My Theory of Language
Poetry is both incarnation and metamorphosis. It begins in the beginning with absence. Darkness on the face of the deep, then a flash of light—an unfolding into being, or covalence and dividing cells. As Ovid’s Metamorphoses put it (in Charles Martin’s translation):
Now when the god (whichever one it was)
had given Chaos form, dividing it
in parts which he arranged, he molded earth
into the shape of an enormous globe. . . .
Which god was it, anyway? Ovid’s characteristic whimsy is a useful response to what appears unknowable—it started somewhere, somehow. In moments of embodiment, receiving signals from our telltale senses, we begin using words. The poem bodies forth. “And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” says the Gospel of John, which equates the beginning with the word. The preacher-poet depicted in the first chapter of the gospel, John the Baptist, “was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.” So the word is incarnation with all its ambiguity, its witnesses, mysteries of interpretation and understanding.
All right, then. But where does “the word” begin?
Let me tell you my theory of language, which is probably close to Freud’s theory of language too:
In the beginning was the womb, a warm sea. That was our being, our unity, our oneness, an Eden without other animals requiring names, and a darkness upon the face of the deep. Plugged in to the Mother Ship, we were, if lucky, nourished and perfectly loved. We were creatures of an amniotic sea who would ever after yearn for the other, larger sea, but as yet we knew nothing of desire, nothing of language except those coos from the other side, those musical phrases being sung to us, those other skins rubbing outside our walls of skin. As our fins became hands and feet, we dwelt incarnate, unthinking, blissed out.
Then something happened. Some universal fault line shivered and the earth moved and the sea shuddered and our world broke open. Everything was strain and struggle. Someone was screaming, and it might have been us or it might have been Mother. In rapid succession our bellies were severed from Mother, our bottoms were slapped, our throats were cleared and we began to scream. It was cold. Something we would later call air became very important to us—we drank great gulps of it like eaters of wind, farting and burping the residue. We discovered wetness and were not sure it was good. There was a lot of blood and the moods of the air were anxiously happy.
Nothing could solve our problems but a breast, and (again if we were lucky) the breast soon came, and fingers squeezing milk into our madly sucking mouths. The universal good of nipple and skin. The Mother Ship, if indeed this was Mother, the imprint of skin, the smell and taste of survival, which we took greedily into our mouths and would later call love.
We had fingers and toes and various ways of evacuating bowels and bladder, and such malleable skulls and hair or no hair and eyes that had not yet discovered they were meant for seeing. There were other sounds now, sharper and colder sounds, but we had not felt terror and only made sounds when we wanted the breast.
When the breast went away we screamed. Or we slept, sated and warm. Then we woke and screamed and the breast came back and we made sounds like pigeons on a window sill, though of course we had no idea of pigeons yet. We only knew absence and touch, absence and touch, cold and warm, not-skin and skin. And skin was better than not-skin.
Our sounds were a chaos, a caterwaul. They were rarely cute, but the faces still smiled on us at least occasionally, and we began to recognize them. The breasts had a face too, the best face of all (if we were lucky) filled with a look we could never possibly understand, a look that made it possible for us to find nourishment and begin to use our fingers and toes.
When that face and those breasts went away, language was born. It might have been a syllable such as Ma! Notice the smacking of lips when you say it. Some amount of time elapses, though, before the face with the breasts has been trained to respond to our language. Signification comes with significance.
In the beginning was the word, and the word might have been Ma! It might have been Gah! or Bah! Or Ba-ba! But it was a word and it got results. Syllables came when the breast was removed and the mouth was not otherwise occupied. Our first delight in syllables had nothing to do with meaning, only with sound and oral pleasure and necessity.
Language was born in absence. It is a symptom of estrangement, and it becomes a key part of our impossible journey back to the womb, the remembered oneness, the Eden we have lost. And no matter what language we speak, we believe for a time in the magic of words, their ability to conjure and incarnate. People who do not lose that belief might well become poets.
