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.

                                                                                        the
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:

                                                        telling

Each other alive about each other
Alive.

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
Alive.

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.

Gah.

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
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. 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.

This Paper Speaks Volumes (What Is The Language Using Us For #14)

It appears I’m more superstitious than I thought.

I’d wanted to leave W.S. Graham at 13 posts, but that 13 niggled. So here’s the 14th, still about WITLUUF, but also about Nick Pole. Nick who wrote this poem after hearing Willie’s.

Here’s my by-heart recital of Nick’s poem:

 

This paper speaks volumes
In being so white.

 This is more than just a neat pun. As I wandered around Fryent Park committing the poem to memory, I had a Day-The-Saucers-Came moment.

What I realised through Nick’s poem is the self-evident, but not-oft-considered truth that the blank page already communicates much of what we need to know about ourselves. And would certainly communicate this to them, the extra-terrestrials, landing in the school playground, rifling through empty classrooms for a some notion of who we are or were: faded wall-charts, unlined exercise books, poetry picked apart in essays.

A few hundred years ago, these mass-produced, bleached, pressed sheaves of cellulose pulp costing just pennies to own, didn’t exist. Not to the masses like you and me.

Those who write tear their hair out in front of the chiding blank page. But the page itself, without anything on it, is already a kind of ode to human ingenuity, civilisation and desecration. And let us not even begin looking at the computer screen.

Were we to get over, to get beyond (“through the suburbs” as it were – thank you Willie) our own middle class fraughtness and simply be grateful for the blank page as an object and what it tells us about our own species, so much neurosis and suffering might be allayed{{1}}.

Another part of Nick’s line that began to niggle like an age-old superstition against the number 13, was that ‘in being so white’. Depending on your circumstances, being-white means more to some than others. Having grown up in South Africa under apartheid in which whiteness mattered (“spoke volumes”)  and non-whiteness didn’t, or rather mattered only in order to be effaced, that line cannot help but disturb and shift some of the terrain within.

Is this all getting too metaphysical, political? OK, let’s talk about the body.

As if to lay a single word here
However carefully, or prayerfully
Would be a sacrilege, a sacrifice.
What can I do? How can I say this,
Without my pen?

As I walked and recited, and walked and recited, looking down at my mobile phone on which the document was stored in order to check that I wasn’t making the words up {{2}}), my mind kept on substituting penis for pen.

Although the popular imagination would have it that this is de rigeur for psychotherapists (we don’t see pens, just phallic objects, everywhere), generally, for me,  a pen is just a pen. And a pen in a poem is still a pen.

So why did the poem seem to want me to substitute penis for a pen? What was the language using me for? What was the language using Nick for? I wasn’t in his head when he wrote it, but I bet he didn’t think (consciously at least): “OK, now let’s make some allusion here to Renoir, Miller and a century of Feminist discourse on the connection between Phallus (Lacanian or otherwise{{3}}) and the creative process.”

I realised rather that the penis was calling to be heard through a sort of syllabic cipher, an “empty” echoing stress that needed to be filled. Here’s how I think it works:

How can I say this?

Five syllables, stress on say, line ending on “weak” this.

Without my pen.

Four syllables, stress on pen. And so the minds desiring symmetry (both in poetry and love-objects) hears an echo of the word “this”.

Without my pen (this).

This further enriches the poem. It is now not just metaphysical{{4}}, but extremely physical, pitching us straight back again into (gender) politics too.

Is there something about writing, historically done by men, that has a phallic-energy to it, whatever that means? What would it entail to write without the symbolic or even actual penis? Would it mean not-writing, not creating, being more open to blank spaces and places within and without, not needing so desperately or ardently to fill them? Or a different kind of writing? Maybe something less prominent? Like blogging perhaps?

I don’t know.

[[1]]This line of Nick’s makes me want to take a blank sheet of A4 paper, just any old 80gsm from a Value Ream-Wrapped block you’d buy from Staples, and place it with much care and attention into an austere and sacredly expensive Habitat frame. Just to remind me that emptiness is “OK”, the “grounds” of emptiness being a somethingness. Maybe we don’t always need to fill the world with stuff (write poems, have children), maybe we can also be filled by stuff (learning poems, having children).[[1]]

[[2]]I kept on wanting to say “no matter how carefully, or prayerfully” as opposed to “however”. However is more resonant, more in keeping with Nick’s voice which is soft and resonant; whereas my ear maybe just wants things to matter, matter, matter (natter, natter, natter).[[2]]

