The nightmare energy in me thought to write about the talking points Noam Chomsky’s been trotting out lately. One of his set pieces these days wonders that human intelligence has invented two methods of self-annihilation, which we now tend toward—nuclear war and global warming—while it has also undermined our only protection—public institutions. I felt, can still feel, this idea of our self-destructive intelligence might be intertwined with linguistics, Chomsky’s other focus. I’d found his Language and Mind on the free bench in my building, and was out of my depth within the first few chapters, so put the book down. What I managed to read left me with the impression that no study had, at the time, satisfactorily explained or described the origins and operations of language—a property of our species that, without hyperbole, can be called unique. “Magic,” I thought, “the genes of knowledge, which can be compelled into expression.” “A dark magic,” the nightmare tells me, “a terminal uniqueness.”
But I want light, the lucid dream, however bizarre. This woozy feeling in my stomach calls for it. So, first a prayer, a spell, for the mental structures that give rise to the linguistic impulse, then on to Why Poetry and where that book has fit in with my thinking.
The prayer is an image: A woman kneels at the base of a tree. She is all and alone, in a medium of watchfulness, partly ours, and almost out of sight of the many people beyond shouting distance and obscured by trees and the gushy-green growing things in the field. She is busy spooling a thread of spit and breath from her tongue and using it to embroider flowers in the ground. Her fingers, knees, shins, and feet are covered in dirt. The corners of her lips turn up at her fantasy of growing flowering plants from her head as hair.
* * *
Why Poetry‘s author, Matthew Zapruder, cuts a particular romantic figure in my imagination. He’s a local poet, teaching at St. Mary’s, and when I’ve seen him around, he’s struck me as a sort of mystic mechanic. His bearing could be something like Pushkin as a modern workaday Chicagoan (though he’s neither a Russian nor a Midwesterner). He seems to have a broad sympathy, a devotion to the great oddity, a fine-tuned bullshit filter, and a bead drawn on the stepwise work in need of doing.
This attitude comes across in Why Poetry, and it’s what appeals to me about the book’s voice and the argument it makes about how poetry serves us. Poetry, Zapruder says, can bring us to the “place beyond words by words themselves.” By attending to language’s “provisionality, uncertainty, and slippages” instead of pretending it’s a reliable information delivery system, poetry brings us to the brink of knowing then humbles us in the face of the unknowable. Thus, it resembles prayer, a yearning toward the divine; an articulation, beyond paraphrase, of an inarticulable truth.
Zapruder uses Paul Valéry’s definition as a touchstone throughout: “A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words.” As we read a poem, he says, it draws us into a keen reverie, a wakeful dream, which he describes as “a higher, more aware, more open, more sensitive condition of consciousness,” “a questioning alertness” with “no big solutions coming.” It gets us there by foregrounding the written, oral, and aural materiality of words; inviting words’ multiplicity of personal, contextual, and historical meanings; accessing a literalist imagination to “strangeify” the habitual and resensitize readers to experience and its meaningfulness; following a disorienting associative logic of leaps, symbols, metaphors, and other modes of sonic, imagistic, and conceptual affiliation, transference, resonance, and accretion; and admitting negative capability, a meaning-making that holds contradictions in a way that invites possibilities, without, as Keats puts it, “any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
The methods and mind states of poetry, Zapruder argues, have political significance in several ways. First, when poetry reactivates language, it destabilizes usual hierarchies of importance in meaning-making and works against the narrowing, deceptive, obscuring, and stultifying operations of official and commercial language. The ability of poetry to defamiliarize the daily might make its readers just uncomfortable enough to reengage with their experience. The reengaged reader, hopefully, may be capable of more empathy, and this empathy, hopefully, will inform the reader’s ethics, and these compassionate ethics, again hopefully, will be put into practice. Zapruder also implies that reading and writing poetry are intrinsically empathetic activities, because poetry, like every language act in search of an audience, tries to bridge the space between our “private thoughts and life and the world and people surrounding [us],” “to cross over into intimacy or connection.”
