Where Language Cannot Go

Oh, Luna Station Blog, I’ve missed thee! It’s been 11 months since my last confession …

So, where was I? Ahhh, yes. Baseball.

As a general rule, I don’t like talking about poetry (or writing about it or even thinking about it too much, if we’re being honest). But when the right person catches me in the right mood and we start talking about what a poet actually does, rather than start in with the usual cliches about looking out windows for hours on end, I often make a baseball analogy.

If you’re not familiar with the rules & standards of the game, a baseball player is considered (if you are primarily a hitter) to be above average if your batting average is .300. If you think about it, that means you are an elite player, and could theoretically get in the hall of fame for failing 7 out of 10 times! Ohhh, if all life was measured thusly!

imagesWriting poetry feels similar to me, though maybe not for the same reasons (I suppose prose writers will notice a bit of resonance here as well, though I can’t speak to their experience). For me, a poem nearly always begins with a feeling, an image, a juxtaposition of seemingly disparate things. In other words, it begins anywhere but the realm of expository language.

The challenge comes, of course, when trying to bend our 26 letters to the will of the ineffable feeling that is the engine and essence of the poem. Or to put it another way, “How do I put into words these things that I’m feeling/seeing/sensing that are at the edge of what it’s possible to say?” Think about that for a second…

Poets are uniquely suited to this task, unencumbered as we are by the constraints of narrative. If you are an adventurous poet, one who is not averse to improvisation and happy accidents, you go in open to the idea that you might fail spectacularly, quite possibly 7 out of 10 times, and those failures may lead to new combinations of sensation that you never imagined.

Even if you manage to get onto the page a rough facsimile of the ineffable engine, there is another failure of language waiting to waylay you. If your poem is to be read by someone else, it is more than possible that what the poem “means” to you could be different than what it “means” to the reader.

(This, of course, accounts for the pain & discomfort that arises when schools try to force one canonical interpretation of a poem onto young people, thereby robbing them of the opportunity to feel things for themselves, but that’s another essay…)

This gulf between what you write and what someone else reads is another gift that the failure of language provides. Sometimes I think that as much as I have a fondness for my words, the real poem resides in that alchemical space, the space between the notes, as I would say when I have my musician hat on.

If the poem is the ineffable feeling, as much as it is the words, then what is transmitted from poet to reader, across that gulf, will always be true, regardless of the particularities. That truth, that moment when the reader gasps and asks, “What did you do to me?” does more to convince me of our shared humanness, of our shared possibility for grace across time and circumstance, than anything else I know.

Of course, after all this talk about Truth with a capital T, next month’s column will be about artifice (insert party favor sound here). And with that, I bid you adieu, for now. Thank you for reading. And if someone tries to tell you what a poem means, smack them. Hard.