Thursday, April 05, 2007

Language is Fossil Poetry

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his essay, The Poet:

The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.

Norman O. Brown wrote in his book, Love's Body:

The dead metaphor.  It is only dead metaphors that are take literally, that take us in (the black magic).  Language is always an old testament, to be made new; rules, to be broken; dead metaphor, to be made alive; literal meaning to be made symolical; oldness of letter to be made new by the spirit.  The creator spirit stands in the grave, in the midden heap, the dunghill of culture; breaking the seal of familiarity; breaking the cake of custom; rolling the stone from the sepulcher; giving the dead metaphor new life.

Brown ended Love's Body with the line: Everything is only a metaphor; there is only poetry.

I respond to this the way a paleontologist or geologist would, as stratigraphy. The way Loren Eiseley did in his best poems, some of which are directly on geologic topics. I recorded my reading of three Eiseley poems while sitting in my truck at Pescadero, overlooking the sea, surrounded by sedimentary and ophiolitic rocks. I've written about stratigraphy here before: The Stratigraphy of Poem Titles. Some of my own poems fall into this realm, as well, for example: Erosion.

Stratigraphy is the study of geologic structure, especially the analysis of rock layers to establish chronological sequence. In the mountains, where many outcrops are exposed, the layers are often not what you'd assume they'd be, with older layers on bottom and new layers on top; rather, beacuse of folding and faulting, you often get newer layers appearing under older layers. (Think about how that applies to poetry.) Sometimes the whole sequence has been turned on its side, or upside down. The job of stratigraphy is mapping, and analyzing deep structure. You learn about the standard markers in each sequence, what in sedimentary sequences are called marker fossils, which are known to be of a certain age, a certain climate or oceanography, and deduce where you are in the sequence. You discover where consistent layers have been weathered away, and there's a gap in the standard sequence. You learn about how folding and faulting, and metamorphosis caused by igneous intrusions, or by deep submersion of the rocks, till they partially melt and recrystallize, all change the nature of the rocks and their sequence. Stratigraphy is like three dimensional mapping using limited data and a lot of deduction. Actually, it's four-dimensional mapping, because time is an inherent element of the geography.

To a geologist, fossils are not really dead, just hidden: buried, until they are exposed, either by weathering, or by being dug out—hunted for. Fossils are characteristic to certain strata, certain eras, certain locales: the marker fossils, that give you a reference, a location in spacetime. Fossils, in the geologist's imagination, are alive in deep time, not really dead. Geologists are used to thinking in multiple scales of time: deep time, and present time. It's fun to watch them drive along an outcrop in a cut valley going up or down a mountain range: either they pull over and put their noses to the rock, or they veer all over the road, almost causing accidents, because they're staring at the outcrop rather than the tarmac. Deep time spans millions of years, alive in the mind. You learn to shift gears, coming down from looking at the outcrops, and it's hard sometimes to remember that you were supposed to have dinner with a friend, when you've spent eons in the Devonian shales.

Deep time often comes back up to the surface, as strata weather away, and expose the fossils of what used to be there.

Like the ripple marks of shallow rivers and seas found on top on cliffs above a lake carved out by glaciers and kept filled by springs that rise up in the bend of the lake, so that the ice never really gets thick right over the spring: Devil's Lake in Wisconsin.

Like the logs of ancient trees, now agatized, lying scattered on the desert floor, or half-buried in stream-beds that carry water only two months of the year: Petrified Forest in Arizona. Exposed to the elements, but durable and beautiful. Sometimes the logs are even translucent, because the silicate minerals that replace the wood are white and translucent themselves. You can see through the fossil of the tree into its deep structure, without having to break it open.

Like the newest rock on the planet, seeping or exploding out of volcanic mouths, deep throats of molten rock going down into the subduction zones, or even into plumes in the mantle: Mauna Loa, Hawai'i, or Mt. Etna, Italy, or any of the others. Sometimes violent, like Krakatau or Mt. St. Helens. Sometimes gentle and slow. Sometimes alternating. But the newest rocks on the earth seep out, or flow out, or blast out, layering over the second-oldest rocks that had seeped or blasted or flowed out some recent time before.

Fossilization is the process of living tissue, or organically-produced mineralogy, being replaced by mineral seep in bedded layers of rock. Apatite, which the form of calcium carbonate that living things generate, including your teeth and those shells you just picked up from the beach, gets replaced with calcite, or various types of silica. Calcite and quartz are the two most common replacing minerals. Opal is a form of microcrystalline quartz formed in wet seeps so that little spheres of waterpockets get trapped in the matrix: what makes the rainbow shine in opals. Jasper or chert is what replaced the tree cells in petrified wood, another form of microcrystalline quartz, but a dry form.

Emerson is making a metaphor when he calls language fossilized. I have to believe he knew about geology, which was a new science in his day, but a growing and important one. I further believe that he was making an aesthetic comment, about how language begins in sacred speech, in ritual oratory, in the voices of spirits speaking through shaman. Perhaps the first consistent language was built on the magical speech we first used to describe and communicate with the sacred: and that sacred speech is always closer to poetry than to ordinary, everyday prosaic speech.

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Blogger Top Shelf Blues said...


Nice to have found you. Thanks for the post over on my site.

Interesting connection, I picked up a copy of Gary Snyder's Myths and Texts in Logos Books in Santa Cruz one year. It just so happened to be signed on the inside "from the Library of Norman O. Brown" in very neat print. Andrew Schelling has told me that UC Santa Cruz created the History of Consciousness department specifically for Norman O. Brown.



9:50 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...


Hi and thanks for dropping by.

It's a small universe, ennit?

My excellent Santa Cruz poet friend Beth Vieira was a student and close friend of Nobby's. Her thinking and questions have prompted several posts on this blog, including this one.

6:33 PM  
Blogger Derain said...

Art, I see your page of photographies and they like me so much. For this reason, I like use some photos yours in my blogs. If you want, ( if says "yes") post me please. All the photographies took to your name and page Web.
Well, is all. A hug from Chile.

2:38 AM  

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