Words and meaning

“How astonishing it is that language can almost mean, / and frightening that it does not quite,” Jack Gilbert opens his poem “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart.” In a similar vein, Hass’s “Meditation at Legunitas” states, “A word is elegy to what it signifies.” These poems get to the heart of language, and express the old duality of thought: by giving a word to an entity, it is both tethered and made meaningful.

Words are the inevitable byproduct of an analytic mind. Humans are constantly classifying and reclassifying ideas, objects, animals, people, into ten thousand arbitrary categories. A favorite saying of mine is that “Everything is everything,” a tautology that I like, because it gets to the core of the human linguistic machine, and because every time I say it people think I’m being disingenuous. But what I mean by “everything is everything” is that there is a continuity to existence that works beyond, or rather underneath, our capacity to understand it through language. Language by definition compartmentalizes reality, sets this bit apart from that bit, sets up boundaries as to what is and is not a stone, a leaf, a door. Most of the time I think of language as limiting, as defining a thing as the inverse of everything is not.

In this way, “everything is everything” becomes “everything is nothing,” which is another thing I like to say and something that pisses people off. To me, infinity and zero are the same, two ways of looking at the same point on the circle—of numbers, of the universe, whatever. Maybe it’s because I wear an analogue watch, and so my view of time is cyclical, or maybe it’s some brain trauma I had in vitro, but whatever it is that’s how I see the world, because I’m working against the limitations that language sets upon us. I think that’s the role of the poet, or of any artist: to take the over-expansive experience of existing and to boil it down, boil and boil away until there is the ultimate concentrate at the center that is what the poem talks around, at, etc., but never of, because it is ultimately made of language and cannot get to it. A poem is getting as close as possible to the speed of light, to absolute zero, to God, while knowing that it can’t get all the way there, and never will. A poem is doing this and coming back and showing what happened as it happened. Exegesis is hard because a really good poem will be just that, it will be the most basic and best way to say what it’s saying, so attempts to say the same thing differently will fail. A poem is a kernel of existence. It is a description of the kernel. It is.