The personal-political significance of poetry that Zapruder lingers on longest comes from Wallace Stevens. He seconds Stevens’s idea that by training the reader’s imagination to that of the poet’s, a poem can protect its writer and reader from, in Stevens’s words, “the pressure of the reality” or “the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation.” “It is as if what Stevens is proposing is a kind of environmentalism of the imagination,” Zapruder writes, “a call for us to actively carve out in our own minds and daily lives a space for imagination that is like a nature preserve or ecologically protected area.” He’s careful, however, to point out that this imaginative preserve is not a disavowal of and withdrawal from the real, but “a different sort of engagement” with it, through which daily life, “as in dreams, […] is rearranged, reconfigured.” And he shares Stevens’s conviction that the imaginative and contemplative space protected by poetry “helps us to live our lives.”
These beneficial potentials of poetry, Zapruder offers, do not represent a solution, but “at least a necessary beginning.” He makes sure to say that we must also read and listen to other kinds of language that take on tasks beyond the scope of poetry: “informing, convincing, lecturing, describing, reporting.” He also intimates that reading and writing poetry isn’t a substitute for—and therefore doesn’t constitute—”concrete action,” or activism.
This is where the waters become a bit muddied for me. I’m down with the headspace Zapruder, by way of Valéry, calls the “poetic state of mind.” I believe I’ve been there. Strange connections, taking the form of language, have poured down into my noggin from what I clumsily call “source.” When I receive these ideas with a kind of silly-grin detachment—and especially when the ideas appeal to my better nature, whose dominant trait is trust—it can feel like sunbathing. I’m a believer in the kind of relationship with language that Zapruder puts under the umbrella of poetry—bringing ourselves closer to meaning by working through dimensions of language that we haven’t been attending to. I agree that this greater intimacy with language can make room for the imagination. I also have no problem with genres. Genres give us useful categories, and recognizing genres doesn’t rule out mixing, matching, bending, and subverting them.
What I get hung up on is how Zapruder’s genre-based argument circumscribes the poetic state of mind and is reluctant to admit that the force of language, poetic and otherwise, qualifies as concrete action, a thing that once thought, read, or heard changes the matter of the mind, initiates a cascade of signals that may move a person to act in the world.
He seems to want to work the edge of his own circumscription, writing, “I also think that this free, imaginative thinking, when applied to the great problems that face us, can help us in other ways as well.” The phrase “great problems” and the obscurity of “in other ways” make me antsy, but the impulse here seems to be to allow that the poetic state of mind might be sustained beyond an encounter with poetry.
Elsewhere, though, he prioritizes the cause of the genre in such a way that constrains the poetic imagination to the literary form and suggests a narrow time limit on the duration of that imagination for a poem’s reader. “The creation of the poetic state of mind in poet and reader is inextricably connected with form,” he writes, and negative capability in poetry is “an experience that you will not have elsewhere in life.” And he agrees with Anne Carson when she says, “a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action.” The reader’s experience of the poetic imagination, provided by the poet through the poem, is real-time—a sort of mind meld that lasts as long as a poem is being read or heard.
I’d like to build out (or maybe just go off) the edge that Zapruder gets close to. At a local sit I go to once in a while, I’ve heard repeated that the most challenging part of the practice is “taking it off the cushion.” I have the desire to bring the poetic state of mind “off the cushion,” out of the genre form, so it becomes not just a preserve, but also a countervailing pressure, continuous with actions in the world.
This desire accepts that all language is a machine, with designs on the mind, which may or may not encourage a poetic state of mind as it manages perception. It also accepts that “the real,” where it relates to human behavior, is partly a product of the imagination. That is, “the real,” as Zapruder and Stevens are using it, isn’t imaginary or fake, but is partially a consequence of ideas sewn through language.
In these views, I might resemble the Symbolists, as Zapruder describes them, but I’m not as interested in creating “new” realities so much as I am in reconciling with this one.