The Laurel Tree
Learning a new language, one often has word-discoveries, epiphanies of origin. Greek, for example, gives one the pleasant sensation of touching original things in words. The Gospel of John is full of fundamentals, like λόγος and έρημος—“word” and “desert” (or “wilderness” in the KJV). You spell them out and begin to understand all the “ologies” and “eremites” of English. Many years ago, shopping for herbs and spices in Greece, I found myself examining a packet of bay leaves. Δάφνη, the packet said. Daphne. The word made flesh, the flesh turned into a tree, its leaves potentially flavoring my food. A poet wears the bay, the laurel crown, and the story of the laurel lies at the very source of poetry.
“My mind leads me to speak now,” Ovid says, “of forms changed / into new bodies. . . .” In his version of the story, Daphne was the daughter of Peneus, a river god, and in the beginning she lived quite happily on her own:
Many men sought her, but she spurned her suitors,
loath to have anything to do with men,
and rambled through the wild and trackless groves
untroubled by a thought for love or marriage.
Unfortunately, due to Cupid’s devilry, the god Apollo fell in love with her. Pierced by one of Cupid’s gold-tipped arrows, Apollo, like a drunken frat boy on spring break, had to possess the beautiful girl, and his pursuit could only end disastrously.
. . . the young god had no further interest
in wasting his fine words on her; admonished
by his own passion, he accelerates,
and runs as swiftly as a Gallic hound
chasing a rabbit through an open field. . . .
The switch to present tense in Martin’s translation comes like a change of gears in a god-machine bearing down on the innocent creature of flesh. The simile is important—metaphor is metamorphosis. We might think of the living dog meeting a dead one in the “Proteus” chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses:
The dog yelped running to them, reared up and pawed them, dropping on all fours, again reared up at them with mute bearish fawning. Unheeded he kept by them as they came up towards the drier sand, a rag of wolf’s tongue redpanting from his jaws. His speckled body ambled ahead of them and then loped off at a calf’s gallop. The carcass lay on his path. He stopped, sniffed, stalked round it, brother, nosing closer, went round it, sniffing rapidly like a dog all over the dead dog’s bedraggled fell. Dogskull, dogsniff, eyes on the ground, moves to one great goal. Ah, poor dogsbody! Here lies poor dogsbody’s body.
Joyce, who had Ovid very much in mind, will later make a verbal play on “dog” and “God,” who “becomes man becomes fish becomes barnacle goose becomes featherbed mountain.” Metaphor is metamorphosis. The dog is a wolf and a bear and a cow as it sorts out just what it means to be dead or alive, and even God, whatever that word signifies, must have many forms.
Metamorphosis is, of course, incarnation. We have never been one thing, from our development in the womb to our recycled cells throughout life and our many deaths.
The many-shaped god pursuing Daphne did not yet know that she too could be changed. Typical male, he did not see her as a living, separate being, but as the manifestation of his own desire. Daphne was desperate to save herself in more ways than one. She wanted not just to avoid being raped, but also to preserve her autonomy, her very nature. So she cried out, “Help me, dear father! If your waters hold / divinity, transform me and destroy / that beauty by which I have too well pleased!”
The myth’s gendered nature is devastatingly precise. How many women have found themselves in Daphne’s place, trying to escape the blind, possessive lust of an Apollo?
In describing her transformation, Martin’s translation again switches from past to present tense, from storytelling to immediate experience:
Her prayer was scarcely finished when she feels
a torpor take possession of her limbs—
her supple trunk is girdled with a thin
layer of fine bark over her smooth skin;
her hair turns into foliage, her arms
grow into branches, sluggish roots adhere
to feet that were so recently so swift,
her head becomes the summit of a tree;
all that remains of her is a warm glow.
Is this Daphne’s nature in another form? Is her escape a triumph or a catastrophe? When the rivers gather they are “uncertain whether to congratulate, / or to commiserate with Daphne’s father. . . .” The change is a terrible necessity, and the god refuses to accept defeat:
“Although you cannot be my bride,” he says,
“you will assuredly be my own tree,
O Laurel, and will always find yourself
girding my locks, my lyre, and my quiver too. . . .”
The laurel crown will be bestowed upon kings, generals and poets, signifying victory in competition, an Apollonian measure even among the arts. Ovid tells us that Daphne assents to this, but the residue of anguish lingers. Anyone who has seen Bernini’s miraculous statue of Apollo and Daphne in Rome will understand how the anguish lingers.
Remember Daphne when you cook your spaghetti sauce and write your poems. Remember the passion, struggle and change.