[[3]]”Lacan distances himself from Freud’s emphasis on the biological organ of the penis. Lacan talks instead of the phallus. What he is primarily referring to is what the child perceives it is that the mother desires. Because the child’s own desire is structured by its relationships with its first nurturer (usually in Western societies the mother), it is thus the desire of the mother, for Lacan, that is the decisive stake in what transpires with the Oedipus complex and its resolution. In its first years, and later whilst writing poems, or short stories, or blogging on the Internet, Lacan contends, the child devotes itself to trying to fathom what it is that the (m)other desires, so that it can try to make itself the phallus for the (m)other- a fully satisfying love-object. At around the time of its fifth or sixth desire, however, the father will normally intervene in a way that lastingly thwarts this Oedipal aspiration. The ensuing renunciation of the aspiration to be the phallic Thing for the (m)other, and not any physical event or its threat, is what Lacan calls castration, and it is thus a function to which he thinks both boys and girls are normally submitted to both online and off.” (http://www.iep.utm.edu/lacweb/)[[3]]

[[4]]Although what I love about it is the viscerality of his metaphysics. By hitting hard and through repetition the stresses of SACrilege and SACrifice, Pole draws our attention once again to ying-yang binaries: the non-SACred already holds within it the sacred, even if only (if only!) lexically – its absence being its presence.[[4]]

 

My going and you lifting your hand to speak (What Is The Language Using Us For #13)

After three weeks with ‘What Is The Language Using Us For’, I’m putting the poem to rest for a while. There are other poems now that I’d like to give my attention to.

I have committed to memory 442 of the 927 words that make up the sequence. And here they are, more or less in the order in which they were written:

I make that about 65 lines of poetry. Were you to sponsor me at 10p a line to recite my words for a worthy cause (which, hey, now you can), the result would be Language doing quite well for itself, financially at least{{1}}.

[You can read through all the WITLUUF posts in chronological order here.]

[[1]]You’d be sponsoring the Language for only five minutes, but worked out at an hourly wage that’s about £70 an hour. Calculated in this way, the Language is earning more than almost anyone else I know. Maybe that’s what it’s using us for?[[1]]

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]]

Who is Malcolm Mooney? (What is The Language Using Us For #11)

“Who is Malcolm Mooney?” you ask.

“Reader,” explains Graham, patiently, “it does /not matter. He is only going to be/ myself, and for you slightly you/wanting to be another.”

Tell that to a curious child. “But it does matter, it does, it does, it does. And if you won’t tell me, I’m going to Google it.{{1}}”

The curious child discovers that Mooney is not, as I suspected (and thus didn’t want to Google, until last night) some 18th century folk hero alluded to in a poem by Robert Burns. This would feel “meaningless” to me. But rather, he is the lead singer of a German pop group of the 70s called Can. Which is still meaningless to the curious child, but wonderfully evocative and meaning-full for this reader.

Not that I was ever a big Can-fan. However in my early 20s I did very much worship{{2}} at the altar of Pavement and its High-Priest Steve Malkmus. Having read anything and everything I could find about Steve{{3}} I had discovered the info-nugget that allegedly, for a whole year, he had listened to Can’s Ege Bamyasi album on a daily basis.

I could relate to this, having spent a year listening (almost) everyday to Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted. I of course immediately went out and bought Ege Bamyasi, which was “nice” enough{{3}}. But no Slanted.

I say all this in the full knowledge that Can’s Malcolm Mooney, and in some way my Malcolm Mooney was not W.S Graham’s man. The poem was written in the 60s, Mooney sang in the 70s. Graham was pretty hip, but he wasn’t that hip.

And yet, this is also the point (for me). Poetry allows us, in a way that prose doesn’t, to make the poem deeply and personally ours. And who cares in that process for historical accuracy. I don’t.

[[1]]This curious child would have to wait until his parents next drove into Town (if one could even call Benoni a town, it was really no more than a “dorp”) so that he could visit the library with its out of the ark Britannica, published in the same year that his grandparents got married. To think that patient forms of inquisitive dedication no longer exists makes me feel a little sad, as well as a little old.[[1]]

[[2]]I don’t use this word lightly. I remember once spending a month writing and drawing a whole chapbook’s worth of material in response to Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (or maybe it was Wowee Zowee?) which I was planning to send to Malkmus, but never did, expecting him to never look at it, or if he did, certainly never to respond. There’s a theme developing here, isn’t there?[[2]]

[[3]]I’m somewhat partial to the 4th track, Vitamin C which even has Graham-like moments (“A beautiful blows, I stay at the corner,/She is living in and out of tune”). I regret looking up the mumbled lyrics though, as the grammarian-in-me immediately bridled at that abominable syntax which he suspects was not entirely conjugated for ‘poetic effect’ by the krautrockers.[[3]]

[[3]]This being pre-Internet, so the odd article in NME, or a smeary Q Magazine photocopy sent to you from abroad by your brother, was truly pored/pawed over and valued.[[3]]

My left leg has no feeling (What is The Language Using Us For #10)

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{{1}} rather than thinking about the poem{{2}}.

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?

