Making Sense in Spite of Language

I once read about how the insight that wheels limit speed became a revolutionary concept in the world of terrestrial travel. Thus today we have bullet trains without wheels that ride on magnetically created cushions of air, almost completely eliminating the resistance of friction. The greatest invention in travel, thus seems to have become its greatest limitation.

Sometimes I think that language is not quite unlike wheels. For ages, we have looked at language as the most effective way to communicate. Yet language, as all of us know, fails us consistently. Each word in every language has acquired so many nuances, overtones and subtleties that today, using it for a specific purpose without connoting anything else takes immense linguistic and syntactic skills. Add to that the fact that each reader paints her personal shades and angles into words until they arrive at our doorsteps dragging their cumbersome baggage like  tourists trudging into remote villages with their curiously large, practically useless backpacks.

It is indeed fascinating how poets have over the years, tricked the English language into communicating complex emotions . Some of them, like Gerald Manley Hopkins would begin by upsetting conventional syntax to wake people up to unfamiliar realities.

Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivellèd snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.
- The Wreck of Deutschland

Later poets would make Hopkins’s attempts at subverting language look tame. T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, e e cummings and Paul Celan among others went on to use language in strangely unique ways - drawing out precisely defined provinces of meaning. It seems they would slice, polish and craft language until unintended shards of meanings would no longer ricochet off the surface of their words. Many of the avant garde poets too would get into such experiments - though some would perhaps remembered for their experiments rather than for their poems. However, they remind us of the constant struggle of the poet - like a mariner in the heart of the typhoon, constantly innovating, changing directions and shifting bearings - barely managing to stay afloat in a raging ocean of meanings.

Recently, reading through Language For a New Century (Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond), I was delighted to find that the struggle continues unabated. Whether it be the triangular paragraphs of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra,

There’s a mountain in my mind,
I must be true to it.
There’s a mountain in
My mind and I
Must read it
Line by
Line

the stereoscopic patterns of Monica Youn,

3
A piece of cellophane
stretched taut across
her back: dragonflies were
spawning

3
An inch thick sheet of
iron; the moment
you deduce the blowtorch
behind it.

or an entire poem that consists of three blank pages with just three minuscule asterisks in each page (Notations on the Prospects for Peace, Ricardo M. De Ungria) where the footnotes that explain the asterisks become the core of the poem - are indications of how the experiences of these poets forcibly change the very appearance of language itself - making it spacious enough to accommodate experiences that are even more unexpected.

Like trains that run on magnetic levitation which could replace wheels, we havent yet found an alternative for language. Until then, we will carry the curse of Babel within us. Yet the best part of being a poet is also embedded in this struggle. Isn’t there great joy in subverting the common to connote the uncommon, in  using familiar pathways to get to unfamiliar realms and in speaking gibberish to make deeper sense?


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