The Futility of Language

Creeley is a rare case among poets in that he dares to explore what many writers will not admit – the futility of language to express what is most intensely human. Language is so often seen as the primary method by which we express ourselves and by which we are connected, and it is difficult for one whose life is based on that idea and the craft of words to look it straight in the face and even more so to write about it.

This past week I had the opportunity to hear one of our Semana Poetica poets (Marica Bodrozic) speak in my German class, and it seems that much of her thinking might be applied to Creeley’s thoughts. One of her comments that struck me most was that “when you don’t understand, you still understand something.” It seems strange that a poet, whose job is generally to convey meaning in some way through language, would suggest that sometimes not understanding is best. Marica’s indication that there is something to be learned from a lack of understanding itself indicates that there is something besides words at work in a successful poem; it is not always imperative that we understand the words to capture the emotion or human element in a poem. When asked what her inspirations are, Marica explained that there were many, but finished by saying simply that she is “interested in people.” She writes to capture stories, and stated that “memory is not truth, it is invention,” indicating that the facts are of less importance than the essence of a person or a moment. She commented also that she is against structured interpretation and that there is “no answer, just a way” in interpreting a poem, which seems to suggest to me a surrender of imposing a meaning on her readings in favor of extending them an invitation to join her on an exploration of humanity that leaves behind the words on the page.

Creeley seems to run into a similar issue with his poems in that he cannot make his words capture precisely the correct emotion, particularly regarding love. Altieri’s article dicusses this concept in rather dark terms, stating that because of this lack of perfect precision in language that “language itself is one of the primary villains, for it promises a wholeness it cannot fulfill… The words stand emptied of us…” (Altieri 174). Altieri cites Creeley’s poem I Know a Man to support this concept, looking to the “angsty” tone and the language (for example, sd and yr for said and you’re) to connect Creeley’s frustrations with language to the void created by Creeley’s struggle to pin down his identity.

I wonder, however, if Altieri is entirely correct in his gloomy view of language as a villain. Looking at Creeley’s poem Language, he seems less ready to condemn than to lament. Language opens with the command to “Locate I/ love you some-/ where in// teeth and/ eyes,” and it closes with the statement that “Speech/ is a mouth.” These lines suggest that the words we say are reduced, ultimately, to their physical existence as sounds created by the body. The words “I love you” are located not in the heart or the soul but in the purely physical teeth and eyes. Speech itself is not only just located in the mouth, but it IS a mouth; words are confined in some way to their origin. The lines “you/ want so// much so / little.” are ambiguous but seem to suggest that what the lover wants, which appears here to be to hear the words “I love you,” is at once everything and nothing. The meaning of the words would be so much; the word themselves are so little. Creeley’s next line is “words say everything,” but followed by “I/ love you/ again,” and then a question – “what/ is emptiness/ for. To// fill, fill.” Were we to read these lines literally we might think that Creeley would have us believe that words truly are everything and have the capacity to run out emptiness, but he continues – “I heard words/ and words full// of holes/ aching.” The repetition of “words” in such a short poem emphasizes that the words are plentiful, but rather than filling the emptiness they are full themselves – of holes. The concept of being “full of holes aching” is beautiful but sad. These words, these things that “say everything,” are still so painfully lacking. They are the best we have, but they ache with the void that they are unable to bridge. The poem concludes with Creeley’s assertion that “speech is a mouth,” reminding us again that words are reduced to their vocal capacity.

Of these three writers, there are three distinct views expressed regarding the ability of words to capture emotion. Marica Bodrozic seems undeterred, Altieri frustrated, Creeley saddened – I wonder where in this debate our previously studied poets fall? Where do we?

Poetry as Spoken Word

           It seems to me that poetry has a very interesting facet to it. A novel is designed to be read, as words on a page, while poetry seems- remarkably often, anyway- to be written with some aspect of performance in mind. That is not to say, be any means, that all poets write with a consciousness of the performative aspect of their work. I will make the claim, however, that all poets hear their work as they write it. The poet chose the specific words they put on the page in order to convey a certain image to the reader but, just as important as the word choice, is the tone of the poem.
            The poet, for example, might write a poem that sounds heartfelt and honest on the page but is meant to be scathing and incisive. When he reads it out loud, the words are instantly transformed, based purely on his tone of voice.
            For me, there has always been something almost magical about hearing poetry read aloud.  A poem that holds no interest for me on paper suddenly becomes fascinating and sometimes moving, regardless of who is reading it. I think this is perhaps why I so thoroughly enjoyed seeing the Galax Quartet perform Gary Snyder’s poetry, particularly “Journeys.” While some parts of the piece were so discordant that it made me uncomfortable and nervous, it seems to me that that is exactly what the composer- and the writer- wanted. When Snyder’s narrator reaches the lowlands and begins journeying through hell, he wants the reader to feel just as disgusted and uneasy as he does. Similarly, the strains of music in which the cello was carrying a beautiful melody were so haunting and amazing that they literally gave me chills.
            In my opinion, poetry is begging to be performed aloud, if not read to music. I would love to see a poet write a poem and then set it to music himself. I suppose that that is essentially what composers are doing, though; they write a kind of wordless poetry that is designed to evoke feeling, to awaken something in the listener.
            To bring this post back to spoken word, I’ll shift my focus now to Robert Creeley. Initially, I suppose I enjoyed Creeley’s poetry when I read it from our books but it wasn’t until I heard it that I really felt it, if you’ll forgive the cliché.  In particular, I quite liked “I Know a Man” when I saw it on paper but, when I listened to the recordings, I was completely blown away. What started out as a broken collection of phrases became a powerful experience for me. Creeley reads his poetry- not only this poem in particular, but many others- with halting, haunting speech.  The pauses in between the lines (or even the words- “the darkness sur-rounds us”) are fascinating and the words themselves are awkward and forced as if Creeley is, in fact, combating the “darkness” even as he performs the poetry.
            Even as we, uneducated observers who do not understand the poems in the way that Creeley does, read “The Rain” I was amazed at how much more I enjoyed the poem when it was read aloud. The words were, for me, transformed from a semi-meaningless collection of thoughts into real feelings and emotions. Even as I am writing this I am listening to recordings of Creeley reading his poetry and am struck by how much this simple act enriches the poetic experience for me.