Thursday, February 10, 2011

How Words Fail


How Words Fail by Cathy Park Hong

Blevins says that the poetic “sentence” is a unit for “talk” and that “talk” is the essence of the poet’s authentic being. I, however, cannot shake the belief that English is “an artificial, stiffish thing” and was grateful to discover Stein and a whole lineage of poets, in particular the Language poets, such as Lyn Hejinian and Ron Silliman, who pretty much thought the same. Their poetry emphasizes the materiality of language rather than language as transparent conduit for soulmaking. They asserted that the “I” in the poem is really a fabrication of the self rather than a direct mirror of the author’s psyche. As Hejinian once wrote, “One is not oneself, one is several, incomplete, and subject to dispersal.” From these ideas, the Language poets stylistically formed their own versions of what poet Ron Silliman dubbed the “new sentence”: poetic lines that are syntactically fractured, purposefully atonal, averse to the first person.

Ultimately, though, I was more drawn to poets who severed syntax out of a sense of cultural or political displacement rather than for the sake of experimentation. History and circumstance alienated these poets from their own language, placed them in the margins of their cultures, where they were witness to language’s limits in articulating a cohesive voice. Through deliberate inarticulation, they managed to strain out a charged music from syntactic chaff, a music borne out of negation. The poet I have most in mind is Paul Celan.

Celan’s relationship with the German language was tortured and ambivalent. Son of Jewish parents, he lived in Romania and grew up speaking German and Yiddish, Hebrew, Romanian, and Russian. When the German forces conquered Romania, they deported Celan’s parents to the concentration camps. Because his German mother tongue was also the language of his parents’ murderers, Celan wrestled with it in his poetry, a tension evident in the fissures, elisions, and neologisms of his poems. From these ruptures, Celan sutured a composition that radiates a haunting and terrifying music. To wit:
No one kneads us again out of earth and clay,
no one incants our dust.
No one.

Blessed art thou, No one.
In thy sight would
we bloom.
In thy

A Nothing
We were, are now, and ever
shall be, blooming:
the Nothing-, the

Our pistil soul-bright
Our stamen heaven-waste,
Our corolla red
From the purpleword we sang
Over, O over
The thorn.

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