By Hearting What Is the Language Using Us For by W.S. Graham

What is the Language Using Us For?

Such an arresting title. And a question we probably never thought to ask in this way.

Oh we might have pondered the reverse: “What are we using language for?“, the assumption being that we’re the overseers, the pilots, the ones running the show here, and language better get with our programme. But what if it’s the other way round? What if language (and by extension “life”) is using us, and all the control is quite illusory?

I’m not going to attempt to learn the whole poem as it’s bloody long and I’m not sold on all of it. But the bits that I like, I really like, so I’m going to stick those together and make something of them.

I suspect this will be part of the skirmish between myself and the poem: me trying to use it for my purposes (an abridgement imposes that impetus), the poem using me for what it/you need.

What is the language using us for?

Hopkins is still with me, who got it into his self-castigating/denying head that he shouldn’t write poetry, because he was now going to dedicate his selfhood to Christ and being a Jesuit, and even though there was no explicit Thou Shalt Not in the Jesuit “rule book”, he denied himself the pleasure of living at that high-holistic pitch that only art, it seems, and maybe good relationships (sex?), can offer us, until language came knocking again at his door.

Or more like sloshing into his world. For on the 11th of December 1875, he opened up his copy of The Times to read about the death of 5 German nuns travelling with another 123 emigrants to New York on the good ship Deutschland, and their death-throe cries (“My God, My God, make haste, make haste”) moved him. He was moved by their agonised end, but it was language that called.

Perhaps because, as biographer Martin suggests, “he almost immediately identified himself with the tall nun [which doesn’t entirely make sense as Hopkins himself was tiny] and spent half a year in trying to imagine and give life to the meaning of her last reported words, called out in German that he might not even have understood had he been there.”

Hopkin’s took, according to Martin, what was perhaps just a “hint” of compliance from his rector at St Beuno’s{{2}} that maybe someone should write “something” (a poem?) to commemorate the nuns and allowed himself to write again. This one “vague suggestion” from “a kindly man” gave him a kind of psychic accession to a place he felt he hadn’t “allowed” himself to participate in or with until then.

[[2]]”Fr Jones, who had no particular interest in poetry, made a vague suggestion about its being a good occasion for a pious set of verses inculcating a moral lesson from a sad event, and…in his eagerness Hopkins heard a more inclusive invitation than the Rector actually extended”[[2]]

I’m also thinking, about another poem I heard only recently on a Poetry Foundation podcast by Gerald Stern called ‘The Name‘: the name being the literal hebrew translation of HaShem (יהוה– YHVH): God.

name still on my mind whatever the reason for
mystery, or avoidance

Particularly pious Jews are so beholden to The Name, the nominative, this noun, that they will get extremely irate if The Name is not rendered according to their laws. For example, one is not allowed to write The Name in full, but must render it so: G_d, which I’ve always thought is the equivalent of star-filled bowdlerisations (f*ck, sh**, c*** etc.), only drawing more attention to the word, making it something taboo-laden and shameful, as if screaming it out in one’s mind rather than a natural part of the sentence. But maybe that’s the whole point.

I once held a reading group in a Jewish drop-in centre and was roundly told off by one of it’s users for leaving the ‘o’ in my photocopy of a story which mentioned The Name a few times. It was explained to me, which made absolute sense, that this wouldn’t be a problem if The Name were in a book, as the book would be cared for. But the photocopy would more than likely end up in a bin somewhere underneath a leaking can of baked beans. And this was no way to treat the Name.

We got a really good discussion out of this (language, with its rules and regs using us, to connect?), and much of it was quite good-humoured with other members of the group as equally conflicted about The Name and its uses as I am. But there is a dark undertone to all of this. We read in Leviticus 24 of an unnamed son of an Israelite woman who forgot to treat The Name with the reverence it was felt owing to it, and “all who heard him” lay their hands on his head, and then summarily stoned him to death.

Part of me admired this reverence towards language. And yet, it was not entirely towards “language” (which I feel is my reverence), but specifically and blinkeredly towards one word (The Name). At the end of our session, they did not take away the photocopies on which the Name had been printed inappropriately so as to dispose of them correctly. In fact, they never took away any of the poems or stories I brought them . That was their way of trying to keep on top of (the) uncontrollable Language, do-gooding me with all the power-play inherent in that, and maybe even The Name itself.






What is the language using us for?
It uses us all and in its dark
Of dark actions selections differ.

The “dark of dark actions” really gets to the heart, for me, of how little I’m truly conscious of the language machine whirring, purring (more often stuttering, spluttering) away in my head.

As I begin writing this sentence you’re reading, I’m only faintly aware of how it will be shaped as I proceed from clause to clause, what words will adhere to the unfolding of thought. And will they be the right words? What are the right words?

Well, surely the words that at once encapsulate a thought a person like you or I might have, but also the words that take you beyond that inchoate, semi-formed smother of perceptions, assumptions, apprehensions, reflections; words that create something half-you-half-other. Which is perhaps to say: half-you-half-new.

