern after class, where we would continue talking late into the night.  With an unselfconcious fervor that amazed me then, and in retrospect still does, they demanded to be well taught.  They knew instinctively that words could change their lives.  My job was to keep pace with their needs.  I had no choice but to teach them everything I knew, learn with fresh energy, then teach them even more if I could.

At the end of one semester, in the closing hour of the final seminar, I asked if there were anything we hadn’t talked about that needed to be addressed.  One of the best writers raised his hand.  “How to make love stay,” he said simply.  For the remaining hour, that is what we discussed.  I can still see his soulful face.  Smart, romantic, unpredictable–he was all poet.  Even now, a dozen years later, I worry about him, hope he survived the intensity he craved but could not live with.  I hope he continued writing.  I see the faces of the others, too, and wonder how they’ve  fared. Although I could not tell them so at the time, I knew where some of their emotional travels might lead them. They were intense young poets.  In vital ways, we were similar.  We shared a common currency–we understood the value of poetry.

When I was a Freshman at Boston University, in the late Sixties, I used to stroll beside the Charles river with a copy of Dylan Thomas’s poems in one pocket and Wallace Stevens’s in another.  I was drawn to the sensuous rigor of Thomas and the voluptuous mind of Stevens.  Together they opened the door for me and many others into a realm of ideas, song, word play, idea play, discovery and passion. What I loved about Thomas (and still do) is the ways his poems provide a fluid mosaic, in which anything can lose its identity in the identities of other things (because, after all, the world is mainly, as he put it, a “rumpus of shapes”).  By mixing language and category with a free hand, he seems to know the intricate feel of life as it might come to a drunk, or a deer, or a devout astronomer freezing to death at his telescope. His poems throb with an acute physical reality.  No poet gives a greater sense of the feel of life.

Then he goes even further, to recreate the process of life through a whole register of intricate and almost touchable images and events.  Working himself into a state of neighborly reverence, he invents metaphors that don’t so much combine A and B as trail A and B through a slush of other phenomena. He ardently weds himself to life’s sexy, sweaty, chaotic, weepy, prayerful, nostalgic, belligerent, crushing, confused vitality in as many of its forms as he can find, in a frenzy that becomes a homage to Creation.  In this way, he seems to create a personal physics to match his ideas, so that the language of his best poems echoes the subject matter, and both suggest the behavior deep in our brains, hearts and cells.  He really  does nibble the oat in the bread he breaks, intuit the monkey in the newborn baby, see the shroud maker in the surgeon sewing up after an operation.  Sometimes he’s cryptic, as when he writes:  “Foster the light nor veil the manshaped moon.”  Sometimes a clear-eyed observer, as when he refers to:  “the mousing cat stepping shy,/The puffed birds hopping and hunting.”  Sometimes he’s lyrically emphatic:  “The hand that signed the paper felled a city.”  Sometimes he’s a maker of schoolboy jokes, sometimes a celebrant seer.  But, above all, he can transform the Saturday afternoon reputation of the planet–a couple of imposing-sounding topics, its being called a “star,” the pyramids, Jesus, Adam, illness, birth, death, sex–into something sacramental.  Not neat.  Not well-behaved.  Not explicit.  Not always argued or even structured. But bold, wild, and tenderly voluptuous. How could I resist all that?

Other poets took my fancy, too.  I loved the way poets illuminated life like a holy text, drawing my attention to how dreams were made, and to the beauty at the heart of the most commonplace dramas and things.  Poetry had a way of lifting a feeling or idea out of its routine so that it could be appreciated with fresh eyes.  In “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart,” as Yeats called it, I knew words, and especially the charged reality of poetry, had everything to teach me about life.

Poetry was all I knew to write at eighteen.  Much has happened in my writerly life since then.  Although I still write poetry, I’ve learned to write prose, too, and that has brought its own frustrations and freedoms.  In both genres, writing is my form of celebration and prayer, but it’s also the way in which I inquire about the world, sometimes writing about nature, sometimes about human nature.  I always try to give myself to whatever I’m writing about, with as much affectionate curiosity as I can muster, in order to understand a little better what a human being is, and what it was like to have once been alive on the planet, how it felt in one’s senses, passions and contemplations.  In that sense, I use words as an instrument to unearth shards of truth.

