Language Invented, or What? A Panel on Poetry
Ralph Angel: Because poetry is the language for which we have no language, it often sounds peculiar to the ear. But there's a reason for that. It is the poet's task, as it is for all artists, to reveal through our art fundamental concerns of human nature. Only by doing so might our poems serve as crossroads where our individual differences intersect. They are, like all great art, acts of faith.
And yet poets have only two tools to rely on: their personal experience and the language in which they compose. Over time, they often discover that in order to really touch upon the essential nature of their experience, they must reinvent the language. And we, as readers, discover that the sound of an individual poet's voice is therefore somewhat strange, often like a song we've never heard before.
Issues of language are interesting to me in part because, as young apprentices, poets are in the same position as all young artists. We mimic and copy the poets who speak to us. We learn from them. They open doors for us. And, in our early days, by degrees, we sound like them. But over time we not only mature as craftspeople, but also as individuals. And so, as poets, our language evolves as we evolve toward our private and poetic destinies.
I've asked the poets who are with me today on this panel to consider this simple polemic and, in that context, to trace for you their own artistic evolution. And they are here to do just that - to share with you the lineage of their poetic and artistic journey.
Gillian Conoley: There is a quote about language by Max Picard that I really love. He says, "If words didn't go out of themselves to refresh themselves in things, they would hang around in heaps and impede our movements, like things in a warehouse." I love how in that sentence, language is given such a life of its own, a force that we are free to use, or engage in, but then there is also the recognition that language can have its way with us, that it's certainly equal to us, if not more than equal.
Every phrase one writes, every juxtaposition one makes, is a manifestation of using a full-blown language full of possibilities of meaning and impossibilities of meaning, a language that has been constructed of the many manifestations of what one could call one's composite "selves," and then multiplied perhaps even infinitely by the languages that created those "selves." So which came first? The words for, or the "identities" of, say, quiet child, surly teen, blissful mother, angry bitch, the list goes on . . . and the vocabularies of each merge and meld into what one could call "one's language." But then I can't help but find that phrase totally inadequate. "One's language." How could there be one? And how could one "own" it?
My earliest experiences of language, or language of community, had to be on the streets of my very own small hometown in Texas, where in the 1950s it was not uncommon to hear four languages being spoken at once on the three blocks of Main Street: Spanish was one, of course, and because there were also many first- and second-generation immigrants from Germany and what was then called Czechoslovakia, German and Czech, and lastly, and most commonly, English. Many of my childhood friends' parents spoke a broken English, or a heavily accented English, and when enraged, would fly into their native tongues. Multitudinous, ephemeral, opaque, language was a dissociative experience from the beginning, and from the beginning, it had its own life.
Though I have no way of knowing, I believe that at some point in my language acquisition, language just sort of took over. I was intrigued by the music of it, the music of the different languages I heard growing up, and the kind of harmonious music this would make when it was coupled with the homey, plain diction of the town. It may even be possible to say that where once I sought a vocabulary of ideas, I began to seek ideas for vocabularies.
And most recently I have become intensely interested in silence, in what's there when language isn't. …