For you are generally the same old words constellating in pretty much the same old patterns in your head, your daily thought combos wearing everyday apparel. But in the crafty dexterity of manipulating language for our own purposes (or at least the purposes we think are “ours”), we may, for just a punctuated beat or two, feel like we’ve netted something tasty and good, something somehow “better” (for new is always better, isn’t it?) than what we’ve always had.{{1}}.

That word “net” has suddenly reminded me that I need to re-read and maybe listen again to the wonderful BBC3 documentary about Graham’s ‘Nightfishing’ (which I’ll share with you here until someone tells me to take it down).

I am not making a fool of myself
For you.

This sentence in the poem could also be shaped as a question: “Am I making a fool of myself?” It’s question that governs a lot of our behaviour. Maybe necessarily so. If we were all making fools of ourselves, all the time, who would run the hospitals, give sermons, recycle our waste?

What does it mean to make a fool of oneself? If you trace back the etymology of the word, it leads us to three besmirched associations: 1) “You’re unhinged” [Old French fol: mad person] 2) “You’re stupid” [Latin follis empty-headed], or 3) “You’re digressively boring, or consternatingly loose-lipped [2nd meaning of follis: bellows – from flare: to blow].

So in order not to make fools of ourselves we “play by the rules” (or whatever we believe the rules to be). And in doing so potentially trammel something “alive” in ourselves that may sound foolish because it is new or uncomfortable.

This paradox emerges from the poem itself. I don’t want to make a fool of myself, but “I would like to speak in front/Of myself with all my ears alive/And find out what it is I want”, and once I’ve found this out, it would be great if I could share it with you, so that for a moment we might be:


Each other alive about each other

But most of the time we’re policing this desire to tell each other about what is most alive in us by worrying we might be making fools of ourselves. Especially “in front of the best”. It seems to worry us less if we think we’re doing it in front of “the worst”. So maybe this is more about vanity than anything else.

How does one make the right amount of a fool of oneself, if fool seems (as Graham suggests) to be linked in some way to “aliveness”?

A passage from an essay by Alison MacLeod on ‘Writing and Risk-Taking’ comes to mind, where Alison literally embodies the topic by allowing the reader to remain with her whilst she takes a bath. After describing the private musings of the bather, she writes:

These are things I shouldn’t be telling you. We’re strangers. If ever we meet, I’d rather the image of me in the bath didn’t flash up before your eyes – and I’m sure you feel the same. But I’ll risk it because that’s what writers need to do. …On paper, they have to be real.

Graham also talks about wanting the place of language in his life to be a “real place” (“Seeing I have to put up with it anyhow,” he adds wryly). But where is the line between the real and the madness, the doltish, the dull?

This has not been a good week in terms of actually learning the lines of this poem.  I have learnt about ten lines, maybe twelve or thirteen if I allow myself to glance down occasionally at the text.

So I have learnt ten lines.

This is because I haven’t given good, solid blocks of time to memorising, which is needed if this is to matter.

It matters only in
So far as we want to be telling

Each other alive about each other

I’ve yanked it out (the poem) in supermarket shopping queues and run through the first three stanzas a couple of times, but before I can move into the more crepuscular regions of unknowing, my groceries are being scanned and my mind is elsewhere.

My mind is elsewhere is the main issue. Not that it’s elsewhere on anything particularly urgent or useful that needs thinking about. It’s just flitting around as minds do, here and there, this way and that. Mainly away from the words on the page.

So why won’t the mind stay with them? Why this ever-wayward pull to chaotically-creative thoughts, words becoming inconsequential squiggles on an inconsequential page or screen?

In the execution of a mindful task, unless that task is all consuming (arduously – the 100 metre sprint, childbirth; pleasurably – chocolate, masturbation) we come up against the nitty-gritty limits of our attention and focus.

So if anything we do is to matter to us beyond the things we’re paid or pressurised into doing, we need, Graham seems to be saying to pay attention to how we “make…a place” for these things in our lives.


Which is why the modern-day nirvana has become that of being financially rewarded for doing heart-satisfying work. I know of hardly anyone who is “living that dream”. Maybe it is just a dream.

The poem will only be learnt if this afternoon when I stroll out into the Chilterns, I spend a couple of hours learning it. This screen of words will only be written if I stay on the page and write rather than flit off to where the mind wants to go (which is to all those other open tabs and possibilities on my Chrome browser window/head).

A time-coralling method I find relatively useful is a version of Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro Technique. The hardest part, which is of course the most mindful part, is that of standing up to give onself a break when the Pomodoro (in my case, a Salter timer) rings. Mine beeped loudly and insistently twenty minutes ago, but I’m still tapping away, body-needing-to-move being ignored. A too ardent focus is  almost as bad as aimless drifting. The Middle Way is what we’re aiming for, but how much time do we ever spend walking its even, grassy stretches, Siddhartha, tell me that.[[2]]

It’s hard work, this [insert something that matters to you] stuff – bloody hard (but meaningful, satisfying) work.