[[1]] 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.[[1]]

[[2]]Which I did anyway, but not on the trail of Graham’s Grim Reaper, but rather trying to track down the original fairy-tale.[[2]]

What is The Language Using Us For #9

I wander into the staffroom and catch the tail-end of a conversation:

“…and then it’s gone. You just don’t seem to be carrying that emotional pain with you anymore.”

“Gone? Like…completely?”

“Yeah, as if it’s been dissolved in some sort of chemical substance.”

I don’t ask what they’re talking about, it could be any therapeutic procedure: biofeedback, rolfing, holotropic breathwork, chromotherapy, reiki, reflexology, focusing,  feldenkreis, cupping,  counselling, or even goold old psychotherapy. It doesn’t really matter as long as it “works”.

This “working” seems to be connected to a sense of uncoupling from maladaptive pain. Not pain that tells you to drop the hot potato before it sears the flesh, but pain that rides a razorblade-studded surfboard on a whatever wave of self-defeating entropy and negativity you’re able to churn up inside yourself.

Learning poetry can be as powerful as all the other therapies for this kind of grievance. Particularly when some of the lines that you’re in the process of learning (internalizing) start drawing towards them, like a poultice, the aches and pains of your emotional life. You don’t have to do anything to make this happen (other than learn the poem) it just occurs, as if by magic.

Let me give you an example. I am learning these stanzas from the poem:

I am in a telephoneless, blue
Green crevasse and I can’t get out.
I pay well for my messages
Being hoisted up when you are about.

I suppose you open them under the light
Of midnight of The Dancing Men.
The point is would you ever want
To be here down on the freezing line

Reading the words that steam out
Against the ice? Anyhow draw
This folded message up between
The leaning prisms from me below.

As I take them in, I try on this “I” for size and find it fitting. I too pay well for my messages (about £40 a month to Virgin Media, to be mundanely precise) and indeed am “hoisted up”, given succor when “you” are about.

But what  if this “you” is no longer there? What if “you” is one who, in my embittered fantasy, now opens these emotionally costly messages not when they arrive, but at some delayed last-moment, “under the light of midnight of the Dancing Men”.

I don’t know who the Dancing Men are, but for this accusatorial scene (“Would you ever want to be…” etc.), they could be anything from a bunch of Chippendales to whatever drek “you” happens to be watching on television as they hive off five percent of their attention to my “messages” (emails, blog-posts, letters, whatever).

Allowing these three stanzas to become very personal to us allows for a kind of alchemy to occur very similar to that which my colleagues were talking about. Being able to give new words to the pain in a ritualised, almost formal way feels intensely healing.

I don’t really subscribe to this gone-completely notion though. I think about a conversation Howard Cutler once had with the Dalai Lama about regret {{1}}, which might be applied to any thoughts or emotions that haunts us. But maybe we’re not really looking for “gone-completely”, which would be a form of dementia or amnesia. What we’re looking for is:

A place for language in our lives

Which we want to be a real place
Seeing we have to put up with it
Anyhow.

[[1]]Have there been situations in your life that you’ve regretted?”

“Oh, yes. Now for instance there was one older monk who lived as a hermit. He used to come to see me to receive teachings, although I think he was actually more accomplished than I and came to me as a sort of formality. Anyway, he came to me one day and asked me about doing a certain high-level esoteric practice. I remarked in a casual way that this would be a difficult practice and perhaps would be better undertaken by someone who was younger, that traditionally it was a practice that should be started in one’s mid-teens. I later found out that the monk had killed himself in order to be reborn in a younger body to more effectively undertake the practice…”

Surprised by this story, I remarked, “Oh, that’s terrible! That must have been hard on you when you heard…” The Dalai Lama nodded sadly. “How did you deal with that feeling of regret? How did you eventually get rid of it?”

The Dalai Lama silently considered for quite a while before replying, “I didn’t get rid of it. It’s still there. But even though that feeling of regret is still there, it isn’t associated with a feeling of heaviness or a quality of pulling me back. It would not be helpful to anyone if I let that feeling of regret weigh me down, be simply a source of discouragement and depression with no purpose, or interfere with going on with my life to the best of my ability.” [[1]]

What is The Language Using Us For #7

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.

 

What is the Language Using Us For? #4

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:

                                                        telling

Each other alive about each other
Alive.

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?

What Is The Language Using Us For #8

Certain experiences seem to not
Want to go into language maybe
Because of shame or the reader’s shame.

I have a theory, although I’m sure someone’s said it somewhere before, that all fiction (the stuff we make up) is really just a shame-driven reaction to non-fiction (the “real” stuff, the stuff we find uncomfortable to talk about). Poetry is closer to the “real” in that there is usually less of a story being woven around the feeling nub.

