The following is an excerpt from “Language at Play,” an essay by Diane Ackerman about the power and use of language, and the role poetry plays in all of our lives. She says it better than I could. This is the kind of writing that paralyzes me and that I can only react to after it has lived inside of me for a while. Enjoy!
We ask the poet to reassure us by giving us a geometry of living, in which all things add up and cohere, to tell us how things buttress one another, circle round and intermelt. Once the poet has broken life into shards, we ask him to spin around and piece it back together again, making life seem even more fluid than before. Now it is a fluency of particulars instead of a nebulous surging. We ask the poet to compress and abbreviate the chaos so we don’t overload from its waterfall of sensations, all of which we nonetheless wish somehow to take in.
Every poem is a game, a ritual dance with words. In the separate world of the artwork, the poet moves in a waking trance. By its nature, poetry and all art is ceremonial, which we sometimes forget, except perhaps when we think of the Neolithic cave painters in the mysterium tremens of their task. Intent on one feature of life, exploring it mentally, developing it in words, a poet follows the rules of the game. Sometimes artists change the game, impose their own rules and disavow everyone else’s. Then they become an ist among the isms. But there are always rules, always tremendous concentration, entrancement and exaltation, always the tension of spontaneity caged by restriction, always risk of failure and humiliation, always the drumbeat of rituals, always the willingness to be shaken to the core.
Once, after a lecture, a woman asked why accomplished scientists and prose writers (such as Loren Eisely), who turned to poetry late in life, were such poor poets. Is it easier to switch from poetry to prose than from prose to poetry? she wondered. I don’t think the genre is what matters, but the time of life. If you read the first book by famous scientists–J. B. S. Haldane, Werner Heisenberg, Francis Crick, Fred Hoyle–you find minds full of passion and wonder. Those books are thrilling to read because mystery is alive in them, and they are blessed by a youthful, free-flowing enthusiasm. But in later books these same people become obsessed with politics and sociology; their books are still of intellectual interest, but they’ve lost the sense of marvel. Those who stay poets all of their lives continue to live in that youthful state, as open and vulnerable and potentially damaging as it can be.
I suppose what most people associate with poetry is soul-searching and fiercely felt emotions. We expect the poet to be a monger of intensity, to pain for us, to reach into the campfire so that we can watch without burning ourselves. Because poets feel what we’re afraid to feel, venture where we’re reluctant to go, we learn from their journeys without taking the dramatic risks. We cherish the insights that poets discover. We’d love to relish the moment and feel rampant amazement as the seasons unfold. We yearn to explore the subtleties, paradoxes, and edges of emotions. We long to see the human condition reveal itself with spellbinding clarity. Think of all the lessons to be learned from deep rapture, danger, tumult, romance, intuition–but it’s far too exhausting to live like that on a daily basis, so we ask artists to feel and explore for us. Daring to take intellectual and emotional chances, poets live on their senses. In promoting a fight of his, a boxer once said: “I’m in the hurt business.” In a different way, artists are too.
And yet, through their eyes–perhaps because they risk so much–we discover breathtaking views of the human pageant. Borrowing the lens of an artist’s sensibility, we see the world in a richer way–more familiar than we thought, and stranger than we knew, a world laced with wonder. Sometimes we need to be taught how and where to seek wonder, but it’s always there, waiting, full of mystery and magic. I feel that much of my own duty as a writer is to open those doors of vision, shine light into those dark corners of existence, and search for the fountains of innocence.
The world is drenched with color and nature is full of spectacles. you would think that would be enough. yet we are driven to add even more sensations to the world, to make our thoughts and feelings available in words. We use words for many reasons. As a form of praise and celebration. To impose an order on the formless clamor of the world. As a magical intermediary between us and the hostile, unpredictable universe. For religious reasons, in worship. For spiritual reasons, to commune with others. To temporarily stop a world that seems too fast, too random, too chaotic. To help locate ourselves in nature and give us a sense of home. Words bring patterns, meaning, and perspective to life. We keep trying to sum life up, to frame small parts of it, to break it into eye-gulps, into word-morsels that are easier to digest. Sometimes words allow us to put ourselves in harmony with the universe, to find a balance, however briefly, in life’s hurricane. They make it possible not only to communicate with one another but to do it in a way that may change someone’s life.
