Saying the Ineffable: Poetry and the Language of Silence
“The survival of poetry depends on the failure of language.”
By Maria Popova
Language is not the content of thought but the vessel into which we pour the ambivalences and contradictions of our thinking, afloat on the current of feeling and time. When the vessel becomes too small to hold what we pour into it, language spills into poetry.
In this respect, poetry serves the same function as prayer: to give shape and voice to our unspoken and often unspeakable hopes, fears, and inner tremblings — the tenderest substance of our lives, to be held between the palms and passed from hand to compassionate hand. Poetry thus becomes an instrument of self-transcendence — an instrument that, in Adrienne Rich’s abiding words, “can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire.”
That function of poetry as the language of the unsaid is what the Canadian poet and Native American culture scholar Robert Bringhurst explores in the final pages of his altogether fascinating book The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology (public library).
A century after William James placed the ineffable atop his list of the four features of transcendence, Bringhurst reflects on the differences between English and the native language of the Haida people of British Columbia, and writes:
It is not necessary that the same things should be ineffable in all languages. It is only necessary that in each language plenty of things should be so: unsayable, or, at the very least, unsaid.
It seems to me that a kind of speechlessness — the inability to say a quite significant number of things — is actually built into every language. But language itself is a self-transcending mechanism. It tries, and lets us try, to say what it can’t. The survival of poetry depends on the failure of language. The reason language exists, it seems to me, is that poetry — the resonance of being — needs it. If you live in a place that hasn’t been pillaged and ruined, the silence of language’s failure, and of poetry’s success, is present and vivid almost everywhere you listen, almost everywhere you look.
Complement with Muriel Rukeyser on what poetry does for us, David Whyte on the power of poetry and silence as a portal to presence, and this wonderful story of how poetry saves lives, then savor three life-giving poems: “Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower” by Rainer Maria Rilke, “Singularity” by Marie Howe, and “Antidotes to Fear of Death” by Rebecca Elson.
Published February 18, 2023