Adynata or My Name is Raincheck
The main problem with poetry is also the thing that makes poetry possible; poetry doesn’t work. There are no words to describe the human condition, at least no accurate words. If there were, I’m not sure there would be a need for poetry, or religion, philosophy, consumer culture, maybe even sex. Nearly every human thought or action is an attempt at transcendence. Even such non-transcendent activities as eating or breathing are often turned, in the human mind, into vehicles for transcendence (consider eating disorders and breath counting meditation). The idea that humans are mammals bent on transcendence has been best articulated (for my money) by Kenneth Burke in his work, A Rhetoric of Motives. He says:
“So, to say that man is a symbol-using animal is by the same token to say that he is a ‘transcending animal.’ Thus, there is in language itself a motive force calling man to transcend the ‘state of nature’… And in this sense, we can recognize even the cult of commodities…as a mode of transcendence.” (192)
The reason for this is simple and profound: we are separate. We are separate and, more importantly, we are aware of the separation and we would like to be less separate.
We may choose to believe that we will all be together in heaven, or that we are all in touch with the collective unconscious, or that we will all be happy if we drink Zima. Burke goes on to discuss the cult of commodities as an “inferior” mode of transcendence (194), but I would argue that they are all inferior in the sense that they all fail to achieve transcendence over our separateness.
Which brings us quickly back to our problem. Poetry doesn’t work. But the reason why poetry doesn’t work (our awareness of our separate nature) is also the reason why we need poetry. Poetry is a stretching of language. Poetry is the use of language in a fashion that comes as close as possible to transcending the limitations inherent in linguistic communication.
Poetry tries to say more than mere language can say. It is for this reason that other elements come into play when discussing poetry. The concept of silence on the page, the idea of white space, the experience of the shape of a poem, like the experience of the shape of a woman or a Zima bottle, are all a result of the human desire to transcend our separateness.
I would like to propose a hypothesis about the first work of poetry ever created. We can never tell precisely when this occurred or in what form. But let us say that the event took place between two-million and fifty-thousand years ago, on the savannas of Africa where meat was plentiful and proto-human hominids could get enough protein to develop the brains that would make them Homo-Sapiens. Once the physiological changes necessary for language took place, language developed as a way to spread technological knowledge and coordinate with members of the family/tribe and it suited this need so well, that Homo-Sapiens became the dominant species on the planet.
However, the chemical change that made language possible also had a down side; the change gave us the ability to see beauty. By “see” I mean that we could (and still can) impose beauty on what would otherwise be a perfectly innocent collection of atoms. Some might argue that we do not see or impose beauty but that we recognize beauty. Beauty is entirely subjective, so this is not a valid argument.
For an example, I would like to describe a hypothetical example of the first person to ever experience adynata. Let us call him Og. As he walks out of the family cave one morning and the view of the sun rising behind some clouds moves him in a way that he has never experienced before. He thinks that something wonderful has occurred to the sun and the clouds so he runs back in the cave and gets his whole family up to show them what has happened. Og’s family, tired and cranky from being woken early, tell him that nothing has changed. the sun and the clouds look just as they always have. They return to the cave in order to get an extra half-hour’s sleep before the big mastodon hunt that day. Og, however, stands there for a long time looking at the sun and the clouds and trying to figure out what is going on. After a while, the feeling goes away and the sun is just a sun again.
Still, he can’t shake that feeling that they were somehow different for a time. Whenever he tries to tell someone about his experience, they ask him to describe the change. In what way were the sun and the clouds different? Og is skilled at using this new thing called language, but he can’t think of words to describe how the sun looked. He tries to do the best he can.
This is what poetry is for me. It is the best attempt I can make with language to communicate the way I see the world to other people. This is impossible to do. Or rather, it is impossible to completely communicate these non verbal experiences. But we can try. Quality poetry, then, is the result of an ernest attempt to stretch language into a shape it is not designed to take. We do this while at the same time acknowledging that we will only partially succeed. The degree to which we do succeed, however, is a revelation that brings us all a tiny step closer to overcoming the gulf of separation that surrounds each one of us.
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