The Cortland Review


Kurt Brown
Poetry and the Language of Adam considers language from where it began—"the language of the body, the senses, the language of the Eden we have and not the ideal, abstract one we seek."

Kurt Brown

Who Knows Where and Marston’s Field, two new poems by Kurt Brown

Billy Collins

Excerpts from a conversation led by Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, a special audio program of The Paula Gordon Show.

Lucille Clifton
The Power of Mercy, a book review by Teresa Ballard, points to the unanswerable questions about race, gender, and terrorism in Clifton's latest book, Mercy.

Amy Holman
Flow, Eddy, Flood, one chapter of a novel in progress, fictionalizes a poignantly hilarious wedding disaster.

Kurt Brown

Kurt BrownKurt Brown is the author of five chapbooks and four full-length collections of poetry, including Return of the Prodigals (Four Way Books, 1999), More Things in Heaven and Earth (University Press of New England, 2002), Fables from the Ark (WordTech, 2004), and Future Ship, forthcoming from (Story Line Press, in June, 2005). He is also the editor of several poetry anthologies and founder of the Aspen Writers' Conference as well as various other Writers' Conferences and Centers. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and, in spring 2005, was the McEver Visiting Chair in Writing at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

Kurt Brown - Poetry and the Language of Adam


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I am not speaking of the bon mot, the "good word," which is cleverness and wit, a stroke of brilliance for the benefit of one's dinner companions. The employment of a bon mot involves an adept play of language in the service of entertainment, not accuracy or revelation. We are delighted by the use of a particular term in a particular context because we had never thought of it before and because in some ways it ridicules and "fits" its object in a jocular way. In visual terms, it may be likened to caricature which captures and exaggerates the subject's more prominent features while dispensing with other details—details that might be rendered in more exact, realistic proportions if a true representation were desired. The bon mot, and other such linguistic pleasantries, are by nature partial, superficial, and quick: deft thrusts at likeness, at portraiture.

The poet is still the singular, passionate observer we need in order to translate the world into penetrating, accurate language that somehow makes reality available to our minds in a way in which experience alone cannot thoroughly provide.

Nor am I speaking strictly of the element of diction, the mot juste, or exact word, though diction and vocabulary are certainly involved in any discussion of language and its expressive possibilities. Diction carries its own importance in writing of all kinds—especially poetry. Concerning writers, Ezra Pound noted that "when their very medium, the very essence of their work, the application of word to thing goes rotten, i.e. becomes slushy and inexact, or excessive and bloated, the whole machinery of social and individual thought and order goes to pot." This is the idea of diction as a moral responsibility, the need for writers to get things straight, to call a spade a spade and not some other thing. Poets, he asserts, must not give in to generalities or euphemisms, must not blur the all important distinctions to which they are obligated as artists, as thinkers and observers. Word choice is crucial to clarity of presentation and thought. But precision and accuracy aren't all that is involved in naming, or re-naming, the world.

For that, we need the kind of poetic language that literally lifts things into consciousness, that delicate seam of words—visionary, resonant, defining—that exists between reality and the mind, that almost seems to join the two in a moment of insight, until subject and object for once seem to merge, to become one. So in the example given above from the poetry of Mary Oliver, she speaks of the "ocean's black, anonymous roar." She might have written of "the ocean's loud, continuous roar" which would have been accurate enough in its way, satisfying our ordinary demands for precision and truth: the ocean is both continuous and loud. But the word "black" in this context suggests that the ocean is obscure, impenetrable, something difficult to grasp or be understood. It also refers to the beach at night, and the largely lightless depths, even at noon, which we have yet to explore. There is a hint of the crack of waves in the adjective as well—by sonic association—and the word "anonymous" suggests even more. The ocean is non-human, the not-self or nicht-ich, empty of consciousness, morality or thought. Measured against it, our proud self-regard—our very being—is annihilated. Such is nature, most of it, a place so alien we can only stand appalled at its impersonal power. Between perceiving and describing falls the shadow.

Diction carries its own importance in writing of all kinds—especially poetry.

