The Language of Poetry


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 a remark of Paul Valéry’s. Thinking about what could be expressed in poetry but not elsewhere, 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 well, 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 or other 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.

A poet learns the language of poetry, works in it, is always being inspired by it. It’s a language that it gives pleasure to use. 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.

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…

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