Mining the Mysteries of Language
By Robert Wynne
In the early 1990s, a young man came up to me after a reading I’d given, and told me how grateful he was that I had read a poem about suicide, because it had particularly resonated with him. I thanked him, and shuffled my stack of loose verse into a pile, tucking it away quietly. At the coffee shop later, I recounted the moment with my friends, and we puzzled over which poem had elicited that reaction – I hadn’t read a poem about suicide, in fact, I’d never even written one.
I never figured out the culprit, but it was the first of many times I’ve found my work interpreted differently by an audience than I had originally intended. And I didn’t mind at all. One of the wonderful (and sometimes maddening) things about language, is its malleability. There is mystery in words, because uttering them, writing them, is only the first half of the experience. Only when those words are heard, or read, do they complete their journey, and the mind on the receiving end shapes how that journey ends.
And this is not just true of poetry, but also for all spoken and written expression, and even for visual forms of art as well. The more abstract the expression, the more participation from the audience is necessary, which is why different people can see such different things in a Kandinsky or Mondrian painting. I distinctly recall my first reading of Lilies in New York by Mark Doty (from his magnificent 1998 collection Sweet Machine); the poem describes a charcoal drawing of lilies, and then ruminates on how impossible it is to capture the beautiful potential of a flower opening, though we try. And so, thankfully, did Doty.
I am struck by how much I miss beauty as an agenda. I remember being told that the personal is political, when reading Adrienne Rich in college. That made sense to me at the time, but the democratization of our discourse online has blunted language to the point that everything, personal or not, has now become political. Do you dislike the New England Patriots? Then why do you hate America? I have a red baseball cap from a craft brewery in Southern California, and I don’t wear it any more.
Judgement has always been inherent in the use of language, because we choose which words to use, and we interpret the words we encounter in our daily lives. For instance, sarcasm is a thing that can exist in a tone, regardless of the words. Try being sarcastic in a text message – it often doesn’t work. Now tell someone you want to talk about snowflakes, how amazed you were the first time you caught one on your tongue, how you swore you could feel the very shape of it for an hour after it had melted. That story has some different connotations these days.
Everything someone values is hated by someone else, for whatever reason. And, like Shakespeare did centuries ago, online trolls are creating new words, and adapting existing ones for their own purposes. The more weaponized our language becomes, the less mystery it can contain. And as less mystery suffuses our language, the more it serves solely as a tool for propaganda instead of expression. This is what we’re up against.
Poets of the world, wear the bottoms of your trousers rolled, dare to eat a peach. Read a book by Larry Levis, grab what’s out of reach. Call someone a rhododendron, though you don’t know why. Write it like a compliment. Look them in the eye. It is incumbent upon artists to find the beauty in this world, to mine the mysteries buried in the words between us. That’s how language stitches us together, in a magnificent quilt of meaning to which we keep adding. That may not be as easy as it once was, but it’s still worth the effort.
Robert Wynne is a regular contributor to Radius.