The Grill of Language

By the sense of light / you guess the soul
–Paul Celan

Poets are, by definition, exhilarated by the magic of words–not just what they can express or remember, but also what they can make possible as new modes of being and thinking. But these same words can also make a poet sick: the nausea that comes when it turns out the public is indifferent, and somehow not exhilarated by poetry or thinking. Why is this the case?

Poetry makes different and strange. It suspends the normal relations of things, sometimes by tearing them apart, sometimes by rhyming them together. But its way of doing so is ephemeral, “flimsy,” less powerful than its closest neighbors, film (strings of images, bending temporalities) and music (melody and silence). It takes reality too seriously, it is too emotional; but then it laughs, too, insanely. It bears the mark, some might say, of psychological instability. It increases vulnerability and threatens with it.

Poetry, though it can be put to the service of political or social goals, is resistant to easy meaning, to popularity, commercialism, and consumption. Its meanings aren’t the meanings that are normally at issue when people talk about the meaning of words or the meaning of discourse. And it doesn’t do much by way of negotiation, but is idiomatic, “obscure,” difficult. It takes practice to understand, and anyone can fall out of practice. Moreover, every poet speaks to us differently, which confuses.

Poems don’t come right out and communicate a message; if they even have one, the reader must go through a kind of ritual to get it: they must give the poem its own space, must enter it, while also bringing their whole self to the poem in letting it speak. And one can always be deceived. One is always called by the poem to rereadings. For the meaning escapes (it’s meant to). Every poem falls silent at the end–which is part of the exhilaration, but can also feel futile, useless. Why not get on with the pertinent discussions of the day? Why waste our time in “fancy”?

Poetry, perhaps more than any other art, requires activity and passivity simultaneously: in the breath of reading, one must go with the line, follow its spacious or narrow tracts; but one must also articulate, reassemble, associate, and think. Poetry is both entirely on the surface, and entirely beyond it. It is secretive and reticent, however forthcoming. Thus one is never certain if one has really read the poem or not, which adds to its uncertainty and again raises the question why bother. Poetry has its moment, and then starts over, as it must. It is there entirely in its passing, like words themselves–and like us.

I’ve always thought that the ordeal of poetry was best and most simply put in Jack Spicer’s poem, “Thing Language”:

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises
Tougher than anything.
No one listens to poetry. The ocean
Does not mean to be listened to. A drop
Or crash of water. It means
Is bread and butter
Pepper and salt. The death
That young men hope for. Aimlessly
It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No
One listens to poetry.

The refrain–“No one listens to poetry”–is an experience that every poet has had, at least until they start to find other poets or communities of readers who respect the art and are willing to lend an ear. But I imagine that even the most successful poets in this respect remain haunted by poetry’s ghostly status. It is not recognized by society as vital in any way. It seems this is truer today than it has ever been; poetry is opposed to nothing so much as to soundbites and limited attention spans. But I imagine poets themselves are also haunted by their inadequacy. Who gives poetry the time it requires, the time it deserves? We poets barely give enough time to our own poems.

In a poem by Szymborska quoted in this article, she asks with a jibe, “O Muse, where are our teeming crowds?” The politicians have them, the musicians have them, the actors and athletes have them, even the hack journalists and bullshitting evangelists have them. But poets? Largely no. It takes a scandal, or the outrageous personality of the poet, for the public to take notice. Not only is there no dogma, there’s no “point.” I’m sure others have asked the question: is poetry even for the public? The question is impossible to answer, because poets do not write to suit their audience. They address us all, but only in that they address us each individually. It is also a very flimsy thing to say, but poets write for the heart: from their heart to the heart of the other. Which is to say they write for eternity, from beyond the grave, to someone that they know they cannot accompany.

By doing so, however, by writing in separation and with an awareness of finitude, an awareness of the fragility of words. Poets teach us about “being-in-language” in general. We can make ourselves heard best today when we scoot past the difficulties and go straight to the meaning or the message. One-liners are successful because they catch fire and spread without difficulty. But ultimately no one’s existence is reducible to the opinions they have or the positions they take on this or that issue. There are things in us to say that we’ll only ever say to friends, relatives, loved ones–things that are sacred and unspeakable, that show us at our most vulnerable, when our guard is down, when we’re ecstatic or weeping. These are the things we plead to be heard without any assurance that we’ll ever be understood. These, I believe, are the most irreducible elements of our existence, however rarely they strike us and however unaccustomed we are to voicing them. It is the courage of the poet to dwell in such a crisis and to hone the articulation of intimacy–to let us into a life that is irreducible, untranslatable, unrepeatable, and priceless; and to remind us that our life is just like theirs in that way.

Perhaps what poetry has to teach us–and why it is so repressed by the masses–is that such naked expression, like a deathbed confession, is the realest form of discourse imaginable for human beings, the one most engaged with our mortal situation and thus the one with the best chance of securing beauty. It will not be broadcast on your local television station, but it does exist: something better, something prescient, is there, openly available for whoever is patient enough to tune in. And it doesn’t matter how many do. You are alone, hearing them, trying to understand what can’t be. That is the exhilaration. And the reason.

I know it’s foolish to make such sweeping hypotheses about poetry and what poets do. I want to correct the impression, if I gave it, that poems are always the expression of the poet’s self. That’s not true, I’ve never believed it, and I’ve spent much of my time trying to deconstruct this idea. Rather, we’d have to open the question of what a ‘self’ could be anyway, how’s it constituted, where are its ‘true edges’ (just remember Whitman: I contain multitudes). Poems of course also record dates and facts, real and imaginary lives of others, myths, as well as the shocks, dreams, and disappointment of the collective. Sometimes they even speak for animals or inanimate things. Poems issue from intimacy, I think, but that intimacy is something shared. The word deep in the heart is, in a way, already the other’s word; it’s meant for them, and the poem sends it to them, to be received and, through the grill of language, sent again. That’s the “magic,” and the poem is the plane upon which vibrates the between.

But it’s best to let poetry speak again. Another favorite of mine, by Paul Celan:


Eye-orb between the bars.

Ciliary lid
rows upwards,
releases a gaze.

Iris, swimmer, dreamless and dim:
the sky, heart-gray, must be near.

Skew, in the iron socket,
the smoldering splinter.
By the sense of light
you guess the soul.

(Were I like you. Were you like me.
Did we not stand
under one tradewind?
We are strangers.)

The tiles. Upon them,
close together, the two
heart-gray pools:
mouthfuls of silence.

(trans. Joachim Neugroschel)


Augenrund zwischen den Stäben.

Flimmertier Lid
rudert nach oben,
gibt einen Blick frei.

Iris, Schwimmerin, traumlos und trüb:
der Himmel, herzgrau, muss nah sein.

Schräg, in der eisernen Tülle,
der blakende Span.
Am Lichtsinn
errätst du die Seele.

(Wär ich wie du. Wärst du wie ich.
Standen wir nicht
unter einem Passat?
Wir sind Fremde.)

Die Fliesen. Darauf,
dicht beieinander, die beiden
herzgrauen Lachen:
Mundvoll Schweigen.

[This short note is in response to Where is Wislawa Szymborska’s Teeming Crowd? Thanks to Aishwarya Iyer for giving this piece a title and proper epigraph.]

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1 Response to The Grill of Language

  1. Pingback: Musings on Writing | fragilekeys

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