I am not arguing that the world be abstracted into language, but that language be concretized into the world, as far as that is possible. A language so visceral, so tangible that it seems to equal and reflect in itself the concreteness of the world. Some of this kind of physicality is found in the work of Galway Kinnell. When his daughter, Maud, is born in the first section of The Book of Nightmares, he describes her birth in the following terms:

…she skids out on her face into the light,
this peck
of stunned flesh
clotted with celestial cheesiness, glowing
with the astral violet
of the underlife.

The passage affords many pleasures, not the least of which is a delicate pattern of sound, as well as a jaunty, affectionate tone balanced against a profoundly critical moment both fascinating and slightly repellant. The word "skids" is not simply accurate and true, in Pound's notion of "the application of word to thing." In fact, it is not accurate, so much as evocative, illuminating. It suggests ideas about birth and life somewhat different from the sentimental, pious beliefs ordinarily associated with these things. The fact that Kinnell's daughter "skids" out (and on her face to boot!) implies resistance, or at the very least an involuntary—that is to say, unintentional—action. Further, "skids" contains within it the seeds of humor, of someone stepping on a banana peel, while at the same time hinting of danger, of accident—a car careening out of control on an icy road. We do not intend to be born, we are ejected into the world, ready or not, leaving us "stunned" in harsh, hospital light. The same mixture of humor and uneasiness is picked up in the wonderful line: "clotted with celestial cheesiness…" The states implied by the words "celestial" and "cheesiness" are existentially poles apart, the spirit and the flesh, and their odd connection here describes an intermediary phase in which spirit is only just beginning to cohere, or "clot," into matter, to move from the divine towards the mundane. The passage artfully captures a father's paradoxical feelings about his daughter's birth: a brisk humor reflecting his joy at her arrival, set against his anxiety about suffering and mortality, which must inevitably follow birth, and which the phrase "astral violet / of the underlife" insinuates so effectively. In fact, the word "underlife" is another term that simultaneously contains these polarities of thought and feeling: the seriousness of some unknown metaphysical power, and the humorous suggestion that the life of the fetus lies "under," in the womb at the lower extremities of the body, like someone living in a basement apartment under a tall building.

To be alive, and to know it—a seemingly simple thing—is the not-so-secret program of many of our best poets. To be awake and cognizant of even a fraction of an ordinary day, which is also a fraction of eternity, cannot be so easily assumed.

As with Whitman's description of the carpenter's foreplane as it "whistles its wild ascending lisp," Kinnell's description of birth goes beyond mere diction, mere clarity and responsible reporting. Such moments of heightened perception are prevalent in his work. In another poem, "The Fly," from Body Rags, he depicts a common housefly as it crawls over the eyelids and cheeks of a corpse, remarking: "One day I may learn to suffer / his mizzling sporadic stroll…," language, once again, revelatory in both sound and sense, in the way it reaches beyond itself to grapple with the palpable but no less mysterious facts of existence. Along with Whitman and Dickey—and clearly in kinship with Emerson and Thoreau—Kinnell's poems express a desire to realize the moment in the only way writers know how: through the agency of inspired and exacting language. "I have always intended to live forever," writes Kinnell in his poem "The Seekonk Woods," "but even more, to live now."

To be alive, and to know it—a seemingly simple thing—is the not-so-secret program of many of our best poets. To be awake and cognizant of even a fraction of an ordinary day, which is also a fraction of eternity, cannot be so easily assumed. Poets have frittered away their lives in pursuit of far less. Thoreau asserts that he spent his time in solitude at Walden Pond because he didn't want to reach the end of his life and find he had never really been alive at all. He too found a language equal to the task of apprehending and articulating the world. The words of this language rely on the poet's knowledge of their inner-resonances, their feel and heft and complex reverberations when placed in context with other words, the intimate associations they have forged in imagination and memory, their psychological and emotional implications, their symbolic and metaphorical potential, their particular temperature and texture and taste. This is more than the definition of connotation ordinarily allows. It is to treat words as intricate, adaptable organisms that take sustenance from what surrounds them in order to add again—to answer back with their own contributory lives—to the infinite life of their surroundings. They are their surroundings, and their surroundings are them, in the normal give-and-take of vibrant, responsive substances.

