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The process of language in the poem, then, leads to
redefinition. One poem that enacts this is Richard
Wilbur's "The Writer." The poem opens with
a three-stanza analogystolen ultimately from
Petrarchof the writer, here his daughter, as a
sort of sea captain "in the prow of the
house," with her typewriter keys rattling
"like a chain hauled over a gunwale." Then
he waxes overly poetic: "the stuff / Of her life
is a great cargo, and some of it heavy." The
figure has carried him to the sentimental because so
forced and artificial: he has been forcing the
language as Wordsworth warned, and the "counter
spirit" of language subverts his poem. How can
he save the poem, his vision, her? He resorts to
silence, a pause, and critcizes his "thought and
its easy figure." In fact, the idea of thought
carried by a figure of speech rather than the figure
of speech revealing the thought is precisely the
problem here. When she starts up again, he almost
falls back into the boat image with the pun on
"strokes," but again resorts to the silence
in contrast to his own prattle. It is from this
silence, finally, that the poem naturally emerges,
and the images of passage and life also shift to
their opposite, an image of deaththe bird
trapped in the room being a traditional image for
that. Once again, however, he could be stuck in a
cliché, but he allows the image to progress in a
more personal way, with no immediate intention of
linking it up to any analogy, and gradually the
story--the language--tells the emotion he has for his
daughter. Her thoughts in writing, his own writing,
too, is like that bird, which finally clears
"the sill of the world."
In her room at the prow of the house
Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed
My daughter is writing a story.
I pause in the stairwell, hearing
From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys
Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.
Young as she is, the stuff
Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it
I wish her a lucky passage.
But now it is she who pauses,
As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.
A stillness greatens, in which
The whole house seems to be thinking,
And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor
Of strokes, and again is silent.
I remember the dazed starling
Which was trapped in that very room, two years
How we stole in, lifted a sash
And retreated, not to affright it;
And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of
We watched the sleek, wild, dark
And iridescent creature
Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove
To the hard floor, or the desk-top,
And wait then, humped and bloody,
For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits
Rose when, suddenly sure,
It lifted off from a chair-back,
Beating a smooth course for the right window
And clearing the sill of the world.
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.
The poem, then, enacts a process of gradual
defintion and self correction: the cliché of the opening is rejected
for silence, a step back, and then an opposite image
presents itself and is allowed to carry the poet to a
more complex and unique analogy.
A different process of redefinition, more
image-oriented, occurs in Keats's "To
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
The poem opens with an overplus of sensual
imageryeven the sounds of the words,
"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,"
cause the reader to say the words slowly, and the
syntax, with its anaphora based on the preposition
"to," its sense of "more, / And still
more," provides the sense of
"o'er-brimmed" excess. In stanza two, the
images keep intensifying until there is no place for
them to develop except a sense of indolence of autumn
personified and, like one of Breughel's drunken,
pot-bellied farmers, "sitting careless on a
granary floor." The image of the
"hook" suggests not only the harvest but
the grim reaper, though that is supressed for a few
lines until we sense that the indolence, the lack of
activity, does indeed suggest death in the form of
"the last oozings hours by hours." So the
pattern of images, the language, has swept the poet
to a point where excess of life has revealed a form
of deathanother reversal of images as we saw in
"The Writer." But on the other hand, the
poem itself is building a vocabulary where the two
opposites are associated, and so in the last stanza,
where the poet seems to be describing the barren
landscape of death, of winter that follows autumn,
the oxymoronic language could just as well describe
spring. For example, the "clouds bloom the
soft-dying day," and the "stubble
plains" have a "rosey hue," both
images blending ends and beginings. Moreover, the
gnats are "borne aloft / Or sinking as the light
wind lives or dies." The "full-grown
lambs," of course, hold the opposite qualities
in the term itself, an impossibility except in
language. Finally, the crickets are singing, the
birds are singing, and the swallows are
"gathering" rather than dispersing as one
would expect in describing an end. Simply by
following the impulses of the language, by listening
to the language as it develops, Keats is able to
redefine time and mortality, to restructure his
world, to create, as Wasserman said, an
Cesare Pavese was one of the most
narratively-oriented lyric poets of the century, and
what he called "image-narratives" present
us, as Keats's poem does, with a futher good example
of how language drives the poem.
