The Two Languages
Poetry is often regarded as a mystery, and in some respects it is one. No one is quite sure where poetry comes from, no one is quite sure exactly what it is, and no one knows, really, how anyone is able to write it.
The Greeks thought, or at least said, that it came from the Muse, but in our time no one has been able to find her. The Unconscious has been offered as a substitute, but that, too, is hard to locate. How anyone is able to write it is explained in this way: the poet is a Genius who receives inspiration.
One way to get a little more clarity on the subject was suggested to me by something Paul Valéry said when he was thinking about the things that could be said in poetry and not otherwise: he said that poetry was a separate language or, more specifically, a "language within a language." There would be, in that case, the ordinary language -- for Valéry French, for us English -- and, somehow existing inside its boundaries, another: "the language of poetry." Valéry let it go at that; he went on to talk about other things. I thought it worth taking literally and seeing where it might lead; I thought it might explain something important about how poems are written and how they can be read.
According to this idea, a poet could be described as someone who writes in the language of poetry. Talent is required for doing it welt, but there are things that can help this talent to appear and to have an effect -- for example, you have to learn this particular language, which you do by reading it and writing it. The language itself helps to explain inspiration, which is always, at a certain point in its development, the appearance of some phrase or sentence in the poetic language. You may be moved by the West Wind, but until the words come to you "O wild West Wind" the inspiration is still in an early, pre-verbal phase. Once "wild West Wind" is there, it leads to more of this oddly useful language; once the tone, the channel, the language level is found, the poem can take off in a more purely verbal way.
Before I came on this idea of poetry as a separate language, I had been thinking of the analogy of a verbal synthesizer, computer, or pipe organ. You sat down at this instrument and played; you didn't tap out a clear message in teletypical prose. Whatever you said would be accompanied by music, and there were keys to press, to make comparisons, to exaggerate and lie, to personify, and so on. This idea of a synthesizer seemed to help explain the joy, even the intoxication, poets may feel when about to write, and when writing, and the similar joy and intoxication others may feel in reading their works. This joy seemed to me an element that was left out of most explications of poetry, or of the "poetic process." The synthesizer idea finally seemed to me a little askew, though, because it was too far away from language.
I also thought of likening writing poetry to going to a party. It puts you in a good mood. You know there will be music, even dancing; there's no work to be done there, just drinking, talking, and flirting. This analogy was fine for the initial pleasure part but not descriptive of what happens later, since in writing poetry you really do have to work, to make some kind of sense, and to bring things to a conclusion, which you don't usually have to do at a party.
A poet learns the language of poetry, works in it, is always being inspired by it. Just to use this language is a pleasure. I don't remember clearly that time in my childhood when to speak was an adventure, but I've seen it in other children; and I do remember the first year I spent in France, when to speak the French language gave me the same kind of nervous sense of possibility, ambition, and excitement that writing poetry has always done.
Poetry is an odd sort of language in that everyone who uses it well changes it slightly, and this fact helps to explain poetic influence and how poetry does change from one time and one poet to another.
Poetic purposes of a sort -- a magical, religious sort -- may be at the very origins of language or may have appeared very early on. To name things or beings was a first step to speaking to them and to trying to control them. Since its unknowable beginnings, however, language has become mainly a vast, reasonable, practical enterprise, with vocabulary and syntax and grammar to enable you to say almost anything you wish. The part the "almost" applies to is what can be said only by poetry.
If we take the idea of a poetic language seriously, it can be defined first as a language in which the sound of the words is raised to an importance equal to that of their meaning, and also equal to the importance of grammar and syntax. In ordinary language, the sound of a word is useful almost exclusively in order to identify it and to distinguish it from other words. In poetry its importance is much greater. Poets think of how they want something to sound as much as they think of what they want to say, and in fact it's often impossible to distinguish one from the other. This is an odd position from which to speak, and it's not surprising that strange things are said in such a language. The nature of the language can be illustrated by the way a nonsensical statement may, simply because of its music, seem to present some kind of truth, or at least to be something, even, in a certain way, to be memorable. For example:
Two and two
Are rather blue
"No, no," one may say, "two and two are four," but that is in another language. In this (poetry) language, it's true that "two and two are rather green" has little or no meaning (or existence), but "two and two are rather blue" does have some. The meanings are of different kinds. "I don't know whether or not to commit suicide" has a different kind of meaning from that of "To be or not to be, that is the question." Repetition and variation of sounds, among other things, make the second version meditative, sad, and memorable, whereas the first has no such music to keep it afloat. The nature of prose, Valéry said, is to perish. Poetry lasts because it gives the ambiguous and ever-changing pleasure of being both a statement and a song.
