Love of Words
Over the years I have developed friendships with a few potters. One thing I have noticed about them is how much they love clay. They love to get their hands on the clay as it is spinning on the wheel. There is a look of concentration and happiness, their faces light up, as they turn an amorphous lump into a cup or vase.
I know some gardeners who have the same relationship to their gardens. These friends who are gardeners are only really happy when working in the soil, planting, weeding, cultivating.
I see poets as having a similar relationship to words. Poets take the amorphous cacophony of words and shape those words into significant forms. Poets are lovers of words.
Philosophers also love words; but I think there is a difference. For philosophers the focus is on meaning; and by meaning I mean definition. Philosophers analyze meanings of words, linking them to other words on the basis of their conceptual content, distinguishing them from other words based on analysis and logical criteria.
The focus of the poet differs. For the poet the sensual surface of words is central. It is not that meaning is ignored, but other factors come to the foreground for the poet. For example, poets will link words by rhyme, assonance, alliteration, metaphor and simile, and other sensual similarities. The philosopher, in contrast, does not consider these kinds of connections.
I recently discovered Wilfred Owen, the W.W. I British poet. I find his poetry remarkable. He developed a type of rhyme, which some refer to as ‘pararhyme’. In this type of rhyme Owen links endwords for the lines of his poems such as moan/mourn, years/yours, wild/world, hair/hour/here, etc. These examples are taken from his poem ‘Strange Meeting’. The idea is the consonants remain the same while the vowel shifts. The effect is remarkable and alluring to the ear. I see this as an example of what I refer to as ‘love of words’ and a focus on the sensual surface of words. This kind of linking, or weaving, of words, this shaping of words in accordance with their sonic surface, is what attracts poets and what we find attractive when we read a poem. I have the same feeling when I read Emily Dickinson and notice how she will link certain words together based on subtle sonic similarities.
For the poet words are attractive as objects in the way that flowers are attractive as objects. The botanist will classify flowering plants according to physiological distinctions. But the gardener does not need to know these distinctions; the focus of the gardener is on their display, the sensual surface that the gardening will result in.
In a similar way poets focus on the sensual surface of words to create what we might think of as a garden of words where each word is a blossom in the garden. This is what makes poetry attractive to people.
By ‘sensual surface’ I don’t mean ‘shallow’. The sensual surface of a garden, the sensual surface of a poem, instantiates and offers to us beauty. It is the same kind of beauty that I observe in a sunset or in a landscape. The sensual surface of a poem functions as a kind of luminous gate to the realm of beauty.
Beauty is difficult to define and I won’t try to do so here. When we are in the presence of the beautiful we feel uplifted and this feeling of exaltation, which may be mild or intense, is unmistakable. This feeling makes poetry worthwhile and attractive across the centuries, across cultures.
In Ennead 1.6, which is devoted to a discussion of beauty, Plotinus writes,
Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight; but there is a beauty for the hearing too, as in certain combinations of words and in all kinds of music, for melodies and cadences are beautiful; and minds that lift themselves above the realm of sense to a higher order are aware of beauty in the conduct of life, in actions, in character, in the pursuits of the intellect; and there is the beauty of the virtues.
(Plotinus: The Enneads, Stephen MacKenna translation, Larson publications, 1992, page 64.)
For Plotinus beauty exists in the world as an emanation of the One; that ultimate reality that transcends being and out of which all things come, upon which all things depend. Beauty is the immaterial making itself known in the material. Beauty is the sign (like an oracular pronouncement) that there is more to existence than the fleeting and ephemeral. As Plotinus says,
We hold that all the loveliness of this world comes by communion in Ideal-Form.
(Ibid, page 65.)
One way of looking at this is that from a strictly logical point of view, beauty is not necessary in the material world. I mean to say that there is a logically possible world in which beauty does not exist, yet all the parts of the world would still follow the laws of material existence. In a sense, beauty is an add-on to the world. I don’t mean this literally; rather I am offering this as a thought experiment. The idea here is that beauty comes to us from another, non-material, dimension.
In this way the sensual surface of a poem is linked to the ultimate; what Plotinus will refer to as the Good, the Beautiful, and the One. Plotinus will say that this ultimate reality is, in itself, ineffable; that is to say it is beyond any names and beyond any forms. This is because the ultimate is partless. Words function as names for parts and will, therefore, always be somewhat off the mark.
From the perspective of the emmanationism of Plotinus, some words are closer to the ultimate than others. We can say that the Good, the One, and the Beautiful are ‘next to’ the ultimate; though they are not the ultimate itself, they occupy a position that is near the ultimate. As long as we comprehend that they are not the ultimate itself, but are next to it, such usage does not generate difficulties.
The beauty of a poem speaks to us of the ultimate beauty of the One because the beauty of a poem depends upon and participates in the beauty that the One is. And if we follow beauty to its source, we find ourselves in the presence of the Divine. I believe that this is why poets in the past had a kind of exalted status; because the shaping of words into patterns of beauty can open the gate to this eternal presence. Such beauty assists us in realizing that there exists a dimension to our existence that we have forgotten about. Distracted by the concerns of the day, the need to earn a living, the demands of other people, the anxieties we have, both personal and social, we forget about the source and the presence of this dimension. Beauty reminds us that this dimension is still there. Beauty beckons us to enter into this dimension.
“. . . The Good, which lies beyond, is the Fountain at once and Principle of Beauty: the Primal Good and the Primal Beauty have the one dwelling-place and, thus, always, Beauty’s seat is There.”
(Ibid, page 72.)