The Creation of Worlds: On the danger of language and the hope of poetryRead Now
Tietê bus terminal, São Paulo, Brazil, 1996, Sebastião Salgado
To me this photograph embodies the relation of language and art to reality. The photograph captures the physical and intellectual aspects of freedom — as they contradict and contend with each other. The people — grasping the gate, as though beginning to climb it — look in the same direction as the woman in the foreground. Physical separation, the absence of physical freedom, is meaningless in the photograph’s moment: the people and the woman are all there where they look. And yet the people and the woman as we see them exist only in the photograph; they are not real; they look somewhere off, somewhere and nowhere. We presume that the people are captive and the woman is free; but they all have time neither for thought nor language; they can only exist; they are made captive in their existence by the photograph, the work of art. This is the contradiction of art. This is art’s struggle for truth. In looking at the photograph we look at the minds, not the bodies, of the people and the woman. The people and the woman together create a reality; that reality is not physical. That reality, the photograph, is an abstraction, an empty metaphor without meaning, a metaphor that precedes meaning. This abstraction is the function of poetry (poetry in the linguistic or visual or musical art); this poetic metaphor treats human beings as minds (intelligences, as Ezra Pound had it), and through abstraction, through metaphor poetry makes its subject ubiquitous. The people behind the gate and the woman in front of it, as a poem’s words and lines, morph into a singular impression that precedes meaning, a singular metaphor and abstraction that precede meaning (not unlike Keats’s negative capability). Abstraction and metaphor, then, are the functions of poetry. The captives and the woman are all captive in themselves; they, to us, are not their real selves but symbols, abstractions of themselves; they are a language, as language is in poetry, of art. To us, they are symbols of an eternity, minds, the only divinities — only for a moment, only in the photograph, only as art, they are free.
Now we feel most acutely — as all peoples in all times likely have — the danger of language. It is the danger of deceit, ignorance and blind belief. Language used only to communicate, concerned only with its effect and not its construction, is at once essential for everyday interaction and a political weapon. Language — an idea and a practice inseparable from our human identity, individual and shared, and fundamental to our need for expression — is, however, entirely unethical: it is a tool which anyone, irrespective of ideology or justice of intent, can use to great effect. Language, then, is a result, a product of thought and of self — released into the world to contend with others’ thoughts and selves, others’ language, for acceptance and effect.
Language, such as political rhetoric, has the immense and dangerous power to create worlds — realities that agree with one or another political ideology; that draw a border around one or another community; that drown out through zeal and fear and rage opposition and argument; that have no room for one or another idea or people or, most dangerously, for actual reality. Here lies the danger — in language that, by creating realities, rejects actual reality. Antisemitism, war justified with simplified and selected history, the denial of climate change, nationalism, censorship, repression — all these, real-world manifestations of private ideology (private belief, prejudice etc.), inhabit our world through language.
And in order to exist, to continuously reinvent and reproduce, the language of ideology — of prejudice and persecution, nationalism and political zealotry — must be deafening: it must not give voice to disagreement or fact; it must not be rigorous or profound; it must be accessible and exciting. Prejudice, and the language by which it exists, cannot be informed by reality — for to build ideology on the basis of fact, to admit error, to value common good over ambition, is inconvenient, counter to ambition, practically impossible for the tyrant or conquerer or bigot. For their identity to survive, for them to survive, for them to hold onto power, they must not lose their hunger for profit, they must not waver even in the face of their deceit, they must not loosen their grasp on the reins holding a nation by its throat — pulling it back and tugging it along. The tyrant’s language must not answer reality but create it.
Misinformation — finding faster wings, becoming more subtle and total with every year of technological innovation and expansion — is the essential struggle of our generation. And yet, turning to history, braving to look at it fully, objectively, braving to remember genocide, conquest, oppression and the ideologies from which these were born and the language with which these existed — considering these, the struggles of the present, much like deceit itself, seem nothing more than reinventions of the past, unknown only at the face and ignored in passing.
Literature, particularly poetry, is an answer to the weaponization of language. Poetry is concerned not only with the effect of language but with its construction, recording reality and not creating it, contradicting itself because the world contradicts itself, stumbling toward truth — the truth of human existence and emotion and identity and ideology. Truth, unlike deceit, has no need to speak, only to exist. It is silent, there for all who look. Poetry is the struggle for truth, the struggle that is truth. It is a contention between feeling and fact, speech and silence, presence and absence, image and sound, sight and blindness, message and form. It is essentially contradictory.
Poetry, literature, art are someone’s — the artist’s and the world’s — quiet stumbling steps toward truth — or, if not that, then whatever it is we are, whatever it is the world is: humanity, emotion, ideology, identity, sickness, folly, noise, silence, presence, absence, something, nothing — all vain hope to find something in nothing, all optimism, all a lie.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
Language, as the existence of poetry signifies, inherently and inexorably fails. Produced by an individual who is by definition subjective, isolated, individual, for the communication of a message (thought, emotion, etc.), to be better understood by another, language must fail: it is too linear, too ordered, too exact, too categorical to convey that which created it, the thought and feeling that surround it, the world-gaze and intention behind it, the necessary disorder and inconstancy and deceit and feeling of the mind that authored it. Language — or ordered, grammatical language (which too is forged out of disorder) — if failing to convey to another one’s intended message and the thoughts around and beyond it, must therefore fail to convey oneself, one’s internal feeling and being, to another.