Graham (1918 – 1986) probably never experienced flashing cursors, those pixelated staves pulsing at the start of every sentence to the rhythm of feed-me, feed-me, feed-me.

Yet this is what I see at the beginning of this poem: an animated cursor (curser?) called Malcolm Mooney, who is also the poet (“he is only going to be/Myself”) and us (“slightly you/Wanting to be another”) – trudging through “the white language” with its associations of snow,  fear of the blank page (or mind),  the paradoxical plenitude and emptiness of existence.

Everything is Waiting For You (interesting experiences, sentences, relationships) versus Nothing Is Waiting For You (loss, abandonment, despair).

I watch the cursor/curser on my screen at the beginning of this poem, moving before and after language as it spools out behind him like the spume of a speedboat. Mooney clomps across the page, but so did the pen before he ever existed to bring him into existence.

What is the language using us for?
Said Malcolm Mooney moving away
Slowly over the white language.
Where am I going said Malcolm Mooney.

I was curious why Mooney might be moving “away” rather than towards us. Perhaps this is the feeling as we wade through language that the very things we are trying to encapsulate in lettered permutations called ‘words’, slip out of our linguistic grasp the more we wrestle with them. So rather than staying here, just saying what we need to say with a vocabulary more or less attuned to our feelings and thoughts, we find ourselves over there, wrestling with something or someone, not quite sure what brought us to this place, and where to next.

Where am I going said Malcolm Mooney.

There’s no question mark. All questioning is ultimately rhetorical when the existential pickle jar gets opened and the full or half-sour dill gets yanked out once again for us to gnaw on.






Slowly over the white language
Comes Malcolm Mooney the saviour.
My left leg has no feeling.
What is the language using us for?

Even after saying these lines about a hundred times, I’m still thrown by the leg. You too would be thrown by a leg that had no feeling. You’d put your weight on it, get no feedback from the nerves and muscles, and topple.  As does Mooney (“He fell./He falls”).

I google ‘Leg Numbness’. Might be circulatory (deep vein thrombosis), orthopedic (a degenerative disk disease), or even neurological (alcoholism, MS, a stroke). I am tempted to see what Graham died of, but then I would spend the next hour swimming in porridge rather than thinking about the poem.

My initial hypothesis is that it is Graham’s way of saying that he feels unaffiliated within himself. Some parts of him profoundly alive (speaking, singing, soul-occuring) others not. We all have those numb, unincorporated, disconnected, dead parts in us, don’t we?

This disconnection is connected to feedback, or lack of, I realise only now having written so far. One sends out an intention, a communication to the body (and/or another) by “doing”, moving in this direction rather than that. Hopefully, if everything’s working well, the “folded message” (for your eyes only, even anonymised eyes behind computer screens) gets a response.

The nerve endings feel the brain’s bulletin and pass it onto the muscles which begin moving seemingly under your control. If your left leg, or any other part of you has no feeling then presumably communication has broken down.

Or maybe there’s just too much “porridge” in your life obscuring the sensations you need to feel, hiving off attention in ways that leave you no resources for focusing on the messages you need to read.

As I get up from the computer to make my morning porridge (of the cereal variety), I have playing, earworm-like in my head, John Cale’s Fear (is a man’s best friend).

I wonder what the language is trying to tell me with this?

After reading Ilya Kaminsky’s take on a Hans Christian Andersen story, I now think of the Internet as a little pot able to cook up endless supplies of porridge. Far too much to eat of course, so asphyxiation will invariably result at some point. I also think of that line attributed to Neil Diamond: “You can’t have two lunches.” As much as I love porridge, I can’t really stomach more than one good bowl of it a day. No surprise then that our consumption of the Internet becomes listless, wayward, disengaged after the first few clicks.

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

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

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. 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! 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.

One thought on “By Hearting What Is the Language Using Us For by W.S. Graham

  • I like this poem a lot, Steve, I’d not heard of it before. It poses several questions, some repeatedly, which it seems to me is one of the important things that poetry must do in order to engage us.

    The title, as you point out a reversal of the question we might have expected put me in mind immediately of Richard Dawkins and “The Selfish Gene” – now, surprisingly, published over 35 years ago! His thesis that Darwinian selection rests upon the “selfishness” of the gene, rather than the organism, helped to explain the existence of altruism within populations, but more importantly Dawkins strongly refuted the common misconception of his work that this implied intent upon the part of the genes.

    Likewise here we can posit the question “What is language using us for?” without recourse to a personification of our mother tongue. Indeed, it seems quite reasonable to assume that facets of British character, say, have their origin in the very syntax, lilt and substance of the English language – similarly for Spanish, Japanese or Urdu.

    I’d be really interested to hear about the parts of the poem that you are not sold on, too. I’ll take time out to absorb the poem a little and gather my thoughts about what it is actually saying.

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