The Language of Poetry in Defense of Human Speech
These remarks were delivered at the International Poetry Festival at Struga
on Lake Ohrid in Yugoslavia, August 24, 1979. They were later reprinted
in the American Poetry Review.
1. One's native language looks and sounds strange when one begins to read
it with the eyes and ears of an international audience, particularly an
audience of poets.
2. Instinct tells me that because we are poets we can best exchange our
thoughts about this sacred subject, across the chasm of translation, in
brief propositions bald enough to be challenged directly. (They must then
run the risk of being so bald as to be obvious.)
3. T. S. Eliot wrote: "The poetry of a people takes its life from the
people's speech and in turn gives life to it." It would be easier to demonstrate
this, however, in Elizabethan En¨gland than in the United States today.
Very few modern poets are so widely read that their work can be said to
give life to modern American speech. (For every phrase contributed to
the common idiom by a contemporary poet, like Auden's "the age of anxiety"
or Eliot's "not with a bang but a whimper" or Frost's "Good fences make
good neighbors" there must be fifty of Shakespeare's phrases we use almost
unconsciously¨"brave new world," "full of sound and fury," "this petty
4. When a culture uses its poets hard, their language takes on the muscle
tone of athletes, as it did in Elizabethan En¨gland. The Elizabethan poets
exploited an energy which the language developed in the lives of men and
women, refined it, and gave it back to them.
5. When poets write for small audiences, their words have the softer musculature
of amateur athletes. They contend in¨tramurally, with one another and
with good books. Sometimes their language doesn't get enough fresh air
6. The best poems written in America this century reso¨nate in the lives
of few and presumably atypical American readers. Often these poems obtain
great beauty, force, and accuracy of language-I think of Robert Lowell's
language as I write this-but they do not nourish the speech of the coun¨try
except very indirectly: they make the thoughts and feel¨ings of a few
men and women more articulate.
7. When these men and women want to say in public the thoughts and feelings
which they have apprehended through poems, they must translate the verbal
accuracy of the poet into something less exact which the average person
under¨stands. This is the cost to language of a culture which does not
make general use of its poetry.
8. In our situation the French aphorism is exact; traduire c'est trahire,
to translate is to traduce. But where the poet addresses everyone or where
everyone addresses himself to poetry, such translation is unnecessary.
9. For years Poetry magazine in Chicago used to carryon its back
cover a warning from Walt Whitman: "To have great poetry there must be
great audiences." In an anti-world some¨where, an anti-Whitman seems to
have heard this and de¨creed what has come to pass in Whitman's land:
To have little poets, you must have little audiences.
10. For poetry to become more useful in the United States, it must direct
itself to a larger audience, use the language which is most alive among
that audience, and provide more accessible delight. (Because people find
substitutes for what is denied them.) One of Eliot's characters in "The
Waste Land" says:
He's been in the army four years, he wants a good time.
And if you don't give it to him there's others will.
(If the poets don't give it to them television will.)
11. When I am writing a poem, in the State of Connecti¨cut, in the United
States of America, in 1979, I listen not only to the content of the poem
but for words which the people of my time and place would hear as the
most precise (and there¨fore delightful) expression of that content. My
listening is deliberately local: a time, a place, a social ambiance. What
I hope to hear is a voice, a dialect of the mind.
12. I write a fairly colloquial language, for most purposes, but try to
avoid the laziness and slickness which characterize unthinking colloquial
13. The dictionary is there to remind me where words have come from, in
our lovely, perverse tongue, and what sort of life they have lived. But
it is the writer who keeps the dictionary up to date. His sensibility
revises the meanings of words to accommodate new thoughts and feelings
which his fellows are trying to think and feel.
14. What the poet is listening for as he writes is the sound a new truth
makes. In this sense, his smallest lyric is an act in defense of human
speech. He is telling the truth in the lan¨guage which discovers it. He
gives that language to the tribe for further truth-telling uses.
15. Poetry keeps our serious language from hardening into rhetoric. Think
of that Victorian New England lady Em¨ily Dickinson shouting to God, when
she is bereaved: "Bur¨glar! Banker! Father!" in her exasperation with
the decorums of Christian mourning.
16. And poetry reminds us that being honest is not simple. I suppose most
languages must have an idiom like "too beauti¨ful (or too anything) for
words." The truth is frequently too astonishing for anyone but a poet
17. The language spoken and written in the United States lives by other
urgencies than poetry, but it survives. Writers of fine fiction and nonfiction
reach a much wider audience than poets, and surely have a strengthening
effect on the general precision of language which is constantly being
eroded by other forces.
18. Memorable words of politicians, scientists, teachers and military
and scientific heroes defend human speech, but even a patriotic and optimistic
poet does not expect a great volume of memorable words from these sources.
19. Advertisers in the United States attempt the role of poet, coining
and redefining words. For the most part, theirs is a contrary intention:
to deceive us about the purposes of language. An advertisement seeks to
constrain or direct our thoughts and feelings where a poet wants to liberate
them. Advertisers (when you include the spoken word on television and
radio) manipulate the American language more ad¨versely than all the benign
forces combined seem able to keep it true to itself. (Like many American
poets, I teach English and have watched this erosion.)
20. The United States is a country with many regions and several cultures.
Native Americans, Afro-Americans, and His¨panic Americans were for a long.
time coerced to assimilate the language we still call English and a culture
from Western Europe. Poetry was only one of the values which suffered
21. The millennium has not come, but Americans have lately become more
aware of the relationship between lan¨guage and culture and between culture
and human creativity. The States which we are still working to Unite are
cultural as well as geographical and political entities. As we have come
to recognize this, poetry has emerged in our several languages.
22. To read another dialect of one's own language involves greater possibilities
of misunderstanding than to read a lan¨guage which is manifestly foreign.
Readers whose taste and judgment have been trained to "standard English"
have not been the most perceptive critics or enjoyers (ideally the same
thing) of works in unfamiliar uses of their own language.
23. Even among the recognized practitioners of "stan¨dard English," American
poets have shown great linguistic variety: Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson
in the nineteenth century are no more alike than Frost, Eliot, and Williams
in the twentieth.
24. The American poet typically creates his own role, de¨ciding who he
is, what he's for, what language his tribesmen speak, and what he can
do for them in it, in character
25. Contrary to much domestic and foreign opinion, igno¨rance is not a
tradition of American poets, though in their great originality some poets
may have given this impression. Saul Bellow spoke for most American writers,
I believe, when he defined a writer as a "reader who is moved to emulation."
26. Many American poets today, including some distin¨guished ones visiting
Struga this summer, believe that major new directions for poetry in our
country will derive from the aesthetic innovations of European and Latin
American poets. This, too, is an American tradition.
27. The dialect of the mind is a very personal speech fi¨nally. It hears
its own affinities everywhere and tries to speak them truly.
28. Human speech is a great family of such dialects. Qnly if each language
is capable of the accuracy of poetry can we hope to exchange the ideas
we value most, those shy and complex needs we call brotherhood and love.