Isn’t it odd that one big-brained animal can alter the course of another’s life, change what the other sees when it looks at its reflection in a mirror, or in the mind’s mirror? And do that by using the confection of words. What sort of beings are we who set off on symbolic pilgrimages, pause at mental towns, encounter others who–sometimes without knowing it–can divert or redirect us for years? What unlikely and magical creatures. Who could know them in a lifetime? When I start thinking like this, in words, wonder shoots its rivets into my bones. I feel lit by a sense of grace, and all my thoughts turn to praise.
Hunt only at night. Fly erratically.
Defy even your own expectations.
Feed on beetles, moths, and mosquitoes,
whatever is small and annoying.
Cultivate the myths about you
until every predator fears your legend.
When hunting, be guided by a language
only you can hear. The same is true
when courting the one you love.
Clean fangs and fur nightly. Crawl
or climb to confuse the observant.
Retreat to a cave no one believes in.
Let the day and the world pass
while you sleep, and sleep upside down,
ready to wake and fall into flight.
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don't see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolves
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don't know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.-liesle mueller
by Sharon Olson
In the place in the brain that handles names––
Hannibal, Hannaleah, Atlee Hammacher––
the names are beginning to disappear, slowly.
Kissinger is still there, with Joyce Brothers and Idi Amin,
but my friends’ relatives’ names pop in and out
along with my sister-in-law’s maiden name,
my sixth-grade teacher,
my first boss.
Some of my former lovers’ last names are gone,
last time I checked all the first names were still there,
but no dates.
Fellows I went on dates with are also gone.
The room in the brain that keeps the names is airy,
breezy, the wind wanders through
ruffling the papers stacked on ancient card tables.
Use rocks, they say,
so I am looking for rocks to weight them down.
So nice to find you here, I know you––
perhaps I was once in love with you.
I have an idea:
we will be like Brando and Schneider,
we will do it without touching, without names.
those who would climb through the hole in the sky.
My only tools were the desires of humans as they emerged
from the killing fields, from the bedrooms and the kitchens.
For the soul is a wanderer with many hands and feet.
The map must be of sand and can’t be read by ordinary light. It
must carry fire to the next tribal town, for renewal of spirit.
In the legend are instructions on the language of the land, how it
was we forgot to acknowledge the gift, as if we were not in it or of it.
Take note of the proliferation of supermarkets and malls, the
altars of money. They best describe the detour from grace.
Keep track of the errors of our forgetfulness; the fog steals our
children while we sleep.
Flowers of rage spring up in the depression. Monsters are born
there of nuclear anger.
Trees of ashes wave good-bye to good-bye and the map appears to
We no longer know the names of the birds here, how to speak to
them by their personal names.
Once we knew everything in this lush promise.
What I am telling you is real and is printed in a warning on the
map. Our forgetfulness stalks us, walks the earth behind us, leav-
ing a trail of paper diapers, needles, and wasted blood.
An imperfect map will have to do, little one.
The place of entry is the sea of your mother’s blood, your father’s
small death as he longs to know himself in another.
There is no exit.
The map can be interpreted through the wall of the intestine—a
spiral on the road of knowledge.
You will travel through the membrane of death, smell cooking
from the encampment where our relatives make a feast of fresh
deer meat and corn soup, in the Milky Way.
They have never left us; we abandoned them for science.
And when you take your next breath as we enter the fifth world
there will be no X, no guidebook with words you can carry.
You will have to navigate by your mother’s voice, renew the song
she is singing.
Fresh courage glimmers from planets.
And lights the map printed with the blood of history, a map you
will have to know by your intention, by the language of suns.
When you emerge note the tracks of the monster slayers where they
entered the cities of artificial light and killed what was killing us.
You will see red cliffs. They are the heart, contain the ladder.
A white deer will greet you when the last human climbs from the
Remember the hole of shame marking the act of abandoning our
We were never perfect.
Yet, the journey we make together is perfect on this earth who was
once a star and made the same mistakes as humans.
We might make them again, she said.
Crucial to finding the way is this: there is no beginning or end.
You must make your own map.”