A garden between low walls, bright,
made of dry grass and a light that slowly bakes
the ground below. The light smells of sea.
You breathe that grass. You touch your hair
and shake out the memory of grass.
I have seen ripe
fruit dropping thickly on remembered grass with a
thudding. So too the pulsing of the blood
surprises even you. You move your head
as though a miracle of air had happened around
and the miracle is you. Your eyes have a savor
like the heat of memory.
You listen to the words, but they barely graze
Your face has a radiance of thought that shines
around your shoulders, like light from the sea.
in your face touches the heart with a soft
thud, exuding drop by drop,
like fruit that fell here years ago,
an old pain, still.
He begins with a garden that is
"bright," and the brightness is constituted
by the color of the "dry grass" and the
"light," a physical thing and an intangible
thing, two elements that will continue to dictate how
the poem evolves. Pavese uses the language as it
unfolds in the poem in an imaginative way, allowing
terms usually assigned to one object to be used for
another. The light, not the heat, bakes the
groundand yet, borrowing from the dry grass
image and its sense of smell in the heat, he leaps to
"The light smells of sea." That leads to
the image of breath, then with the grass image, to
hair, and so touchand the hair holds, then, all
these images of the garden: heat of passion, breath,
light, in its "memory." The hair holding
the memory of grass becomes metamorphosed into
"remembered grass," another scene, really,
where fruit drops, but that "thudding" is
associated with "pulsing of the blood," the
passion earlier. At this point, the woman's whole
head becomes the subject, as it exists in that air
which holds the smell of hair and grass, and of
fruit, tooand from the head he goes back
immediately to another part of the head, the eyes,
but then combines two elements from earlier to arrive
at "heat of memory." The poem is starting
to create a new vocabularyas all good poems
really do. The words in the third stanza are the
words of the poem, but also what fills the air, and
they fall like the fruit and "barely graze"
the woman. When he then says that her face shines
"like light from the sea," we remember how
the "light smells of sea," and the image
becomes one of synesthesia. In a moment the langauge
pulls him in another direction: the words and their
opposite, silence, are both like fruit, and so the
silence in her face can "touch the heart with a
soft / thud." The word "thud" here
resonates with the notion of fruit dropping, words
and silence, pulsing blood of passion, hurt (the
graze). Now the language has developed a vocabulary
where the conclusion can simply associate the images
on the next plane: the falling fruit, bruised, and
the graze, suggest pain, and the language of memory
earlier combines to give us the sense that the
silence is like "an old pain" that
"still" persists. I have traced this poem
in detail to suggest how the poet, letting the play
of langauge dictate the progress of the images,
arrives at an unexpected conclusion: what began as a
description of a bright garden, almost edenic, ends
with a sense of pain and loss.
The poet tries "to catch the sacred seed of everything, what is
at the center of the fruit, and open it up. The poem goes for
the inexpressible, a kind of hidden God's space...."
The Slovene poet Tomaz Salamun describes this process
of language in a recent interview:
The poet is a hunter, not an expressor. You
express what you already have. The inexpressible
is like the beast in the woods that the hunter
always knows only by its tracks. The very fact
that we can't describe it adequately now,
searching as we are with various metaphors and
similes, shows what a powerful thing it is, what
attraction it has." On a more nuts and bolts
level, he says: "Basically, what I'm trying
to do iswith a word or phraseto catch
the sacred seed of everything, what is at the
center of the fruit, and open it up. The poem
goes for the inexpressible, a kind of hidden
God's space.... One word then gets carried to
another word, tries to pry it open or hit its
center, but it hits not at the middle but a
sideso there are ambiguities, too, the
His poem, "Birthdays," is a good
For my twenty-fifth birthday in the army
I got: a mirror with a specially nice frame,
Encrusted with seashells, deer, and a brook;
Furlough, a kremschnitte, a glass of wine.
I watched a movie about Jean Harlow who died
A victim of excessive bleaching of her hair.
