Sunday, October 14, 2007

Limitations (of Words, etc.)

You wake, the day feels already half over before the sun rises. You look out at the deer and theystare back at you, saying nothing. It's raining, and the whiteboard sky has no texture, no ripple, remains a solid blank slate, nothing written on it. A late-blooming rose is a shock of pink against the leaf-strewn lawn.

There are so many things you cannot say with words.



I have been feeling many things, since my father got ill and died this past summer, that poetry cannot contain. I haven't been writing much "creative writing," and what I have been writing has been so new, so unfamiliar in form, to me, that I don't know what it is, or what to call it. I am still looking for the right container, the worthy crucible. My trust in the ability of words to convey what I experience, which was never strong, has eroded even further. The bards knew how much needed to be said with lacunae, silence, and obliqueness. You can talk around the crater, or you can describe its circumference, or you can talk about what lies at its epicenter: but it's too big to really contain.

The ancient rhyming skalds, the tellers of the Old Norse epics, would talk around a hero's pain without directly addressing it. Some mystery remains as to inner world and motvation. Perhaps the real discontinuity between then and now is that, now, we carry the assumption (ever since Freud) that inner motivations mean more than outer, and that if you don't know the inner person, the childhood traumas, you cannot understand the acting adult, the outer person who engages with the world, whether by ax or rime or coin. Some days I question the validity of this modern assumption. Some nights you want to leave the inner turmoil alone, to let it sort itself out, without having to give it all your conscious obsession. It can be exhausting, emotionally, leaving you with no room to maneuver.

Words fail you. Words fail all poets, eventually, and the poets who claim otherwise have never really met life head-on.

Those who know don't have the words to tell
and the ones with the words don't know too well.

—Bruce Cockburn, Burden of the Angel/Beast

There are some experiences that words only limit, in their attempts to encapsulate them: they make the reality smaller. They divorce the emotion from the experience somewhat.

Words lie. I danced that out around the fire circle, last weekend, furious, very martial, very firece, letting the Dragon take me, thrusting and punching the superheated fall air, my eyes burning, my body moving fluid and powerful through the circle of witness. I barely heard the drums. The only words I could squeeze out, and it was an effort, surrounded as I was by cheap facility and easy poetasting: Words lie.

This is the song of unfolding: first you must tear down what is false, so you can build up what is true.

So, I will claim this truth: I cannot tell you (in words) what I feel, what has happened, where I am going. I can dance it, barely; being a poor dancer with bad knees. I can make music about it. I can refer to paintings that open the fields. I can edge around the crater, but I can't guide you into it. The sun hasn't risen far enough to illuminate what still lies in cold shadow. Not even the bards or the skalds had words for these depths, and they wisely left them alone. (Remember, a bard's task is also to conceal and misdirect.)

It's our modern era that's wrong, wherein (multiple choice:) everyone is told they must confess everything, where nothing is to remain private or mysterious, where there's always a (glib) explanation, where you're expected and demanded to share, share, share till it hurts, whether or not you're ready to share. When you just don't have the words, you're expected to find some anyway. Confession isn't always good for the soul. Poetry that too easily reveals the poet is worthless. Poets who believe that words are the best domain for conveying information are engineers, in truth, not bards. Poets who hold words in too high an esteem have never (yet) been betrayed by their art, by their tools; they shall remain shallow, until their own vessels, their own containers, are cracked open and broken, to be reforged better, stronger, more sure. More aware of the limitations of their principle tool. Till then, you can't trust a word they say.

Words cheapen. They fold large things down into vessels too small to contain them. They pretend to be able to explain it. They pretend to be capable of containing the world. At most, they contain an image of the world, a reflection, a shrunken virtuality, a quasi-mathematical representation that formulaicly tries to capture an essence in equations. Words reduce, inappropriately and incorrectly. By reducing experience to manageable descriptions, words falsify: another kind of lie, the lie of incompleteness and omission. The emotion again divorced from the experience. Poems that don't leave lacunae, open spaces to breathe through, breathing spicules, will die of suffocation, gasping for air. Poems that are too self-contained leave you nowhere to go.

When the haiku master Kobayashi Issa's small daughter died (one of many personal tragedies), he did not weep in his poems, he did not wail, he did not gnash his teeth in an unseemly display of self-pity, he did not confess his sorrow directly and explicitly. Instead, he wrote one of the most profoundly Zen Buddhist poems of all time:

this world of dew
is just a world of dew—
and yet . . . and yet . . .

(trans. Sam Hamill)

Issa knew that yearning, and without saying it, said it. His poetry speaks across the confessional fashions of our times to say something profound, without saying it at all. A rich, insightful, bardic silence. What is unsaid means so much more than what is.

The most words can do, even when they are at their most sublime, is point at the truthes that lie beyond words. Words can be effective pointers, and even guides; but it is not wise to confuse the map with the terrain. The words themselves are not the path, despite what poets claim. Experience makes false any claim that poetry is the highest artform, because poetry so often fails to contain silence and what cannot be said in words. Poetry can barely contain music; the most it can do is report. As easy facility with technique and craft is no sure bulwark against being stared at, in the depths of your being, by a raptor who can eat your liver. It is hubris to believe that we are the pinnacle of either the hunt or the build (the making, the creation). The raptor and crater are both larger than you.

Yet we struggle against limitation, we push back, we surge against it. We deny its power over us, and even as we fail to transcend our limits, we deny our failures. (Words lie.) It's all so much shouting at the void, the abyss. They raise the stakes constantly, especially those poets who calim mastery of words, and constantly increase the volume of their cheers: because the abyss never answers back, not even an echo. It just absorbs. Even the void with stars in it is too large for you to hear back an echo.

Still we dare to circumambulate the crater. Still we fight back against predation. This is either hubris or valor, and it might be dignity as well.

This is the song of unfolding: first you must tear down what is false, so you can build up what is true.

So, I will claim this truth: The daring is still worth doing, even knowing in advance that you will fail. You have to have a sense of your limits, and the limits of your tools, before you can transcend them. Before you can see where words can succeed, and where they must fail, you cannot write a true poem. Five-finger exercises and etudes, to be sure; but no bardic silences, no skaldic deflections. Your poems will remain abstracted, the emotion divorced from the experience somewhat. But dare nonetheless. If you're very lucky, your crucible will be cracked and broken open, so it can be remade.

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope's chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
(Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.)

—William Butler Yeats, Long-Legged Fly

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3 Comments:

Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

I'm sorry but I just can't resist. I'd really hate to have a last name like "Cockburn"... being female and all.

Oh yeah, Badda-Bing!

5:52 PM  
Blogger runnerfrog said...

About the value of words:
"Man knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colors of an autumn forest... Yet he seriously believes that these things can every one of them, in all their tones and semitones, in all their blends and unions, be accurately represented by an arbitrary system of grunts and squeals. He believes that an ordinary civilized stockbroker can really produce out of his own inside noises which denote all the mysteries of memory and all the agonies of desire."
G.K. Chesterton.

About the cause of waorking with words:
"For the gentleman, only the lost cause should be attractive."
J.L. Borges.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I like the Chesterton quote. It reminds me of all my years in graphic design, pre-press, and printing. In the past 8 years there has been radical change in printing technology, with multiple-ink presses coming to the forefront. (Even most Epson inkjets for home use now have 6 or more inks.) The parallel to the Chesterton quote I was thinking of is that, in the long-lived days of the four-color press, all the finagling and adjusting we had to do to achieve certain colors found in nature that could not accurately be reproduced with CMYK alone. On many presses, the blue colors of the sky NEVER looked right, for example.

12:49 PM  

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