On Language? In Language? Of Language? Through Language?

"I feel more connected to language right now than I ever have, perhaps because it feels like a lifeline to the many things I love that I feel are being erased around me."

A poet friend of mine wrote that to me this morning. It resonated with me, in part, due to my love of language and its richness of possibilities.


We'd been talking about Paul Celan, whose work and thinking about poetry has profoundly influenced my own approach, and I'd just sent her the text of Celan's speech upon receiving the literary prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen (as translated by Rosemarie Waldrop in her slim volume of Celan's collected prose) after she'd posted a photo excerpt of Tess Gallagher's essay "The Poem As Time Machine" as found in Claims for Poetry, edited by Donald Hall.

I haven't read the full Gallagher essay yet, but the section pictured was quoting Octavia Paz, and talking about the manner in which a poem is a means of approach. And aren't all poems means of approach? I can't say whether they function this way more than other instances of language, but I know the poems I read and the poems I write make that motion towards something, and towards someone, with that someone always being the reader.

Here's Celan from the speech I mentioned above:

A poem, being an instance of language, hence essentially dialogue, may be a letter in a bottle thrown out to sea with the -- surely not always strong -- hope that it may somehow wash up somewhere, perhaps on a shoreline of the heart. In this way, too, poems are en route: they are headed toward.

Toward what? Toward something open, inhabitable, an approachable you, perhaps, an approachable reality.

Such realities are, I think, at stake in a poem.

I've met a number of people who tell me they don't read poetry because it's too confusing, that they feel like poems are puzzles to be solved or riddles to be unraveled. And I understand that. I've read some of those poems, too, and it's frustrating to feel as though one has encountered a massive smooth granite wall of language with no hand- or footholds, no way in or up or through it. But for many of us, there is something sustaining about the balance of powerful imagery and precise diction, something vital and real about the tension inherent in every poem.

Today, when I share my friend's worry about erasure of meaningful things, I hold close to language as a means of transmission and preservation, and I think of Celan, whose childhood and memories were destroyed by the Nazis, and who chose to write in German as an act of defiance against his oppressors. I, too, think that such realities are at stake in a poem.