Men who give much to mankind are tired,
Lonely at the end. Sometimes all bleach comes
Back, and kills them.
Four years later on my birthday I thought:
New York City is a lot like the National Army.
A lot of people you never met before.
Rauschenberg showed us Twombley's paintings
Of the early fifties. Everybody has gone
To Long Island. It was hot.
Tatayana Grosman showed us the street
From the terrace where she lived two years
After the war without documents. Nobody
Believed that she was Tatayana Grosman.
If anybody had killed her, it wouldn't
Have been possible to prove that he had killed
Anybody. Then I came back to 34th street, lay
Smoked, and listened to Tommy, the Who.
Maybe I am writing this because it is so rainy.
The poem is opportunistic, turning digressions
into temporary main subjects, and then linking all of
the subjects under death, loneliness and isolation.
It begins with images of his birthday presentsa
sort of random list that mixes concrete and abstract
images, and the image of the mirror with its border
of outdoor images already starts, with the idea of
furlough, to give the poem an expansive feel. That
expansiveness suggests an ease, like watching the
movie, and while the image of Jean Harlow is funny at
first, the more somber aspects come out in the
generalization about lonely men, only to be undercut
again with the bleach reference. From there the poem
leaps to New York, another art world and a person he
met there in a series of very quick associations
linked simply by images: it is crucial that the links
seem accidental, or not related to the essences of
images. The army and New York, for instance, are
linked only by population, Harlow and Rauschenberg by
their two arts of cinema and painting. The Tatyana
Grossman lines are all related to the notion of
identity and so link back to the idea of the birthday
and mortalityshe, in a sense, doesn't exist
because she doesn't have papers. He leaps from that,
though, back to his apartment, to music, and to
question even why he writes the poem. Of course, the
images are working to reverberate off each other: the
reference to Tommy suggests something about Tatyana's
isolation, and also, we must now see under all this,
to Salamun's own loneliness. After all, the only
sentences in the present tense here are the lines
about lonely men, the line "Everyone has gone to
Long Island" and the last lineall
suggesting, uncovering, really, the poet's isolated
and melancholy condition hiding under the pretense of
the comic, almost manic assertion. One wants to read
the last line by borrowing from the other two
present-tense references: "maybe I am writing
this because I am so lonely," though that would
produce a sloppily sentimental ending. Instead, the
progression of images hunts out, to use Salamun's own
words, the inexpressible, profound sense of
isolation. The freely associative language produces a
freedom here that the poet's situation would
A poem by Wislawa Szymborska presents another fine
example of this sort of opportunistic language play
and shifting subjects:
I prefer movies.
I prefer cats.
I prefer the oaks along the Warta.
I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.
I prefer myself liking people
to myself loving mankind.
I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand,
just in case.
I prefer the color green.
I prefer not to maintain
that reason is to blame for everything.
I prefer exceptions.
I prefer to leave early.
I prefer talking to doctors about something else.
I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations.
I prefer the absurdity of writing poems
to the absurdity of not writing poems.
I prefer, where love's concerned, nonspecific
that can be celebrated every day.
I prefer moralists
who promise me nothing.
I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful
I prefer the earth in civvies.
I prefer conquered to conquering countries.
I prefer having some reservations.
I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.
I prefer Grimms' fairy tales to the newspapers'
I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers
I prefer dogs with uncropped tails.
I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark.
I prefer desk drawers.
I prefer many things that I haven't mentioned
to many things I've also left unsaid.
I prefer zeroes on the loose
to those lined up behind a cipher.
I prefer the time of insects to the time of
I prefer to knock on wood.
I prefer not to ask how much longer and when.
I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility
that existence has its own reason for being.
The last lines of her poem could almost be the
motto for this essay. What she prefers, as Hikmet
says in his famous poem about what he has forgotten
he loved, is a range of things from the quirky to the
essential, flowers to literature, emptiness to
fullness. In the end, we have a fairly accurate sense
of both the speaker, and of a poet herself, of what
constitutes language-driven poetry as she floats from
one association to another.
"Statements of the theme are simply not going to work in the
poem, for they would be unconvincing lies.... The truth of the
poem is in the play of the language."