These days, I do that more often in prose.  But the real source of my creativity continues to be poetry.  I’ve just published a new collection of poems.  I read poetry regularly.  My prose often contains what are essentially prose-poems. Why does poetry, with its highly-charged words, play such an important role in my life?  For centuries, poetry was vital to the life of nearly everyone.  In the 19th Century, poets such as Byron and Tennyson were superstars of Hollywood status.  Movies and television may draw more viewers now, but poetry continues to inspire us, reveal us to one another, and teach us important truths about being human.

The reason is simple:  Poetry not only reflects the heart and soul of a people, it has a wisdom all its own.  There is nothing like poetry to throw light into the dark corners of existence, and make life’s runaway locomotive slow down for a moment so that it can be enjoyed. Science and technology explain much of our world.  Psychology tells us more about human behavior; all three succeed by following orderly rules and theories. Poetry offers truths based on intuition, a keen eye, and the tumultuous experiences of the poet.  Long ago in India, for example, Urdu poets writing in the verse form known as aghazal were also trying to figure out the universe.  A ghazal was the technology they used to make sense of their world, and no doubt they felt as sonneteers and composers of villanelles do, that there are truths only to be learned when you’re dancing in chains.

The craft of writing poetry is a monklike occupation, as is a watchmaker’s, tilting tiny cogs and wheels into place.  It’s ironic that poets use words to convey what lies beyond words.  But poetry becomes most powerful where language fails. How can we express in words that are human-made emotions that aren’t?  How can we express all the dramas and feelings that are wordless, where language has no purchase?  Words are small shapes in the gorgeous chaos of the world. But they are shapes, they bring the world to focus, they corral ideas, they hone thoughts, they paint watercolors of perception.  Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood chronicles the drama of two murderers who collaborated on a particularly nasty crime.  A criminal psychologist, trying to explain the event, observed that neither one of them would have been capable of the crime, but together they formed a third person who was able to kill.  Metaphors, though more benign, work in the same way.  The chemical term for what happens is hypergolic:  You can take two inert substances, put them together and produce something powerfully different (table salt), even explosive (nitroglycerine).  The charm of language is that, though it’s human-made, it can on rare occasions capture emotions and sensations which aren’t.

The best poetry is rich with observational truths.  Above all, we ask the poet to teach us a way of seeing and feeling, lest one spend a lifetime on this planet without noticing how green light sometimes flares up as the setting sun rolls under, the unfurling of a dogwood blossom, the gauzy spread of the Milky Way on a star-loaded summer night, or the translucent green of a dragonfly’s wings.  The poet refuses to let things merge, lie low, succumb to habit.  Instead the poet hoists events from their routine, plays with them a while, and lays them out in the sunshine for us to celebrate and savor.

When a friend and I were cycling the other day, she mentioned that reading poetry frightens her.

“What if I don’t get the real meaning?” she asked.  “What if I read ‘a ghostly galleon’ and think it’s referring to a ship, when it’s really referring to the lost innocence of America?”  I was dumbfounded.  Someone had taught her ( and nearly everyone else) that poems work like safes– crack the code and the safe opens to reveal its treasure.

“There are many ways to read a poem,” I said,  “After all, you don’t really know what was going through the poets mind. Suppose he was having a tempestuous affair with a neighbor, and once when they were alone he told her that her hips were like a ghostly galleon .  He might have then used that image in a poem he was writing because it fit well, but also as a sly flirtation with his neighbor, whose hips would be secretly commemorated in verse.”

“Do poets do that?” she asked, slightly scandalized that noble thoughts might be tinged with the profane.

 “I’ve done it,” I admitted with a grin.  “I presume other poets do.”

I went on to explain, as teachers of the writerly arts do, that poems dance with many veils. Read a poem briskly, and it will speak to you briskly. Delve, and it will give you rich ore to contemplate. Each time you look, a new scintillation may appear, one you missed before.

The apparent subject of a poem isn’t always an end in itself. It may really be an opportunity, a way for the poet to reach into herself and haul up whatever nugget of the human condition distracts her at the moment, something that can’t be reached in any other way. It’s a kind of catapult into another metaphysical county where one has longer conceptual arms. The poet reminds us that life’s seductive habits of thought and sight can be broken at will. We ask the poet to shepherd us telescopically and microscopically through many perspectives, to lead us like a mountain goat through the hidden, multi-dimensionality of almost everything.

