Thursday, September 27, 2007

THE POET AND THE NAME

As everyone knows, we take language for granted. There's a reason for this. A lad carting a wheelbarrow doesn't want to stop & contemplate the invention, design, and special virtues of the wheelbarrow's wheel. In a world of struggle and necessity, we have to get on with things as efficiently as we can.

But life is more than work. As Welsh poet David Jones liked to point out, our aptitude for making non-utilitarian aesthetic objects (art) is what distinguishes the uniquely human from the generally animal. Poetry, too, is situated within that magic (playground) circle. And play itself grants access to otherwise disregarded elements of reality.

Goofing around with words, the poet stumbles upon a hidden treasure : language's native spring - the substance of naming itself. Who among the professional linguists and philologists has comprehended the intellectual wonder of Adamic naming?* When human mind, heart, lungs, throat and mouth first formed the intelligible signs for things? And gathering these signs and keeping them in mind, ordering them by imaginative precedent and law, began to articulate the grand, vast logical-rhetorical sea-going vessel of human speech?

What the poet does, in playing with words, is strike those original sparks of imaginative apprehension - the first (& prehistoric) Promethean fire. Thus the poet reiterates verbal representation with the flavor, the sharp scent of that first encounter. This primal imaginative-intellective labor is what accounts for poetry's famous vividness; what Mallarme (and Eliot) meant when they spoke of their vocation as Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu (to render a purer sense to the words of the tribe).

Mankind the Word-Maker, the Playing Animal... one could go so far as to say that the poet, through free verbal play, recapitulates the human image - polishes it, in order to shine - a kind of microcosm of the human essence.

The poet must walk a tightrope between prosaic, utilitarian usage (which manacles naming under the sign of Necessity), and that arrogant artistic egoism and vanity which treats words as building material, as means not ends (splitting off words from their original naming function, and in doing so, deforming them).

*Giambattista Vico, for one.

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