It’s a very human paradox that the things we most want to talk about, most need to talk about, have no outlet for expression, believing we can’t “go there” with others, unless we put it into some sort of story, sugar the pill, tell it about someone else (“you/Wanting to be another”).

“Reader, it doesn’t matter,” Graham tries to console us. And of course in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t. Whatever floats your shame-dodging boat. But in some ways it does.

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

Each other alive about each other
Alive.

At the beginning of the poem, the writer is disconnected from that “flow” of telling, “stuck” in the “freezing prisms” of language (“I am in a telephoneless, blue/Green crevasse{{1}} and I can’t get out”). Maybe just stuck in the sentence he’s working on, which is a bad enough stuckness. But maybe part of the immobilization is due to the fact that he feels no-one, apart from himself, would find his inertia of much interest, having so much of their own to contend with:

[[1]]That blue/green crevasse feels incredibly familiar. Half sky, half shrubbery. At times the whole planet feels like a booby trap, with life, as David Whyte would say “a progressive and cunning crime/with no witness to the tiny hidden/transgressions”.[[1]]

would you ever want
To be here down on the freezing line

Reading the words that steam out
Against the ice?

In some way, other people’s stuckness feel like “suburbs” to our own experience. Let us go then, you and I, or maybe not. I live in a suburb. It’s dull at times. Everyone wants their show to be on in the West End, their exertions to be cheered on in the Olympic stadium. Most of us don’t get what we want.

In order to make us appreciate his feelings, Graham (we) have to translate or move this stuckness onto others. I’m not stuck, it’s Mooney: “deep down in[to] a glass jail”.

This realisation that “truth” is less palatable than fiction starts in childhood. Parents are not “allowed” (although they often break the rule) to tell children of their fears and desires, but they are allowed to tell them stories. The stories they tell them are sometimes deeply troubled ones. Children, for a while, are allowed (or expected) to tell parents exactly how they’re feeling. For a while they are all, feeling, only feeling. And then they learn how to think and lie, learn that the parent is more comfortable with thoughts (even lies, and are not all thoughts lies of a kind?) than with feelings. And so the fatal switch is made.

What is the language Using Us For? #6

When I started learning my ‘abridged’ version of WITLUUF, one of Mr Porter‘s comments stuck with me through all of last week:

I’d be really interested to hear about the parts of the poem that you are not sold on, too.

I read here a very useful query. If you’re decimating a poem, like a chicken, into parts you “favour” (a drumstick) and those you don’t (wings), shouldn’t you think as much about why not wings, as much as why drumsticks? Perhaps more so.

Dwelling, if you’re honest with yourself, your prejudices get revealed. In the case of WITLUUF, I think I wanted to stay away from all the Malcolm Mooney-isming (even the name slightly annoys me: a character in a children’s book). Similarly, all the sailing and walking about in the poem and ambling around Greenock like a Scottish Leopold Bloom, engaging in scraps of craic with all and sundry.

I met a man in Cartsburn Street
Thrown out of The Cartsburn Vaults.
He shouted Willie and I crossed the street

And met him at the mouth of the close.
And this was double-breasted Sam,
A far relation on my mother’s

West-Irish side. Hello Sam how
Was it you knew me and says he
I heard your voice on The Sweet Brown Knowe.

O was I now I said and Sam said
Maggie would have liked to see you.
I’ll see you again I said and said

Sam I’ll not keep you and turned
Away over the short cut across
The midnight railway sidings.

I didn’t want to spend days learning this flotsam and jetsam by heart so that it might swill around in my head until death or dementia do us part.

I just wanted the philosophical-emotional backbone of the poem, its language-ruffled quintessence, and none of its peopled debris.

It took me a week to realise that the language-ruffled quintessence cannot, should not be separated from all the domestic detritus Graham scrapes it away from.

Without all the “hello Sams” and “Sam, I’ll not keep you” and “O was I now”, the poem and possibly my learning of it, is just a piece of dismembered fowl, not really a live, squawking chicken.

Thank you Mr Porter for leading me to this realisation.

So I think I’m going to spend another week with this poem, the whole poem. Which means I’m already ‘behind’ on my poem-a-week goal (you see how pressure mounts{{1}}, even self-imposed pressure?).

[[1]]Or rather: you see how we mount the pressure on ourselves?[[1]]

What is the Language Using Us For? #5

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
Alive.

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{{1}}, we need, Graham seems to be saying to pay attention to how we “make…a place” for these things in our lives.

Gah.

[[1]]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.[[1]]

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){{2}}.

[[2]]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.

What is the Language Using Us For? #3

 

 

 

 

 

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}}.

[[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)[[1]]

What is the Language Using Us For #2

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{{1}}. He was moved by their agonised end, but it was language that called.

[[1]]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.” [[1]]

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.

                                                                                        the
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{{3}}.

[[3]]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.[[3]]

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.