When we first began looking at the language poets and their examination of what, precisely, language is and does, I was a little bit skeptical of the work we were reading. I understand the concept that language is highly limited, and I actually love that idea, but I couldn’t quite let go of the fact that language can still be so very beautiful, something that a lot of experimental poets or poems don’t seem to be concerned with.
However, reading Jorie Graham’s work was quite another experience. I particularly enjoyed her poem “The Swarm,” which experiments with the idea of words as referents for objects and language and sound as being unable to convey or accomplish certain things.
One of the first things I noticed as I read the poem is the presence of the word “listen” in the first line, and the word “hear” in the last. I think these words frame the poem quite well – not only is the person to whom the speaker is speaking supposed to listen for the church bells, but we are to listen to the poem. I also like that “listen,” a request, comes first, and “hear,” the action, later, as if the speaker’s request to listen to the church bells mirrors Graham’s “request” to listen to her poem.
Another conspicuous move Graham makes is the omission of the sounds of the church bells in the fifth stanza. Rather than attempting to capture the sound of the ringing in letters, she simply leaves a blank where the word or sound would go. She does reference each chime of the bell as a petal falling, however, which interestingly has no sound at all. In that same stanza Graham uses the word “yes” six times, the first in parentheses, the next following “like a vertebrate,” and the last four making up their own line with nothing else, including punctuation. These “yesses,” which seem to be the affirmation of the voice on the telephone that they can hear the bells, actually seem to be the closest Graham gives us to the sound of the bells themselves. It’s interesting that we don’t even know whether or not the person has heard the bells – in fact, we never hear from the person directly – and yet their affirmation, or at least what the speaker hopes to hear from them, is the closest we can get to hearing their sound. The form of the last line, “yes yes yes yes,” is written like an echo as a bell would be, but clearly the sound itself isn’t captured.
In the stanzas to follow, the most noticeable repetition is of the word “blue.” It is used six times before the end of the poem, often in ways that don’t make a lot of logistical sense, for instance, in “something announces itself/ like a piece of the whole blueness broken off and thrown down…” However, the reader can’t help but hear the sound of the word over and over (six times in twelve lines, two of those lines containing the word twice). I think this goes back to Graham’s instruction to “listen” and her question at the end of whether or not we “hear” – like the echo of “yes” as the speaker tries to get her or his companion to hear the bells in order to feel together, we are given the repetition of “blue” not so much for the word itself as for the echo and connection it brings.
The last thing I wanted to point out is just something I loved about Graham’s language – in the eighth line from the end of the poem, the speaker refers to the telephone as “the plastic parenthetical opening wherein I have you.” I love that description that so carefully balances the idea of plastic, something hard and impersonal, with a “parenthetical opening,” which for me creates the image of a curve (presumably the mouthpiece) mimicking one half of a parentheses – one half on each side of the ocean, with a relationship filling the space between even though physical proximity isn’t possible. It’s a beautiful idea.
I’d be interested to see what other people thought about Graham’s experiments with language – is her balance between words as beautiful and flawed believable? Do her omissions and echoes work? Is her work an experiment in the first place?