An essay on poetry and language

Let it Be


All language is ambiguous. Everyday language, as held in common by a group of living speakers, at least has the potential for approaching a consensus of meaning through dialogue: if I walk up to you and say, “Fruit flies like a banana”, you get to ask if I’ve been drinking, or which word is the verb, and I get to ask you to step outside. The dialogue form of classical Greek philosophy was the first of many attempts to get round language’s inability to be trusted on its own. As a direct rejoinder to both the vatic assertions of religious poetry and the suggestively multivalent utterances of such Presocratic philosophers as Heraclitus, the dialogue places an interlocutor within the actual text, bent on the focusing of fuzzy meaning, and allowing the reader to re-enact the disambiguation process for herself. It’s a trick, of course, useful for its purpose, but not the whole story of what language can do: the thing that dialogue rushes away from, in pursuit of a meaning which can only be approached asymptotically, is the original, unqualified statement of language. Which is poetry.


Poetry is what happens when a reader can no longer refer a piece of language back to a speaker to unpack its ambiguities. Language in such a condition is left alone with the reader’s knowledge of her own wider linguistic environment, which may be very different from that posited for the person who made the piece of language in the first place. When Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his line “As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing”, the colloquial use of ‘pants’ for ‘pantaloons’ was still some years in the future, but the modern reader can be forgiven if the ecologically-correct image of our planet overheating in tight underwear flashes upon her inward eye. One consequence of this is that poetry is equally likely to emerge from found language as from a poet’s composed deliberations. The American artist and poet Kenneth Goldsmith’s book Soliloquy (Granary Books, 2001) is an unedited 500-page transcript of every word Goldsmith spoke during one week in 1996. Just as documentary photography has vastly expanded our knowledge of the range of aspects in which the human body can present itself, Goldsmith’s work is a startling act of recovery of the lost weirdness of the everyday:

I got. I got every I get all my attitude from him too, my outlook on life. Yeah. I wish I had a sunnier temperament. I’m a little dark, you know. Slightly dark. I don’t know where I would get that from. Yeah. I tell you, aw, I’m gawna sit out here all day and watch the goddamned fisherman. Why not? I hate the goddamned birds. Right. Yeah. Aw goddamned birds, aw, the goddamned birds you see the goddamned birds out there Phil? I hate that goddamned guy out there, yeah. Aw, he’s watching the rich people. I romanticize him. I romanticize him. Aw, so do I. I have a million friends. Uh, looks like 5 to me. I love goddamned people too. And animals. We both share a warmth for Maria, right? How is she doing? You hear from her? What is she she gonna make it? Get the goddamned car over here, will ya? Ma did. Get the hell out of here. I’ve had enough of you too buddy, pal. Aw, I had enough of you, enough socializing, enough animals. Goddamned sea! I hate it!

Goldsmith’s work – which is funnier and more self-exposing than any brief quotation can demonstrate – gives the reader the exhilarating experience of everyday speech as an ever-renewing pool of linguistic variation, strange beyond artifice, permanently there to be drawn on by an art of selection and arrangement.


Artefacts of language are the most human objects in the world, other than those objects which are human beings. Indelibly marked by human consciousness, they are nevertheless clearly not alive. To interact with such objects on their own terms is to confront our own mortality in a way not open to us by other means, and can be a significant test of our humanity. It’s reasonable to expect a human being to accept other humans for what they are: not rejecting or doing violence to their physical person, not imagining a narrative for them then restricting our sense of their potential to the limits thus placed upon them. The practice of accepting texts for what they are, in the fullness of their potential for branching off into realms of meaning unforeseen by any author, is analogous to the practice of human tolerance, and might be considered a useful rehearsal for it.


The writer who accepts this as a fact of life must accept the consequences. Her writing will no longer feel like an act of communication: she may even come to fear the act of writing, dreading the moment when, Midas-like, her living thought freezes into dead matter on the page. If it’s unlikely that such a writer could experience her work as in any simple sense expressive or confessional, there are nevertheless levels on which it can still be a profound act of reconciliation with our status as material beings in a material universe, animate only for the time being.


Some of W.S. Graham’s most moving poems are addressed to friends who have died. Lines like these from “Dear Bryan Wynter” derive much of their power from the tentativeness of Graham’s hopes for them:

Speaking to you and not
Knowing if you are there
Is not too difficult.
My words are used to that.
Do you want anything?
Where shall I send something?
Rice-wine, meanders, paintings
By your contemporaries?
Or shall I send a kind
Of news of no time
Leaning against the wall
Outside your old house.