So there is a language that is both of-and-about the world at the same time, both object and reflection in the mirror of words. In order to employ such language, the most delicate transactions are required between word and thing. In his essay, "Romanticism and Classicism," the English Modernist poet, theorist and critic T. E. Hulme, writes:

The great aim is accurate, precise and definite description. The first thing is to recognise how extraordinarily difficult this is. It is no mere matter of carefulness: you have to use language, and language is by its very nature a communal thing; that is, it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise—that which is common to you, me and everybody. But each man sees a little differently, and to get out clearly and exactly what he does see, he must have a terrific struggle with language…Language has its own special nature, its own conventions and communal ideas. It is only by a concentrated effort of the mind that you can hold it fixed to your own purpose.

Already, at the beginning of the 20th Century, Hulme anticipates the language theories to come ("Language has its own special nature, its own conventions and ideas"). He knows that language is capable of obtruding itself, forcing its own purposes on the writer who is not careful, whose mind is already a complex network of entrenched forms, past reading experiences and second-hand concepts. As Robert Bly cautions in his little book, Leaping Poetry, this leads to atrophy in literature. Though Bly is speaking particularly about imaginative association—how ideas and images become invariably related—the same might be said of language in general, how words are chosen automatically, almost compulsively by the mind:

By the eighteenth century…Freedom of association had become drastically curtailed. The word "sylvan" by some psychic railway leads directly to "nymph", to "lawns", to "dancing", so to "reason", to music, spheres, heavenly order, etc. They're all stops on some railroad.

So with language, in describing the sound a brook makes as it pours over stones, we can be sure the words "purl," "bubble," "sing," and "babble" will come up as predictably as Pavlov's dog will salivate at a sound it associates with food. Here is the very crux of the matter: when stale, fossilized, pre-fabricated language is allowed to override the poet's own consciousness and unique personal expression, the world is not revealed but obscured, dressed in borrowed rags so to speak, so that we see only the dulled reality of a socialized mind not the rare, spontaneous glimpses—the sudden lightning strokes of perception we expect to access in poetry. Only the best writers are capable of the "terrific struggle" it takes to precisely describe—that is, re-name—the world. As Hulme says somewhat later in the essay cited above:

There are then two things to distinguish, first the particular faculty of mind to see things as they really are, and apart from the conventional ways in which you have been trained to see them. This is itself rare enough in all consciousness. Second, the concentrated state of mind, the grip over oneself which is necessary in the actual expression of what one sees.

To see things as they really are! To "wash the gum from your eyes," as Whitman urged. Or to "cleanse the doors of perception," as Blake would have it. There are many poets, now and throughout history, who have been equal to the struggle. And the struggle has only deepened over the centuries. Gertrude Stein has said that we are in a late period of language. She means that the edges have been worn off words from constant use, that grammar has solidified in molds, like steel, that diction and syntax—the very structure of the sentence itself—has succumbed to methods of mass-production and pre-packaging which destroy any pretension towards originality of expression. She means that our language—not only the language we speak everyday, but the language of poetry itself—is a fallen one and must be redeemed by poets willing to engage daily in a confrontation with words to renew, or rediscover, their lost potential.

Acknowledging this problem, poets have attempted various methods to deploy language in ways that will remind readers that first and foremost poetry is made out of words—a medium about which we have many assumptions, and which can be scuffed, worn and battered through overuse. Or, to put it another way, words can disappear through long familiarity—we no longer even see them—as we leap past them towards standard meanings and manipulated, predictable responses. Gertrude Stein herself is a good example. Her non-syntactical phrases and repetitions are meant to prevent us from easily falling into interpretation, into the referential phase of reading, by stopping us abruptly at the surface of the page itself, trying to make sense out of unfamiliar clusters of words. This has a certain effect, but is rather limited and empty in the end. Language completely devoid of referentiality is crippled language, foreshortened language, language fighting with one hand tied behind its back. "Be all you can be," the army urges in its stirring, often epic propaganda. Stein's poems, or writings, seem to exhort language to be less than it can be. The answer to renewal of language cannot reside in disposing of one of its most potent, and crucial functions—the representation of meaning and thought, feeling and perception, insight and apprehension. Without these, we are left with a pile of words, inert, unrelated, mere verbiage interesting but ultimately mute.

