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Friday, March 7, 2014

Poetry and Wisdom

Recently I heard an established poet say that poets may have a special feeling for language, but they don't have any more wisdom than the average person. Which is true. It's language that has more wisdom than the individual (poet or otherwise).

Language is and was made by people, collectively, and as such it contains the collective wisdom of the ages. But it isn't in there obviously, largely because by making miniscule decisions about how to speak or write throughout time, individuals didn't notice that they were encoding wisdom in language. And yet they were, each time they made decisions about word choices.

Poets, by paying attention to word choice, sometimes tap into that wisdom, not because the poets themselves are wise, but because language is. Take the easy example of words that sound similar. Look for a theme here: vestal virgin, vagina, vulva, Venus, virile, vixen. You found two themes, right? And you're probably thinking, Wait, you forgot valentine, or ovulate, va va voom, venereal, or vamp, and the list goes on and on.

And having words sound similar is one of the least subtle clues that language gives us about words that belong together (or don't belong together--there can be so much power in those combinations too). Many times the compulsion to place two words next to one another is something we can't explain even to ourselves, and yet we know there is something powerful in the arrangement. And that's the job of poets, to be exquisitely sensitive to how words should be paired, or arranged, for the most effect. Even when / even though we can't say why the words are in the right order, when we're lucky, it's obvious to us and to everyone that we've found an order that holds something, some kind of wisdom or power or meaning that we can't paraphrase, something that is embedded in the language itself, put there by people who lived long before we did who themselves did not know what they were putting in the language anymore than we know what we are extracting. But they were compelled in their choices to put it there, and poets are compelled in their choices to chase it.

And if we could say what it is, in other words, it wouldn't be poetry.

If we could say what it is, we wouldn't need poetry.

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