The house and the whole moor
Is flying in the mist.

By sending his words to Bryan Winter in the body of a poem, Graham surrenders them to that same material condition to which Winter has returned. His words cease to be those of a living man, becoming rather the voice of a poem which might talk to the dead. This is a recurring theme in Graham’s work, deployed sometimes to heartbreaking, sometimes to playful effect:

Shut up. Shut up. There’s nobody here.
If you think you hear somebody knocking
On the other side of the words, pay
No attention. It will be only
The great creature that thumps its tail
On silence on the other side.
If you do not even hear that
I’ll give the beast a quick skelp
And through Art you’ll hear it yelp.

(“The Beast in the Space”)

Graham’s elegies express the equanimity of a man who has seen himself disappear in the moment of writing:

on this side
Of the words it’s late. The heavy moth
Bangs on the pane. The whole house
Is sleeping and I remember
I am not here, only the space
I sent the terrible beast across.
Watch. He bites.

(“The Beast in the Space”)

Behind each elegy stands an elegy for the self.


My own book Adjunct: an Undigest began in 1993 as an attempt to gather together those interesting or funny examples of found language to which my reading habits had begun to sensitise me, and which I felt were in danger of passing me by. I bought a large notebook, and devised a system whereby each new entry would be written on a page selected by a random number generator (I didn’t want the book to imply too linear a narrative, and enjoyed the often startling juxtapositions the method produced). During the seven years the notebook took to fill, I expanded the project to include brief notations of events in my life that seemed worth recording: long periods of unemployment, jobs (and loves) won and lost, the ebb and flow of an unhelpful alcohol problem – always recorded on randomly-chosen pages, taking their place among the found and appropriated language. One day the racing-driver James Hunt died, and I noted the fact in Adjunct. The notation sat so strangely on the page that when anyone else I had heard of died, that went into the mix too. The book that resulted is an unpredictable amalgam of the harrowing and the very silly, and I can’t help but feel that by prioritising neither, Adjunct gave me the chance to view a difficult period of my life with greater good humour, and with a clearer eye than I could otherwise have hoped to attain. I’ll end with a passage from Adjunct, which I dedicate to my family’s tolerance.


Clydeside Press on Tuesday, sex on Wednesday, psychiatric assessment on Friday. Subject of re-enactment of trouser advert using chewing gum on a National Express coach. Every worker who’s a worker is wearing one of those fluorescent jobbies. Secondly, Husserl’s phenomenology has never caught my interest and at this moment I can remember nothing of it. Enough said. Now to Heidegger. Your father is a pork chop, and he don’t like you dealing with me. King Hussein of Jordan is dead. Iris Murdoch is dead. No memory of faxing a silhouette of Louis Zukofsky to my work’s FAX number. Lili St. Cyr is dead. Surprise filling: Alan Titchmarsh emerges from his cake hiding place. Lord Denning is dead. The Dag Hammarskiold Postal Convenience Center. Burp turns into a vomit. Charles Bernstein, Leaking Truth. Accidentally impersonate David Bowie. Willie fails breathalyser and gets thrown out of unit. The myth of the eternal woman is symbolised by a type of pump or compressor. They enter into one Mr. Mnason’s to lodge. Mummified myth. Largeyurtesyos. The shape of Arnold’s head (wide, squashed, pointed) was an initial image problem for the Williams children. A contact magazine for wicker workers? Bruise chromatography. Matchbox sized blister. Shadows on Beeb Made Me Chirrup. Sleep results in flaky forehead. Fivefold symmetry on one shoot of Epiphyllum leaf cutting. Linda McCartney is dead. There are two stark choices. Take the bold but difficult stand of consolidating and rationalising the archipelago of national producers, or we can do nothing as out markets are raided, our exports marginalised and we too end up paying any price demanded in a market with no choices left. Dreamed episode of South Park featuring burns victim who hangs out with Starvin Marvin. Trying to trick Steve Punt with the word ‘lettuce’. What do you call a Römertopf in English officially? The Large German has chicken brick. Is this ok? Sounds a bit dubious to me. Rod Hull is dead.

This review first appeared in issue 31 of Northwords magazine. Thanks to Colin Dunning.


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