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  • Nickolas Vaccaro

The Creation of Worlds: On the Danger of Language and the Hope of Poetry



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.

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