We expect the poet to know about a lot of strange things, to babysit for us, to help us relocate emotionally, to act as a messenger in affairs of the heart, to provide us with an intellectual calling card, to rehearse death, or map escape routes. As many have pointed out, poetry is a kind of knowing, a way of looking at the ordinary until it becomes special and the exceptional until it become commonplace. It both amplifies and reduces experience, paradoxical though that may sound. It can shrink an event teeming with disorder to the rigorous pungency of an epigram. It can elasticize one’s perspective until, to use an image of John Donne’s, a drop of blood sucked by a single flea accommodates the entire world of two lovers. Few views of life are as panoramic as the one seen through John Milton’s cosmological eye. Milton could write “All Hell broke loose” because he knew where (and what) Hell was; he had sent his wife and daughters there often enough, and his vision encompassed it, just as it did the constellations (many of which he introduces into “Paradise Lost”). He could write “Orion rose arm’d” because he’d observed Orion often enough when the arms weren’t visible.

Poetry, like all imaginative writing, is a kind of attentiveness that permits one both the organized adventure of the nomad and the armchair security of the bank-teller. Poetry reminds us of the truths about life and human nature that we knew all along, but forgot somehow because they weren’t yet in memorable language.

If a poet describes a panther’s cage in a certain vivid way, that cage will be as real a fact as the sun. A poem knows more about human nature than its writer does, because a poem is often a camera, a logbook, an annal, not an interpreter. A poem may know the subtlest elisions of feeling, the earliest signs of some pattern or discord. A book of poems chronicles the poet’s many selves, and as such knows more about the poet than the poet does at any given time, including the time when the book is finished and yet another self holds her book of previous selves in her hands. A poem knows a great deal about our mental habits, and about upheaval and discovery, loneliness and despair. And it knows the handrails a mind clings to in times of stress. A poem tells us about the subtleties of mood for which we have no labels. The voluptuousness of waiting, for instance: how one’s whole body can rock from the heavy pounding of the heart. It knows extremes of consciousness, knows what the landscape of imagination looks like when the mind is at full-throttle, or beclouded, or cyclone-torn. Most of all, it tells us about our human need to make treaties. Often a poem is where an emotional or metaphysical truce takes place. Time slow-gaits enough in the hewing of the poem to make a treaty that will endure, in print, until the poet disowns it, perhaps in a second treaty in the form of a poem. There is even a technical term for that: a “palinode.” A poem knows about illusion and magic, how to glorify what is not glorious, how to bankrupt what is. It displays, in its alchemy of mind, the transmuting of the commonplace into golden saliences. A poem records emotions and moods that lie beyond normal language, that can only be patched together and hinted at metaphorically. It knows about spunk, zealousness, obstinacy, and deliverance. It accretes  life, which is why different people can read different things in the same poem. It freezes life, too, yanks a bit out of life’s turbulent stream, and holds it up squirming for view, framed by the white margins of the page. Poetry is an act of distillation. It takes contingency samples, is selective. It telescopes time. It focusses what most often floods past us in a polite blur.

We read poems in part, I think, because they are an elegant, persuasive form of reasoning, one that can glorify a human condition feared to be meaningless, a universe feared to be “an unloving crock of shit,” as philosopher Henry Finch once said off-handedly. To make physical the mystery is in some sense to domesticate it. We ask the poet to take what surpasses our understanding and force it into the straitjacket of language, to rinse the incomprehensible as free of telltale ambiguity and absurdity as possible. That’s not to say that we don’t find nature ambiguous or life absurd, only that the temptation to play and land the mystery like a slippery salmon, to freeze it in vocabularic aspic, is irresistible. Surely this is not far afield from the hunting magic of the cave drawings at Lascaux.

We ask the poet to reassure us by giving us a geometry of living, in which all things add up and cohere, to tell us how things buttress one another, circle round and intermelt. Once the poet has broken life into shards, we ask him to spin around and piece it back together again, making life seem even more fluid than before. Now it is a fluency of particulars instead of a nebulous surging. We ask the poet to compress and abbreviate the chaos, so we don’t overload from its waterfall of sensations, all of which we nonetheless wish somehow to take in.