Let's look at a typical surrealist poem, Breton's
"Always for the first time," where the
linguistic leaps literally fill the "rift"
between the beginning of love and its decline so that
the narrator in the end can lean over the enormous
void of time that has elapsed since that beginning of
the affair thus and behave as if "always for the
first time." Here is the poem:
Always for the first time
Hardly do I know you by sight
You return at some hour of the night to a house
at an angle to my window
A wholly imaginary house
It is there from one second to the next
In the inviolate darkness
I anticipate once more the fascinating rift
The one and only rift
In the facade and in my heart
The closer I come to you
The more the key sings at the door of the unknown
Where you appear alone before me
At first you coalesce entirely with the
The elusive angle of a curtain
It's a field of jasmine I gazed upon at dawn on a
road in the vicinity of Grasse
With the diagonal slant of its girls picking
Behind them the dark falling wing of the planets
Before them a T-square of dazzling light
The curtain invisibly raised
In a frenzy all the flowers swarm back in
It is you at grips with that too long hour never
dim enough until sleep
You as though you could be
The same except that I shall perhaps never meet
You pretend not to know I am watching you
Marvelously I am no longer sure you know
Your idleness brings tears to my eyes
A swarm of interruptions surrounds each of your
In a honeydew hunt
There are rocking chairs on a deck there are
branches that may well scratch you in the forest
There are in a shop window in the rue
Two lovely crossed legs caught in long stockings
Flaring out in the center of a great white clover
There is a silken ladder rolled out over the ivy
By my leaning over the precipice
Of your presence and your absence in hopeless
My finding the secret
Of loving you
Always for the very first time
Statements of the theme are simply not going to
work in the poem, for they would be unconvincing
lies; instead, the poem has to enact a sense
of always beginning. The truth of the poem is in the
play of the language. That is, the poem's language
has to enact a beginning that will counter the
potentially elegiac end to the relationship. Breton
accomplishes this by linking various sets of images
such as the references to sight, to angularity, to
flowers, to the rift of time between them so that
each time one image or another from these sets is
mentioned, it seems to emerge from a new context. Yet
a syntax of associations begins to emerge: "the
house at an angle" in line 17 suggests "the
diagonal slant of girls" in line 17 and the
"T-square of dazzling light" in line 19,
but the references to house, girls and light suggest
connections that haven't yet been explained. The
images perhaps connect suddenly in the next few lines
with the reference to the curtain (of the house), to
the woman (one of the girls?), and to the invisible
(dazzled by light?), though these links are
themselves tenuous. As the poem says later, the
images seem to be "flaring out in the center of
a white clover," constantly adding new
categories of association along different categories
of thoughtgeometry, aesthetics, draftsmanship,
decor; in thus forcing us to see connections
differently, we see the items they connect as if for
the first time. But there is always a haunting sense
that the poem, in modulating images, is building a
history, a time for itself.
We might also look at the last 13 lines to see more
closely how things resolve themselves as a result of
this language play. The two legs in these lines
derive from the rocking chair image earlier, and the
stockings are literally "high-lows"
suggesting the "silken ladder" image and
also the precipice that was the original rift. In the
space of a few lines, high, low, and center have been
conflated, suggesting eventually the
"fusion" of presence and absence. All this
is meant to establish a logic of sorts to fuse ending
and beginning as the poem repeats its first line
title, literally starting over. And yet, for all its
triumph, the poem also acknowledges the seriousness
of the precipice; throughout the poem there have been
"plants stripped," branches that
"scratch" threateningly, the "dark
falling wing of plants," and words such as
"hopeless" and "unknown" that
can't be kept out. If the language provides a
protection against time, as Derrida suggests, the
elegiac sense nonetheless threatens in these words
and the history in the poem, providing a dramatic
It might be useful to examine Anna Akhmatova's
"March Elegy" to explore these kinds of
connections further. As in the case of Breton's poem,
a certain risk is involved in using a translation,
but in both cases the translations are excellent
English poems, and besides our concern is with style
as a mode of thought, with a philosophy of style.