The music of language needs to be explained, since most often in reading prose or in hearing people talk we aren't much aware of anything resembling music. There are no horns, no piano, no strings, no drums. However, words can be put together in a way that puts an emphasis on what sound they make. Sound is part of the physical quality of words. "To sleep" means to rest and to be unconscious, and usually that is all it means, but it also has a physical nature -- the sounds sl and eep, for example -- that can be brought to the reader's attention, like the sounds hidden inside a drum that emerge when you hit it with a stick. Once you are listening to the sound as well as to the meaning -- as you won't, say, if you read "Go to sleep" but will, almost certainly, if it is "To sleep, perchance to dream" (Shakespeare) -- then you are hearing another language, in which that sound makes music which in turn is part of the meaning of what is said. The poetry language is used by persons who have things (known to them or not known) that they need to say, and who are moved by this need and by a delight in making music out of words.
The poet is led in uncustomary directions by the musically weighted language, and readers are led there in their turn. Poetry would just as soon come to a musical, as to a logical or otherwise useful conclusion; and in fact its logical or useful one would have to be also musical for the work to be poetry at all. In the ordinary language of ordinary experience, the thought or the remark "The sun is shining this afternoon" is likely to lead to other words related to these in a practical way: "Why don't we go out?" -- or in a familiar and sociable way -- "Yes, isn't it lovely?" If a person is "thinking in poetry" and speaking its language, the sounds -- and the arrangement of these sounds, which is the rhythm -- are more likely to determine what follows: after "The sun is shining this afternoon" may come "The moon will shine tonight/And I shall see my darling soon/By sun or candle light"; or "It is shimmering shafts of incalculable densities"; or "Yes, shining! Shine, sun, and warm us with your beams!" None of these is of much practical consequence but has an aesthetic consequence in that it gives pleasure and insight or does not. One is thinking of that kind of consequence when one writes or reads poetry.
Music contributes to "sense" in various ways -- in this Herrick poem, for example the rhyming of laid and maid:
In this little urn is laid
Prudence Baldwin (once my maid)
From whose happy spark here let
Spring the purple violet.
"On Prue His Maid")
Ordinarily one wouldn't say that ashes were "laid" in an urn -- a body might be laid in a grave but hardly in an urn. And ashes aren't laid but put. The illogic of what is said is made "all right" by the rhyme, which gives enough pleasure to allow the reader to enjoy what is being said and to understand it. The happy lightness of Prudence's spirit is what the poem is about. Were you to say, instead, "In this little urn is laid Prudence Baldwin, once my housekeeper" that elusive meaning (along with the emotions it brings) wouldn't be there.
Along with communicating a meaning, music may make whatever is said convincing, by the beauty of the way it is said:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.
Oh, no, it is an ever-fixed mark...
(SHAKESPEARE, Sonnet 116)
It's possible that only a very few people have ever experienced the kind of noble unchanging love that Shakespeare refers to in these lines, but there are probably even fewer who don't believe it exists when they read them. Thanks to the music, emotion becomes stronger than reason -- who wouldn't wish that such a feeling existed, or that one had felt it oneself?
Music can not only make an emotional statement convincing; it can also give an emotional content (and a clarity) to a statement that without it is nonsense and has neither.
The sun is ten feet high.
Adding a line that rhymes with it can give feeling and meaning to this nonsensical statement:
The sun is ten feet high
Suzanne walks by.
Evidently, the speaker is in love. Suzanne's presence dazzles him like the sun, it makes the sun feel that close to him. The lines have meaning -- the reader has an experience -- a sort of miracle has taken place, all because of the sound equivalence of high and by; without it, not much would happen:
The sun is ten feet high
Suzanne walks past.
This is just a senseless statement followed by an irrelevant one. An equivalent in ordinary language to such a musical failing in poetry language might be a subject and verb that aren't in agreement; so that one can't "make sense" of what is said, as one can't here with high and past but can with high and by.
The language of poetry doesn't stay the same for poet after poet. Every time music creates (or contributes to) meaning, the way it does so becomes part of what other poets can do. And poets not only use what other poets have discovered but change it. It's a language that doesn't (can't) hold still. Each poet shows other poets how to write and how not to, as if saying,"Use me but don't sound like me; use me to make something else" Every speaker of this language, by speaking it differently, changes the language that later poets will be able to speak. Other poets' poetry, for poets, then, is a dictionary, a grammar, and a vocabulary, a place to begin. A passage of Marlowe's dramatic verse, like this one in which Tamburlaine is praising Zenocrate may please everyone, but for poets it may also be immediately seen to be useful -- it shows a way to write sensuous, stately, yet natural-sounding lines of blank verse.
Zenocrate lovelier than the love of Jove,
Brighter than is the silver Rhodope,
Fairer than whitest snow on Scythian hills
Thy person is more worth to Tamburlaine
Than the possession of the Persian crown...