We, then, cannot be understood and are thus alone — our existence being internal, isolated, confined in itself — our thought and feeling unspeakable. Language, predestined to fail, is then a blind struggle not to fail, to convey our thought and being. In speaking, writing, expressing, we struggle to convey ourselves, our world-gaze, our feeling, to another — and speak merely a fragment of that which we intend, translate our entire being and thought and feeling into the linearity of sentences for the world’s understanding, become a shadow, a shell of ourselves to another, achieve a fragmented, failed understanding of what we are — an entire, self-contradictory, immeasurable and insurmountable being reduced to absolute, short, shallow words.
Language, therefore, is an unwavering line, a tyranny which allows neither contradiction nor profundity nor human, subjective truth. We must search everywhere else, above and beneath and around words to attempt to understand (however vainly) another’s thought and feeling and being. Language, therefore, is false — a lie.
And yet we are not left in total ignorance, total night — there are the stars and the moon which shine for us, their light for our perception, illuminating the world as we perceive it, light that serves us and is in a sense created by us — existing only as we perceive.
I do not mean to stray. That light — born of the falsity and vanity of language, born of the struggle of language to overcome its impotence and itself — is poetry.
Poetry not as substance, syntax, form or intention but as action, expression, aggression towards the thing (as Pound conceived; the object, poetry’s objective), the feverish clamor and dissonance of words that ends in impact (as Pound called it), impression of raw human feeling, thought, being. This collision — of author and reader, existence and empathy, thought and understanding, humanity and humanity — this impression of feeling, of being onto the reader produces an understanding, finds message and meaning completely senselessly, instinctually, unforcedly, unwittingly — meaning needn’t be labored after, phrases needn’t be explained expressions needn’t be made literal, the writing needn’t and mustn’t be reduced to a construction of technique and wit, a formula, a commodity.
Poetry (in whatever form), like objective truth, like any art, merely, silently exists — creating itself, existing by and for itself, itself an end. And poetic message is merely seen, heard — instantly internalized by the reader, for it is of the internal human world and cannot survive outside of it. Poetic message is felt by the reader as if their own feeling, thought as if their own thought, lived as if their own being — remembered, not learned.
Language is then poetry’s carrier. Poetry is not language; it surrounds, transcends language. Poetry, therefore, is not the poem. Poetry is the means and end by which the individual reaches the thing (the object, their own thought, their being) and impresses it onto another (the reader).
We thus find that poetry overcomes the failure of language, overcomes language; that poetry, if not language, is feeling, thought, human existence. Language does no more than surround, approach the thing; poetry lunges at it, takes it for its own.
Poetry, then, is aggression; it is conquest of and triumph over language and over the thing and over ourselves. Poetry transcends and overcomes — unspeakable, unreasonable, blind, deaf and nothing if not human.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
Caption: William Blake’s watercolor for the sixth book of Paradise Lost, 1808.
Milton’s Paradise Lost is at once conventional and subversive of convention: The epic draws from the tradition of heroic poetry, the brave and necessarily unethical hero, only to redefine poetic subject matter, perspective and language.
Singing of heavenly, not earthly, war, Milton dispenses with the solely virtuous and villainous, the clearly good and bad, the simplistic and impersonal, and favors the individuality, complexity and moral ambiguity of character that tragedy brings.
Paradise Lost is sooner a lament of the fallen Satan, the fallen Eve and Adam, a rebuke of the tyranny of God’s monarchy and the inequity of accidental divine grace and blind Protestant predestination. Paradise Lost is a remembrance of the atrocity that divinity perpetuates, and people in its name: God and his Promised Land, a Land of Canaan, that was to be conquered, and seven nations to be killed by one; the anti-Semitism of the gospels; the barbarity of all holy wars.
Milton, an anti-monarchist, neither celebrates triumphant heaven nor condemns revolting angel and man. Neither glorifying and absolving nor damning, he laments.
Satan and man revolt and fall — but too calmly, too melodically, too symmetrically, too beautifully, with too great conviction and resilience. Linguistically and stylistically Milton threads a tragic, nihilistic, cold and remote symmetry through his republican epic. The reader can empathize neither with God’s tyranny (from Milton’s autarchic presentation of God) nor Satan’s blasphemy (for adherence to the biblical narrative).
And thus — disabused, without comfort, in a limbo between God and Satan, Heaven and Hell, Earth hangs, and the reader is confronted with the futility of heroism and the injustice of the Bible, literary tradition and our world. The reader blasphemes and revolts and falls with Satan and Adam and Eve.
Paradise Lost, then, is a history, a remembrance, too late and of no use, of our human sin. Milton’s is a composer’s art — symmetrical, abstract, at once symbolic and individual, contradictory and most clear.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
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