Poetry and Language: Ramblings on the Sweetness of Poetry
It was Auden who said, “A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.” I can only imagine what a sweet love affair it was for one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, a prolific poet who used language to shape about 400 of the greatest published poems in the Western poetry lexicon.
Still, even Auden must have anguished over his words. I’m sure he had his moments gnawing his knuckles over the bitter inconsistencies of grammar and syntax- the inexorable frustration of having only one set of rustic tools: the naked, two-dimensional cryptograms of an alphabet.
But is it accurate to think of language merely as a tool? Can it ever be more than that? Does it provide discrete limitations to our knowing, or can we supersede the perceived barriers of language by using it in special ways? Mysterious ways?
And what can poetry contribute to this equation? Some would argue that we can move into new rubrics of understanding as we move from prose to poetry, as one might move from a photograph to a painting. I’m not at all sympathetic to such a stretch, but I am open to the notion that poetry is distinctively different than prose; not at any one particular facet or quality: but as one takes the whole of prose and sets it along side what we have in poetry, patterns emerge. One of the most salient of all, it occurs to me, is that of the sweetness of language.
For me, poetry gives language a sweet-smelling savor. Like what I get when I slowly breathe in a Chateau Margaux (1961, please) that has had one hour to rise above the rim of a decanter. In poetry, we ask language to do special things. We ask it not only to convey, but to speak. Or better, we ask it to play music. To bounce, or slide, or glide, or stop nearly on a dime, then whisper inaudibly into our memory. Finally, we ask it to remain on the palate, or in the nose. For a lifetime. Great poetry will do this. And often with only 14 lines.
A crude thought experiment, if you will: what is the difference between the following two paragraphs:
Are you sad, Margaret, because Goldengrove’s trees are losing all their leaves? You are young and carefree, but as you age you’re liable to be much sadder than you are today, much more bewildered and perhaps find that life itself is corruptible; you may cry and still not understand that it is all the same: Spring or Fall- either way- it is still your nature to find sorrow, just like the rest of us. Only now, you are sorry for Margaret, alone.
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
I know, the prose section could have been a bit stronger, but you get the idea. Hopkins loaded his poem, Spring and Fall, with the fiery darts of language. “Goldengrove unleaving,” is a masterpiece of innovation, as is “world of wanwood leafeal lie,” and the whole poem uses language, the cadence, the sound, the smell of leaves, short bursts of energy packed into images that can be seen by the eye, all culminating in a rush of identification whereby the reader at the end finally realizes that they have, all along, been where Margaret has been. May be going where Margaret is going.
Human beings have this amped-up gift of appreciating language in all its complexity and nuance. A single word, or small group of words, if properly placed, can strike a hidden neuron in the farthest reaches of the brain, retrieve a memory, a smell; or a fundamental crisis of being.
Poetry works to tweak these neurons. It uses language and the sound of words, and the intermingling meanings and connotations to create something out of nothing. It takes the black ink outline of letters on a page and turns it into a picture. Key to all of this process is the naiveté of the poet, who, like the tiny bee in a hive of a million bees, can have no idea or appreciation for the delicacy that she is making at its center. Yet she works away with ardor, compelled by instinct, or maybe even the prospect of something sweet tickling an antennae. Either way, the honey is sweet. And the bee continues to work. In most cases, without remuneration and without acclaim. And suddenly, one day, the poet looks up from the page and realizes there is something sweet here. And the honey remains sweet.