Every poem is a game, a ritual dance with words. In the separate world of the artwork, the poet moves in a waking trance. By its nature, poetry and all art is ceremonial, which we sometimes forget, except perhaps when we think of the Neolithic cave painters in the mysterium tremens of their task. Intent on one feature of life, exploring it mentally, developing it in words, a poet follows the rules of the game. Sometimes artists change the game, impose their own rules and disavow everyone else’s. Then they become an ist among the isms. But there are always rules, always tremendous concentration, entrancement and exaltation, always the tension of spontaneity caged by restriction, always risk of failure and humiliation, always the drumbeat of rituals, always the willingness to be shaken to the core.

Once, after a lecture, a woman asked why accomplished scientists and prose writers (such as Loren Eiseley), who turned to poetry late in life, were such poor poets. Is it easier to switch from poetry to prose than from prose to poetry? she wondered. I don’t think the genre is what matters, but the time of life. If you read the first book by famous scientists–J.B.S. Haldane, Werner Heisenberg, Francis Crick, Fred Hoyle– you find minds full of passion and wonder. Those books are thrilling to read because mystery is alive in them, and they are blessed by a youthful, free-flowing enthusiasm. But in later books these same people become obsessed with politics and sociology; their books are still of intellectual interest, but they’ve lost the sense of marvel. Those who stay poets all of their lives continue to live in that youthful state, as open and vulnerable and potentially damaging as it can be.

I suppose what most people associate with poetry is soul-searching and fiercely-felt emotions. We expect the poet to be a monger of intensity, to pain for us, to reach into the campfire so that we can watch without burning ourselves. Because poets feel what we’re afraid to feel, venture where we’re reluctant to go, we learn from their journeys without taking the dramatic risks. We cherish the insights that poets discover. We’d love to relish the moment and feel rampant amazement as the seasons unfold. We yearn to explore the subtleties, paradoxes, and edges of emotions. We long to see the human condition reveal itself with spellbinding clarity. Think of all the lessons to be learned from deep rapture, danger, tumult, romance, intuition–but it’s far too exhausting to live like that on a daily basis, so we ask artists to feel and explore for us. Daring to take intellectual and emotional chances, poets live on their senses. In promoting a fight of his, a boxer once said: “I’m in the hurt business.” In a different way, artists are too.

And yet, through their eyes– perhaps because they risk so much–we discover breath-taking views of the human pageant. Borrowing the lens of an artist’s sensibility, we see the world in a richer way–more familiar than we thought, and stranger than we knew, a world laced with wonder. Sometimes we need to be taught how and where to seek wonder, but it’s always there, waiting, full of mystery and magic. I feel that much of my own duty as a writer is to open those doors of vision, shine light into those dark corners of existence, and search for the fountains of innocence.

The world is drenched with color and nature is full of spectacles. You would think that would be enough. Yet we are driven to add even more sensations to the world, to make our thoughts and feelings available in words. We use words for many reasons. As a form of praise and celebration. To impose an order on the formless clamor of the world. As a magicl intermediary between us and the hostile, unpredictable universe. For religious reasons, in worship. For spiritual reasons, to commune with others. To temporarily stop a world that seems too fast, too random, too chaotic. To help locate ourselves in nature and give us a sense of home. Words bring patterns, meaning and perspective to life. We keep trying to sum life up, to frame small parts of it, to break it into eye-gulps, into word-morsels that are easier to digest. Sometimes words allow us to put ourselves in harmony with the universe, to find a balance, however briefly, in life’s hurricane. They make it possible not only to communicate with one another but to do it in a way that may change someone’s life.

Isn’t it odd that one big-brained animal can alter the course of another’s life, change what the other sees when it looks at its reflection in a mirror, or in the mind’s mirror? And do that by using the confection of words. What sort of beings are we who set off on symbolic pilgrimages, pause at mental towns, encounter others who–sometimes without knowing it–can divert or redirect us for years? What unlikely and magical creatures. Who could know them in a lifetime? When I start thinking like this, in words, wonder shoots its rivets into my bones. I feel lit by a sense of grace, and all my thoughts turn to praise.

excerpted from Deep Play, Random House, May 1999

About the Author

Diane Ackerman

Diane Ackerman is the author of 20 works of poetry and nonfiction, including, most recently, “An Alchemy of Mind” and “Origami Bridges: Poems of Psychoanalysis and Fire.”

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