The words like albatrosses (What is The Language Using Us For #12)

Towards the end of the poem, Graham realises that his query (“What is the language using us for”) is not going to be answered. Not today at any rate.

What is the language using us for?
I don’t know. Have the words ever
Made anything of you, near a kind
Of truth you thought you were? Me
Neither. The words like albatrosses
Are only a doubtful touch towards
My going and you lifting your hand
To speak to illustrate an observed
Catastrophe.

The not-knowing throughout the poem has at times felt exasperated, maybe even exasperating,  but this “I don’t know” is soothing in the saying of. Maybe some comfort is to be found in capitulation and surrender. But also a kind of sour grapes: well, sod them words, have they ever corresponded entirely adequately to the inchoate feelings and thoughts stirring in your heart and mind? No. Are we not casting about most of the time for words that will somehow do, and in their doing, the words have their own say in the matter?

This is me, trying to “speak in front/of myself with all my ears alive” to “find out what it is I want”. But because the words are deeply arbitrary{{1}} in how they denote, in what they denote, our thoughts and feelings are doing the words’ bidding rather than the other way around. Attempting to use the language, I am instead being used by language.

To put this another way: there is no there there. No absolute word/thought correlation (no word there in the dictionary to speak the “truth” of conscious experience here{{2}}), but also no absolute consolation. No one to pat your head and say “there-there” your deepest desires will be met, your feelings and thoughts clothed in words that fit – some sort of heaven if you like.

Which brings us to albatrosses.

The words like albatrosses
Are only a doubtful touch towards
My going and you lifting your hand
To speak to illustrate an observed
Catastrophe.

I’ve puzzled long and hard over these lines. My initial image of the bird swooping down, grazing over an object (a word) has stuck, but it feels like a surface reading. Maybe that’s the point. Emotion and thought (conscious, or unconscious) pulsates within our actions, but mostly words just skim the surface of these “observed catastrophes” that make up our lives{{3}}. And not even that confidently.

But there’s more. And the answer to that more can perhaps only be found in another poem: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

It is a poem I have assiduously ignored for all of my reading life. Whenever I see it on the page, quatrain after quatrain after bloody iambic-tetrametered quatrain, my overriding thought is: “I’m not wading through that!” Which of course is exactly how the Wedding Guest feels at the beginning of the poem when cornered by the Ancient Mariner.

It’s that feeling you get when you’re stuck at an event talking to somebody who has no desire for conversation, but simply wants to tell you one long interminable anecdote about their life after the other. As interesting as these may be, the place for such tales is in blog posts like this one where people can hastily but solicitously click themselves away, NOT in one-to-one conversation or poetry.

But I felt I needed to read the bloody Coleridge poem for Willie. At the moment, his words so close to my heart, I’d do almost anything for William Sydney.

Maybe my mistake has been in trying to read it. Perhaps the poem (all poems?) is there to be spoken, sung, recited, and so listened to, not read. I hunted around for a recording and found a very fine one by Grover Gardner on the Listen to Genius!{{4}} website which I put on my iPod and took it for a walk around Fryent Park.

What I was struck by on the second or third listen (my mind kept wandering away on the first to blackberry-ripenings and mallards) was the fatal, arbitrary connections made by the cast of this poem. The mariner’s shipmates superstitiously blaming their crossbow-happy pal for killing the bird “that made the breeze to blow”, then just as suddenly recapitulating and deciding it “right…such birds to slay/That bring the fog and mist”.

A century or so ago, the Daddy of Linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure with his steel wool wedge of a moustache gave us his principe de l’arbitraire du signe (the arbitrariness of the sign).

What we call an albatross, he argued, we might equally assign a sign such as “Christ”, “poet”, “misfortune”, “blessing”. The fact we call it albatross is simply, as Stephen Pinker felicitously phrases it “a gunshot marriage” between sound and meaning:

…because every English speaker has undergone an identical act of rote learning in childhood that links the sound to the meaning. For the price of this standardised memorisation, the members of a language community receive an enormous benefit: the ability to convey a concept from mind to mind virtually instantaneously.

So the words really are (especially in poems, our most spacious of verbal arts) what we make of them{{5}}. They become the emotions and projections we pour into them, the illustrations of our own observed catastrophes. Which pretty much wipes academic literary criticism as we know it (poems as IQ tests) right off the map.

I’m quite happy to see that go.

[[1]] Casting around in my head for the word “arbitrary”, or something like it, I first trip over “random”, then just nothing, a big white empty space. I look away from the screen, sink into the void as if a kind of meditation before a more appropriate word comes. When it does, on its tail there is “erratic”, “double-crossing”, “fortuitous”. But only through a Thesaurus, a word-menu. These words are not available to me when I want them. I choose the word “arbitrary” for my sentence, but any of the above would serve equally well. And yet they would all be saying something quite different. [[1]]

[[2]]Which is also a “there”, in that the experience has to always move away from its original site along a nerve to the brain in order to be processed. A neuroscientist tells me “We’re never actually in the moment. Always a split-second behind, the brain catching up on things. Never experiencing directly, always being “told” by the grey matter what just happened to us, or for us.”[[2]]

[[3]]Small and large. Often the kind of truth words fail to encapsulate is of bitty, tenuous, sparing variety. The fact that my not renewing a library book results in a £3.96 fine may feel at some level catastrophic to me. But in retelling this to you through words here, see how poorly they convey this?Were I a Gogol and the library fine my Overcoat,  maybe this would not be so. But I am no Gogol.[[3]]

[[4]]Listen to Genius! A decree that makes me less likely to listen than anything else. And don’t you just want to take that exclamation mark and beat some copywriter at Redwood books over the head with it? You do, until you realise that these MP3s, like almost everything of worth on the internet, are being offered to you for free at (at point of sale, your computer screen), which is not to say that someone hasn’t paid for them.[[4]]

 [[5]]I am not making a fool of myself
For you. What I am making is
A place for language in my life

Which I want to be a real place
Seeing I have to put up with it
Anyhow. [[5]]

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