when stale, fossilized, pre-fabricated language is allowed to override the poet's own consciousness and unique personal expression, the world is not revealed but obscured, dressed in borrowed rags so to speak

Other poets, like Galway Kinnell, attempt to recall words back from their long exile of disuse, their historical obsolescence, in hopes that now—having been almost completely forgotten—they will appear new again, glittering with some of their old energy and significance. So, in the Book of Nightmares, Kinnell can imagine a moment of transcendent experience, reminiscent of Wilfred Owen's nightmarish descent into the earth below a battlefield:

A way opens
at my feet. I go down
the night-lighted mule-steps into the earth,
the footprints behind me
filling already with pre-sacrificial trills
of canaries, go down
in the unbreathable goaf
of everything I ever craved and lost.

Even in the general curiousness, the linguistic eeriness of this passage, the word "goaf" stands out and shimmers with unusual allure. Before we are sent to the dictionary to define it, we are struck by something that feels right, even inevitable about it: the single heavy syllable, the interesting sound, the coupling of it to a known but disturbing adjective—all in an earthy yet surreal, almost otherworldly setting. Once we find out what the word means (a mining term, referring to the hole made in the earth, the rubble taken from it, and the reservoir of gas that builds up there) then we feel even more sure that it is right in this context and that an odd, superannuated noun has been rescued for us, given new life in a contemporary poem. This is another technique for re-naming the world. However, we wouldn't want Kinnell, or any poet, to make a habit of filling his lines with antiquated terms or it would become mere pedantry, a lexical showing-off, as though poetry required nothing more than a good dictionary or book of synonyms. This kind of technique may be used only sparingly, and with great tact.

I am not speaking of theological revelation, the metaphysical visions of saints, but the direct, unmediated, visceral knowledge of the world—the world we live in every day, but almost never apprehend.

Still other poets, like Robert Pinsky, attempt to resuscitate language by unabashedly flaunting lists of words in front of us in order to catch our attention—like a street vendor laying his wares out before us for inspection and appraisal. Some words in the list may be common, others unusual, but all are normally overlooked as we rush forward towards extracting only the meaning, leaving the empty hulls of those words behind. The idea is to force us to stop and heft each term, as it were: weigh it, consider it, regard it the way we might regard a vase, or a picture, any object that deserves our undivided attention before advancing to the next word, and the next. For words are objects, as well as abstract signs or repositories of meaning. Each has a physical presence, a linguistic body, and makes a distinct sound, and requires a certain effort to pronounce, and has a palpable effect on other words when put into contact with them. So, in what is arguably one of his best poems, "Shirt," Pinsky begins by listing various parts of that apparel in order to call our attention—not just to the shirt—but to the language we ordinarily use to denote it. The opening line of the poem begins this process:

The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams…

Later, he lists terms referring to the different jobs undertaken in the production of shirts, and even parts of the machines used in that production, as well as terms indicating the organization of labor:

                                                        The Presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The Code…

Still later, as though it were fun, even pleasurable to dwell on words this way, to savor them and meditate upon them the way we savor expensive and exotic foodstuffs, filling our mouths with their sumptuous textures and tastes, Pinsky give us another list, an inventory of various kinds of shirts with interesting and appealing names: "Prints, plaids, checks, / Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras."

The only worthwhile question, the only real question, is how to come by it.