Joseph Brodsky notes that her style is characterized
by strict rhymes and meters, relaxed a bit by the
time of this poem, and short sentences with little or
no subordination. It is, he says, a non-assertive
style that diminishes the role of the "I."
And yet, Brodsky notes, there is a kind of movement
that rivals the push of Breton's lines: "Often
within just one stanza she'd cover a variety of
seemingly unrelated things," Brodsky says, so
many so quickly that she undermines the
"formality" of the poem. The effect, I
believe, is that the voice lets down its guard, the
timeless metronimic ring of the lines is disrupted,
and time, with all its reminders of death and loss,
subtly enters the poem. Her poems hold off, but never
fully, what they argue against, and this tension is
the source of their dramatic power. Here is the poem
in a version by Stanley Kunitz:
I have enough treasures from the past
to last me longer than I need, or want.
You know as well as I... malevolent memory
won't let go of half of them:
a modest church, with its gold cupola
slightly askew; a harsh chorus
of crows; the whistle of a train;
a birch tree haggard in a field
as if it had just been sprung from jail;
a secret midnight conclave
of monumental Bible-oaks;
a tiny rowboat that comes drifting out
of somebody's dreams, slowly foundering.
Winter has already loitered here,
lightly powdering these fields,
casting an inpenetrable haze
that fills the world as far as the horizon.
I used to think that after we are gone
there's nothing, simply nothing at all.
Then who's that wandering by the porch
again and calling us by name?
Whose face is pressed against the frosted pane?
What hand out there is waving like a branch?
By way of reply, in that cobwebbed corner
a sunstruck tatter dances in the mirror.
The struggle within the poem is against memory:
the more we remember from the past, the more we
remember how irretrievably past our experiences are.
The little catalogue of images beginning in line 5
suggests the sort of failure of traditional
consolations that the poem argues
againstbeginning with a "modest
church" and ending with "Bible-oaks,"
but containing within that frame a movement from
"a harsh chorus" to a "secret
conclave," a kind of "jail" for the
soul. Memory, in fact, becomes
"malevolent." In addition, the quick
movement and the impersonal notation method mutes the
elegiac potential in this part of the poem; this
impersonality is then underscored by the notion that
the whole catalogue comprises an unknown
"somebody's dreams." However, the reference
to the "somebody," with its rowboat that
comes out of nowhere, presents the first problem for
the drama of the poem, for while allowing the poem to
escape a reference to a personal, concrete loss, it
also suggests the kind of detachment and coldness
where, the poem goes on, "winter... fills the
The poem, then, has begun to sense a paradox: a sense
of the wintry void conjured by memory and a sense
that memories themselves fill the void. Now the
ending complicates the paradox by adding more details
that radically revalue the associations made so far,
a typical technique for elegies. Akhamatova,
remember, has begun the poem by half-discounting her
past nihilism, her belief that everything ended with
death, but the "filling" action of memory
in the guise of example details and musings within
the poem has raised as many problems as it has
protected against. So then Akhmatova introduces
another image, another unknown character, except that
in this case the character turns out to be a
"frosted pane' of a "branch" or
"cobweb" and with a voice obviously dreamt
or imagined. The questions underscore the
interrogative mood of the end, but also of the whole
poem, indeed all of Akhamatova's work where the rapid
sequences of associations constantly call into
question each prior image and the direction of the
whole movement. Are these images from the
"malevolent" past as the images earlier
were? Are they linked with a real person, the person
elegized? Does the "us" in the 5th last
line suggest a consolation in community? Should we
emphasize "sunstruck" or
"tatter"? That is, balanced between spring
and winter, is March an end or a beginning? Does the
mirror at the end turn everything around and make the
poem an internalized drama, an elegy, then, for a
lost self? But then is the consolation in
the self or for the self? Surely the figure
is meant to be an image of bright consolation, but it
is just as surely an image that is questioned, and so
at least partially fails as a protection. Perhaps all
these questions underscore what Brodsky calls the
note of "controlled terror" in her poems;
the victories, the protections, are always
provisional, always about to dismantle themselves as
rapidly as the lines have constructed them. It is
this dizzying dance, eluding perhaps great
consolation, but also eluding great disappointment,
that is Akhamatova's victory, the grace of her
interrogative mood, her language play.
The Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez in his poem,
"Tomb of the Imagination," shows how we can
extend this sense of language. The poem describes how
a stonemason "wanted, stone upon stone, / wall
after wall, to raise an image to the wind, / to the
unchaining wind of the future." What he tries to
build is a structure beyond the physical limitations
of his art, a "structure capable of the
ethereal." As a result, his "imagination
lifted stones made of feathers, / walls made of
birds." But these "wingbeats" of the
imagination do not last long, and he finally must
resort to stone, to the elements of the limited
physical world: "Stone by stone it weighs down
and crushes / all it encloses, even a world of living
desire." What the man is constructing, in
effect, is "his own prison."
(translation below is by Ted Gnoways, above by Robert
Tomb of the Imagination
A mason wanted....he wasn't lacking spirit.
A mason wanted, stone by stone, wall
By wall, to erect a monument to the wind,
That unchainer of the future.
He wanted a structure capable of delicate things.
He wasn't lacking spirit. How much he wanted it!
At midday the imagination moves stones
Like feathers, walls like birds.
He laughed. Worked. Sang. From his arms,
More powerful than thunder's wings,
Wall flew out like wingbeats.
But wingbeats don't last like this.
At last, stone was his medium. And a mountain
When it moves is able to fly, but stone by stone,
It grows heavy and crushes all that it escorts
Even a world alive with desire.
A mason wanted.... But stone extracts
Its strict brutal thickness in a second.
That man was building his prison. And into it
The mason and the wind were flung.
Similarly, what the poet constructs is a prison
whose walls are the words, the very language he uses
to build with: indeed, Hernandez was in prison when
he wrote this poem, and the stones are, in a real
sense, his words. What the words, the stones, can do
is point towards something beyond that remains, like
true freedom, always unattainable. And yet, because
the stonemason has been able to use his imagination
earlier, now, "in his work / he and the wind
were driven headlong," and if that wind and he
are no longer "unchained" as he hoped in
the beginning, there is at least some sense in which
a measure of freedom has been achieved.
The language of imagination here is not a final
state; it is not a thing merely achieved, but
something one strives with and after: it becomes, in
the case of both Hernandez and Radnoti, the
motivating force of life. It provides a certain
degree of freedom that, if imaginary, is also a kind
of reality that must constantly, as I have suggested
earlier, be built and rebuilt. The Slovene poet,
Edvard Kocbek, in his little poem, "I'm Not
Played Out," talks about the "dangerous
game of words" that the poet undertakes. Poetry
makes its world, it's freedom, out of the tools of
the imagination--words. Thus, "Freedom is the
terrible freedom of nothingness," he says, and
sets the writer "apart, / hidden in the
earth" as Hernandez's stonemason is. Kocbek
understand the limits of imagination as an
opportunity to keep imagining, to keep inventing a
new language. He sees the limits of the imagination
as a responsibility to keep establishing his freedom
through language. That is why he says he will always
continue generating new words with a new freedom.
"I will pronounce / un-heard of words through
aeons, perhaps through / all eternity...." One
is reminded here of Petrarch's statement in Rime 170:
"I have never been able to shape a word that is
understood by anyone but me." What he is getting
at is the way words go beyond us, always say more and
less than what we thought they might say.
Perhaps the ultimate case along these lines is
Wislawa Symborska's ironic "Unwritten Poem
Reviewed" in which the poem is a commentary on a
poem that exists beyond language. The poem itself is
dictated by the format of a review, and the
references suggest an inordinate allegiance to theme
in the manner of too many college literature
professors. Only at the end does she mention
"happy-go-lucky style / (a mixture of loftiness
and common speech)" that would put the whole
poem into question, subvert it. In concentrating so
much on theme, the poet subverts the notion of the
primacy of theme, especially in the form of dogma, as
the driving force in a poem, for this poem itself is
making fun of the thematic interpretations a poem
presents at the expense of the real force of the
poem, the style. By fragmenting the descriptions,
theme and reference, the poem diminishes them in
favor of the tone, the voice, the language that
is the responsibility of the writer to keep freedom alive through
the imagination, through language, to fight restraints upon freedom
and restraints upon the imagination and upon language...."
