What so wild as words are?

July 16, 2010

Light, air, cloud – photograph by Liz Mathews

‘…it is not so necessary to understand Greek as to understand poetry. It is necessary to take that dangerous leap through the air without the support of words which Shakespeare also asks of us. For words, when opposed to such a blast of meaning, must give out, must be blown astray, and only by collecting in companies convey the meaning which each one is separately too weak to express. Connecting them in a rapid flight of mind we know instantly and instinctively what they mean, but could not decant that meaning afresh into any other words. There is an ambiguity which is the mark of the highest poetry; we cannot know exactly what it means…. The meaning is just on the far side of language.’

On not knowing Greek, Virginia Woolf, (The Common Reader)

This description of reading – the rapid flight of mind, the dangerous leap through the air – seems to me the perfect definition of why great poetry works as it does, for the enthusiast. It’s also an evocation of what it describes; the exhilaration of that unsupported leap of faith, beyond meaning, to the place where the words in their companies gather together to give expression to the unsayable. This surrender to instinctive reading, far from being anathema to the writer, is a necessity for her as a poetry reader. It is the acknowledgement that in such writing there is an element beyond, something that can’t be analysed and given an academic gloss; a mystery that can be recognised but not explained.

The danger, of course, is that the leap may fail, that we will fall flat – and sometimes we do fall in flames. But it’s a risk worth taking; one that Woolf frequently asks of her readers. Even when a writer seems to have completely failed to write without individual words, to blast them into their companies, the attempt is exciting. Not even Shakespeare (nor Woolf) could always achieve it, but the wish to write that undecantable language is always evident, an ambition that demands much from the reader, but rewards us with flight, sometimes.

(At its simplest, it’s a willingness to glide which can work so well for the contemporary audience of Shakespeare. The unfamiliarity of some parts of the language – among passages which are known by heart to many – is rarely a problem in performance; the staging carries the audience beyond merely getting the gist of the sense, to the deeper apprehension of that instinctive understanding. This is a way to read the dramatic lyric, too, as the mind soars over the words.)

For writers who are not necessarily hoping to write ‘the highest poetry’, but do seek to use words sometimes in some of the ways Woolf describes, there is a paradox. So much can be learned from reading like this, from thinking deeply about the ways of language and the techniques of working with it. But then, there is that other, mysterious element; the thing that can’t be learnt at writing school, can’t be defined, coerced, bought, sold or even named – only hoped-for, awaited, recognised.

(‘What so wild as words are?’ Robert Browning, A Woman’s Last Word.)

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