The Given Fire
Metamorphosis is incarnation. Incarnation is metamorphosis. So many stories use birth as the essence and metaphor of creation. Here is the “Theogony” of Apollodorus, for example: “Ouranos was the first ruler of the universe. He married Ge, and fathered as his first children the beings known as the Hundred-Handers, Briareus, Cottos, and Gyes, who were unsurpassable in size and strength, for each had a hundred hands and fifty heads” (Robin Hard translation). Given the permutations of life forms on our planet, this hardly seems extreme.
As any poet knows, our bodies are the instruments on which we play our words.
When Robert Frost imagines climbing a birch tree toward heaven, he next imagines the birch bending and putting him back on earth, which is “the right place for love” because on earth we have bodies to express it with. And we have both trouble and poetry because of these bodies.
Poetry is not made of ideals, but of those airy substances, words. Even in tidy measures, it has a rebellious heart. In “Plato, or Why” the great Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote,
For unclear reasons
under unknown circumstances
Ideal Being ceased to be satisfied.
It could have gone on forever,
hewn from darkness, forged from light,
in its sleepy gardens above the world.
Why on earth did it start seeking thrills
in the bad company of matter?
…………………(Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranezak, trans.)
There’s a bit of anarchy, a romance of bodily imperfection, even in the most exacting writing.
There are poems about the desire for escape from bodily suffering—Keats, Yeats and Frost leap to mind—but generally they return to the quotidian. Body is instrument, incarnation is subject. Mary Shelley suggested that we are all in some sense Frankenstein’s monster—creatures forged by some Promethean figure from the parts (or DNA) of other creatures, learning to move, learning language. That’s why we love Caliban who wakes and cries to dream again—we recognize him in ourselves. We make things out of necessity, but also because we are made things ourselves, monsters who learn to talk and write. Shelley’s novel reminds us that Prometheus created us as well. According to Apollodorus, “After he had fashioned men from water and earth, Prometheus also gave them fire, which he had hidden in a fennel stalk in secret from Zeus.”
I love that detail of the fennel stalk as much as I love creation’s Hundred-Handers. Poets are Darwins of the fantastic—observing the constantly changing world, recording data. But poets are also shapers—the Greek word for poetry means “construction” or “making.” Prometheus made us of mud and gave us fire. We need to be burned by that fire in order to know it and, in our own Promethean gesture, give it to others. The metamorphosis cannot be only a subject of poetry. It must also be a goal. Whether as readers or writers, we want to be changed, or at least moved, by the poem. Both readers and writers want to burn.
Once, strolling through the town of Stromness in Orkney—the islands off the north coast of Scotland—I saw the marvelous poet George Mackay Brown out for his evening walk. I was too shy to introduce myself and tell him how much I admired his work. But as we passed each other in the cobbled street, he looked my way and smiled—his long-jawed face and gray hair giving him a mythical appearance. He could have been a fisherman or a crewman for Erik the Red. Mackay Brown’s poetry is infused with Orkney’s Viking accents and its Scottish dialect. Stromness was once called Hamnavoe, and his poem of that name, resurrecting the word in memory, is as much a statement of poetics as anything he wrote. “Hamnavoe” is a poem of appreciation for his father, who delivered letters. It follows the father on his postal route, taking note of the community and its history as he passes. It also honors a man’s work, which like a poet’s carries words from one person to others. The poem ends as follows:
The kirk, in a gale of psalms, went heaving through
A tumult of roofs, freighted for heaven. And lovers
Unblessed by steeples lay under
The buttered bannock of the moon.
He quenched his lantern, leaving the last door.
Because of his gay poverty that kept
My seapink innocence
From the worm and the black wind;
And because, under equality’s sun,
All things wear now to a common soiling,
In the fire of images
Gladly I put my hand
To save that day for him.
The fire is the hurtful knowledge that comes of experience, but also the images by which we understand or relive it. This fire burns in a world of vanishings and metamorphoses. The rainwet stones of Hamnavoe will outlast the town’s inhabitants, perhaps even outlast the poems of its greatest writer, yet who can say the day has not been saved?
Also by David Mason (see all)
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- In the Caged Garden - September 21, 2022
- At Home in the Imaginal - February 21, 2021