* * *
The fallen plums, tall sunflowers, and paper-cut plant the cat hid behind in the backyard, and, in the front, the driveway’s little loose blinky tiles and the tree that shed long, stiff banana stems good as swords and wands. Besides my memories of these, one of my first is of sitting on the sidewalk near our house and fitting this one bush’s flowers on my fingers. The cup the petals made was just the size of my fingertips, and it held my attention. While I slipped the flowers on and off, time pointed out from me and toward me in all directions, a field of influence and suspension.
I didn’t have many words yet, so the temptation’s there to call the flower-fitting a prelinguistic experience. I must’ve been around two, and I mostly expressed myself by grunting, screaming, and brandishing a sandbox shovel. But the fact is it was a linguistic experience. My brain had already grown so as to prepare the way for words, and language hovered around, massaging those structures, activating them or the areas around. What older children and adults, television and radio voices said was sometimes a noise with a feeling tone, and sometimes involved me in stories, knitted me in relation to people, animals, things, places, space, activities, causes, effects, ideas.
The trouble with using childhood memories as an example is that it’s hard to pry them free of preciousness. The innocence many adults connect with childhood is dramatized by their knowledge that growing up and disaster aren’t far off, and that dramatized preciousness can stir up nostalgia.
I use this memory from the point of view that there’s no going back, and I try to keep in mind that while I toddled and sat there on the sidewalk I didn’t conceive of myself as precious. I didn’t have the concept yet.
I’m sure I obscure the experience in remembering it and by setting the wordless to words, even while trying to ward off nostalgia. Still, I maintain faith that the experience has some integrity against my interpretation, because I think it stands for something about a person’s language before words—something connected to the poetic state of mind—that might be useful for someone with fluency in reworking their relationship with the voluble commercial, political, and historical voices, aka the pressures.
When I fitted the flowers on my fingers, my mother might’ve narrated to me what I was doing, but because I wasn’t fluent, I think my languaged experience was weighted more toward what I was doing than any narration. Through the activity, I felt myself as an actor, and the greater part of the meaning in that linguistic experience was sensibly physical and coextensive with the external world. What I was doing was literally unsayable for me, and I suspect, at the same time, sent some sparks shooting through or near the language areas of my little convoluted brain.
I offer this memory not to argue that we should use more of active voice or the imperative mood or that language should result in action, but to say that language originates in action and is action. Here, I can imagine resistance: that this take could be used to justify a life of lollygagging and logorrhea, or that what I’ve said has serious implications about the types of speech that should and shouldn’t be protected or censored. Saying language comes from and is action could also sound like the beginnings of mind-over-matter argument.
The case I’m making is more that mind and language are both matter and force. The force of language can have an erosive, cumulative, or geologic effect on the individual and collective conscious and subconscious. Take, for instance, these recent encounters:
Your Future Begins At [redacted]. Start With A Course, Find Your Passion.
[Redacted] Offers to Return Payment to End Deal for Her Silence.
An Innocent Man Was Killed by Police. And [redacted] NEVER INVESTIGATED.
Revolutionizing car ownership to fit your urban lifestyle is what [redacted] is all about. By taking our deep understanding of data and transforming it into information and services that make having a car less expensive, more convenient, and smarter, we aim to make the urban car experience as simple as it can be.
When you use [redacted] in your neighborhood, you’re not only saving money. You’re also supporting local business. I mean, what kind of person wouldn’t want to support local business?
To quote RuPaul quoting a line from When a Stranger Calls, “We’ve traced the call. It’s coming from inside the house.” So, the only way I’ve found that makes sense to me is to own my responsibility in contributing to the world of ideas in words—written, spoken, unspoken. To do this, I try to hold up an image of the unsayable language I had using tiny blooms as finger cots, while keeping up a close reading of the operations of language on my mind. The last involves soundlessly talking to the nightmare, and not letting the nightmare make its noise with my mouth. Together, the efforts of the image and the close reading might make an opening that marries doubt and trust, sensitivity and heedful detachment.