(Tamburlaine the Great, part I)
Or this passage of Milton, or this much later one of William Carlos Williams, each of which shows other ways to write:
Not that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpin gath'ring flow'rs
Herself a fairer flow'r by gloomie Dis
I have eaten
that were in
Along with its emphasis on music, poetry language is also notable for its predilection for certain rhetorical forms such as comparison, personification, apostrophe (talking to something or someone who isn't there), and for its inclinations toward the imaginary, the wished-for, the objectively untrue. Music either simply comes with these predilections or is a main factor in inspiring them. The sensuousness of music arouses feelings, memories, sensations, and its order and formality promise a way to possibly make sense of them.
The ordinary language is of course where the poetry language comes from. It has the words, the usages, the sounds that the poetry language takes up and makes its own. It constitutes, along with thoughts and feelings, what may be called the raw materials of poetry. If you think of each word as a note, this ordinary language is like an enormous keyboard and wherever it is, the poet has a medium, just as the painter has, wherever there are paints, the sculptor wherever there is wood or stone. On the poetic keyboard, each note (each word) refers to or stands for something that is not physically present and that is not itself. This is easiest to see in regard to nouns. Here, on this page, is the word horse and over there, beside that tree, is a horse. The word horse can make a reader see, smell, touch, even feel as if riding on a horse. Since it isn't really a horse, it can't really be ridden or engaged to pull a cart; but it has advantages for the writer that its real-life counterpart lacks. It's lighter and infinitely more transportable; it can be taken anywhere and put with anything -- the horse is in the harbor; the silence was breathing like a horse.
Words can be handled this way and the material world they represent can't be. As space yields to nouns, time may yield to verbs and their agile tenses: "The Russian army marched through Poland" is said in an instant; as is "I have loved you for ten thousand years." Wishes, spoken or on a page, are as physically real as facts: Would that it were evening! The future is easy to manage: "Once out of nature I shall never take/My bodily form from any natural thing" (Yeats, "Sailing to Byzantium"). With pronouns, identity can be altered: I am you. Adjectives are there to make possible every sort of modification hardly existent outside: an eighteenth-century sleep, mild sandals. Language also has grammatical and syntactical rules and structures that organize and clarify the world and experience: "If Napoleon hadn't lived, we wouldn't be here tonight." Another great gift of language is the enormous quantity of its words, and their variety -- colloquial words, scientific words, slang, archaic words, etc. It's a huge medium, so much larger than any possible palette or keyboard that comparison seems foolish.
Given such a medium, it is hard to imagine not wanting to play with it, to experiment to see what might be said with it, to take its powers, as it were, into one's own hands. Bringing out its music is the first step in doing this. The language, musically inert but filled with promise, is there waiting. The poet comes at it somewhat like a translator, as Valéry said, a "peculiar kind of translator, who translates ordinary language, modified by emotion, into the language of the gods." I would call it the language of poetry, which may or may not help us to speak to the gods but does enable us to say great things to one another.
Poetry can do this because of one extraordinary characteristic of language, which is that it is without any impediment to saying things that are not true. Language has no truth- or reality-check. You can say anything. The only things it's strict about are grammar and spelling, and, in speech, pronunciation. You can say "Russia is on my lap" but not "Russia me lap am on." The conventional use of language does have restrictions: what we say must be clear (understandable) and true (verifiable) or, at least, familiar. A wild statement if it is sufficiently familiar will be allowed; "Life is a dream" but not "Life is two dreams." Poetry can say either one. Language is like a car able to go two hundred miles an hour but which is restricted by the traffic laws of prose to a reasonable speed. Poets are fond of accelerating: "In the dark backward and abysm of time" (Shakespeare); "They hurl with savage force their stick and stone/And no one cares and still the strife goes on" (John Clare); "I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags" (Whitman).
Poets looking at language are enticed by it and want to use it, at least on those lucky days when the connection seems to be there between their feeling for the language and their power to do something with it. That connection is emotional and musical.
Copyright © 1998 by Kenneth Koch
The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry
Making Your Own Days
The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry
Full of fresh and exciting insights, Making Your Own Days illuminates the somewhat mysterious subject of poetry for those who read it and for those who write it—as well as for those who would like to read and write it better. By treating poetry not as a special use of language but as a distinct language—unlike the one used in prose and conversation—Koch clarifies the nature of poetic inspiration, how poems are written and revised, and what happens to the heart and mind while reading a poem.
Koch also provides a rich anthology of more than ninety works from poets past and present. Lyric poems, excerpts from long poems and poetic plays, poems in English, and poems in translation from Homer and Sappho to Lorca, Snyder, and Ashbery; each selection is accompanied by an explanatory note designed to complement and clarify the text and to put pleasure back into the experience of poetry.