Each of these techniques represents ways in which poets have striven to focus attention on words themselves, and in so doing re-invigorate language for the purpose of writing fresh and interesting lines of poetry. But as they are techniques, not revelations, each is really only a half-measure, a partial solution to the problem of actually re-naming the world. They are intellectual solutions, ways of manipulating language that the poet may employ, like adding fresh ingredients to enliven an old stew. Solutions, that is, applied from the outside, derived from language itself, not arising from inside, from the wellhead of conscious experience and personal illumination which then emerge through language, finding their way out in descriptions of profound and original beauty. Technique is not enough. It lacks, in Hulme's words, "The particular faculty of mind to see things as they really are." It lacks the kind of devout attentiveness Malebranche tells us is "the natural prayer of the soul." This is the first, indispensable step, the source of any true, inherent renewal of language.

I am at pains to avoid sounding vague and mystical. I am not speaking of theological revelation, the metaphysical visions of saints, but the direct, unmediated, visceral knowledge of the world—the world we live in every day, but almost never apprehend. The language of Adam is not the language of transcendence. It is the language of the body, the senses, the language of the Eden we have and not the ideal, abstract one we seek. It is meaning, substance, truth, something attainable and real the poet must strive for in his or her daily work. It cannot be replaced by mere style or technique, and it cannot be faked. It is not a product of intelligence, culture, sophistication, or literary panache. That is, it does not care to impress us. It overwhelms us. Moreover, examples of it may be culled from the best literature of any time and place. When we encounter it, we are sure. The hair on the backs of our hands, as Emily Dickinson has told us, stands up. Our experience of it electrifies us, forces us to take notice, as though our own semi-conscious, half-apprehended inklings were objectified finally in words of uncanny accuracy and power. The only worthwhile question, the only real question, is how to come by it. That requires extraordinary tenacity, sacrifice, and devotion.

Writing transformative verse is not simply a gift, a matter of talent alone. The language of such poetry is inspired, primal. It arises from heightened awareness and extraordinarily acute perception, never from mere literary cunning. It is arrived at by means of Hulme's "terrific struggle with language" which may take years, even decades of apprenticeship to words and methods of focusing the mind in order to see clearly what is actually in front of us. All of this sounds forbidding, impossibly difficult to achieve. Yet our literature abounds in moments of revelation, penetrating descriptions of the world that make it feel freshly witnessed, glowing with the excitement of initial discovery. And the kind of description I am talking about is not confined to the genre of poetry. Exemplary passages may be found in the works of all great novelists at moments when, by virtue of an intensification of language matched to powerful insight, they lift themselves into uncommon awareness to reveal something mysterious, something half-hidden and unguessed at in the most ordinary phenomena. So in Moby Dick, Melville describes a particularly languid day:

one transparent blue morning when a stillness almost preternatural spread over the sea, however unattended with any stagnant calm; when the long burnished sunglade on the waters seemed a golden finger laid across them, enjoining secrecy; when all the slippered waves whispered together as they softly ran on…

It is a morning before time, a paradise of tranquility devoid temporarily of suffering, of the burden of human knowing. Among the many other felicities in this passage, the adjective "slippered" is particularly inspired, comprehending as it does both the motion of the waves sliding off one another with liquid ease, and the idea that they are hushed—as though they wore slippers—a homely but effective image. This is heightened by the seething "s" sounds and the short "i" sounds echoed in the words "slippered" and "whispered." In fact, such sounds are woven artfully together throughout the entire passage until it becomes a delicate tissue of meaning, expressive at every juncture and at every moment of its presentation. Moreover, Melville is describing these particular waves in this particular spot on this particular day. No other. And perhaps never to be perceived exactly this way again, but caught for an instant—yet forever—in prose of uncanny accuracy and effect. Melville fashions a proto-language, a language of ur-words and etomyns, the "true" words and phrases he needs in order to tell his daunting, colossal tale. Like Adam, he knows something intuitively, exactly as it is in its individual essence and nature. He knows the sea, and is therefore able to bestow an identity upon it, to describe it for us in remarkably precise terms. In Moby Dick, the ocean acquires an unmistakable character, a soul. Melville stretches his hands out over "the great shroud of the sea" and blesses it, sanctifies it in language piercingly beautiful and exact.


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