Borges, in an essay on the Kabbalah in Seven Nights, notes how the concept of the sacred text is dependent upon the divine status of the words themselves. The words are not simply dictated by God (or Allah, or whosoever we might want to name the deity), but is “an attribute of God, like His rage, His pity, or His justice”. Karen Armstrong, expanding upon the theme in an essay accompanying the British Library’s recent exhibition of sacred texts, explains how sacred texts are built around the possibility of the immanence of the deity within the text:
“A hadith qudsi (holy tradition) has God say: ‘When someone recites or reads the Qur’an, that person is, as it were, entering into conversation with Me and I into conversation with him or her’. The Word is still speaking to men and women; the original revelation continues. Whenever a Muslim quotes from the Qur’an or suddenly recalls a Qur’anic phrase, he or she comes directly into the presence of God. When Muslims memorize the Qur’an, it is as though they take the divine Word into their very depths […]”
All poets strive after a similar textual immanence, hoping to recreate the conditions of the originating event – whether that event be an emotional state, a landscape, a vision, or simply an apology taped to a refrigerator door – using words alone, in such a way that they are not simply telling their reader something, but re-enacting it as far as is humanly possible, recognising, of course, the essential futility of the exercise. Borges again, from his short story ‘A Yellow Rose’:
“Then came the revelation. Marino saw the rose as Adam might have seen it in Paradise. And he sensed that it existed in its eternity and not in his words, and that we may make mention or allusion of a thing but never express it at all; and that the tall proud tomes that cast a golden penumbra in an angle of the drawing-room were not – as he had dreamed in his vanity – a mirror of the world, but simply one more thing added to the universe.”
Self-censorship: How many poems have I edited out of my own life? It’s a strange experience to deliberately – or even unconsciously – erase one of your own poems. It’s the equivalent of cutting off a finger or a toe. This is especially true earlier on, when the poet has not yet learned how to separate themselves from their work to a degree commensurate to long-term survival as a writer. Possibly some writers never reach this point of maturity, which explains why so many of them get so snippy when their writing is criticised. I know I had not learned that lesson in my early twenties, when two friends, independently, tore one of my poems to shreds, critically. Believing they were right, utterly – and still believing it, more so than ever – I destroyed every copy I had of the poem in question. A couple of years later, at a poetry reading, it was mentioned – not to my face, I might add – that one of the poems I read allegedly displayed a contempt for the poor. Worried at this misreading – it had certainly never been my intention to give the impression that I hated the poor – I simply stopped reading it in public, although in this instance I did not take the drastic action of destroying every copy. Maybe I am waiting for a time in my life when I feel contempt for the poor in actuality and not just in my poems, and I can read the piece in public again with a clear conscience.
Nietzsche once wrote that to improve one’s style means to improve one’s ideas. He’s absolutely right: language circumscribes what we do, how we think; it defines our capacities as living beings. What we say, moreover, is intimately bound up with how we say it. Think of onomatopoeic words (splash, boom, crack): they are short and sharp, specifically designed to return us to the originating reality behind them – a frog jumping into a pond, a cannon firing from a warship, or a branch breaking in an empty wood. Conversely, words designed to describe or explain philosophical abstractions or states of being which go beyond everyday human experience, tend in themselves to be far more diffuse and elongated, as if the terms had no grounding in factual experience. Transubstantiation, for example, with its portmanteau status and Latinate roots, represents an imposition upon reality. The concept of ‘transubstantiation’ is dependent upon the existence of the word: the signifier and the signified are a unity, equally fictitious, equally alienating.
An irony of poetry is that the emotional states or experiences with which it is so often concerned invariably go beyond, or exist below or behind, language’s capacity for logical explication. A poem, at heart, wants to convey pure being, and words get in the way of this project, imposing their own alien meaning, which is never, finally, what the poet had intended to say. The poet, in fact, never intended to say anything. Every time I set pen to paper, I wish instead that I could compose a piece of music, or paint an abstract: anything to escape the tyranny of logic, of signification. Just this morning, standing on the back step with a pair of muddy workman’s gloves on – I’d been taming the overgrown hops shrub by tying it back against the trellis with string – I was watching the birds come to the feeders in the garden. I stood absolutely still, absolutely silent, but the silence and stillness were only external. Inside, a manic lexicon roared into life, naming everything in site like some demented Adam, wandering a world still damp from the egg – finch, said the lexicon, and blackbird, coal tit, goosegrass, rain-clouds, alleyway. The poem is always interrupting at the moment of its own conception.