They suggest that what follows will acknowledge, affirm, and supplement what a reader already knows, which seems to be all I can hope for. I rarely manage so much.
In Poetry and the Body, John Vernon says, “I think I am choosing, selecting my words, but words just as often choose me.” Sometimes I feel like a medium—at my most fluent, I don’t feel I’m doing anything special, simply condensing what’s already in the air or divining what’s just under the surface. This sense of the experience leads Vernon to call poetry “a dance of words in the mouth” and to assert writing is finally “gestural,” more revealing in pattern than content…more revealing, even, than it intends.
I know how shamanistic—or loony—these statements may sound, but they arise from a concrete observation: the words writers take such pride in choosing and arranging are ultimately limited.
According to Vernon, our consciousness “wakes up” with language and, as we’ve never really known a time without it, we grow used to words’ power to organize the world, to classify and categorize and order. We forget that language also extricates us from the world. We can come to believe words are the world when they only really describe it. We seek control through language as if it could remake what it depicts.
Vernon asserts poetry exists because the world ultimately resists naming. “Language” he says, “sifts everything through its categories and types, and the world is the deposit left over when language is finished.”
While even a poem needs some measure of rationality, I’m skeptical when I know exactly what I’m doing. It sounds eyes-rolled-into-the-back-of-my-head crazy to say so, but a rhythm often occurs to me before the words. I might write a line in blankity blanks blank blanken and then substitute actual words for my place-holding nonsense. Which makes me wonder which comes first. Are the words the real placeholders, something to fit dim music I hear? I prefer not being sure. I’m not out to write nonsense, but I’d rather suit words to a feeling than the other way around. I want to be no more clever than necessary.
Vernon says, “We need poetry because names die, because objects resist their names, because the world overflows and escapes its names.”
And if you can’t name anything—for long—wouldn’t it be nice to communicate that we share that state and still try to say what we mean anyway?
In light of Vernon’s observations, acknowledging, affirming, supplementing an unnamed and unnameable world seems a good dream. Nothing is as satisfying to a poet as a nod. It declares, “You’ve said something I almost knew. You’ve made some music audible at last.”