Symborska is cleverly exploring the language beyond
the language of the poem, yet also following the
dictates of the language of critiques. In fact, the
power of language to dictate to us derives from this
very mystery of language, the notion of the unspoken
that Dante appeals to at the end of the Paradiso.
A more somber expression than Symborska's of this
aspect of language appears in a poem, "What He
Thought," by Heather McHugh, which describes a
meeting of a group of writers where one poet, quiet,
seemingly conservative, tells the story of Giordano
Bruno. This medieval thinker was burned at the stake
in the Campo Dei Firoi in Rome for imagining the
impossible, that life, for example, might exist on
other planets. The poet describes how Bruno had an
iron mask placed over his head so he would not incite
the crowd to save him. And then the poet delivers his
definition of poetry based upon this horrific scene
of the burning thinker dying for freedom of thought:
"Poetry is what he thought but did not
say." It is the responsibility of the writer to
keep freedom alive through the imagination, through
language, to fight restraints upon freedom and
restraints upon the imagination and upon language,
whether in the form of something as overt as
censorship or something as subtle as dogma, as a
certain theme imposed upon the language rather than
arising out of it. The writer's language, unique to
her or him and their culture, is not merely a record,
but a gesture always trying to escape itself, escape
our human condition towards something universal even
as it honors it in its particularity and uniqueness.
The language of freedom is a language of silences
beyond language, free of all constraints, something
we can strive for but never achieve. If we fail to
attempt that state, we fail not only ourselves but
our world, in which case Kocbek's "freedom of
nothingness" becomes merely nothingness, the
death of both freedom and imagination.
writer's language is not merely a record, but a gesture always
trying to escape itself..."
Finally, Bret Lott suggested the following analogy to
me a few years back. In Ezekiel 37, the prophet is
told to speak over the dry bones (one can see a
version of this in Signorelli's magnificent chapel in
Orvieto) in order to re-generate the spiritually and
physically dead. As the prophet speaks the words of
the Lord that have been commanded to him, he
"heard a noise: it was the rattling as the bones
came together, bone joining bone. I saw the sinews
and the flesh come upon them, and the skin cover
them, but there was no spirit in them." Clearly,
the Lord wants him to understand not simply the fact
of resurrection, but the process, a process of
language, in Biblical terms the process of the Word
generating flesh, a version in human terms of the
Word become flesh. So when the prophet commands the
spirit to enter the bones, "the spirit came into
them; they came alive and stood upright." It is
not simply the physical, but the spiritthe
spiritualthat creates life. The analogy to the
writer's process as I have outlined it here is
significant: it is not simply the surface, the bones,
but the essence, the spirit, that the words recreate
for the writer, like the Biblical prophet, is aiming
at an almost unspoken depth that language generates
in many ways beyond his control, or rather in control
of the language given to him or her.
Now I see my own language pulling me to a few
conclusions I did not anticipate even a few
paragraphs ago. Today, in the light of how language
is trapped and imprisoned by so many politicians,
businessmen, journalists, advertisers and the like,
that failure is the main danger threatening our
various existences as unique cultures, that
"nothingness" could imply our moral,
social, spiritual, even our very literal, not simply
linguistic, annihilation. Through our language we
will create difference or be imprisoned by previous
conceptions; we will be original or we will repeat
the pastpoetically as well as socially--for the
notion of following the dicates of language, of the
ironic freedom it brings, is our best, most
subversive weapon against the power structures that
surround us. This is what Dante well knew in
composing his Commedia with its savage attacks on his
enemies. It is what Petrarch meant when he admonished his friend to
"write neither in the style of one or another writer, but a style
uniquely ours although gathered from a variety of sources." It is
what Radnoti meant when he let his words follow one another across
the page of his poem. Original style, original language, is freedom:
it is that critical to our lives and histories. We will either be
free though an imaginative language or we will simply disappear with
the iron masks of our own dogma and preconceptions muffling our
voices, our language.