William Meredith

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 pace.")

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 or exercise.

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 speech.

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 to word.

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 from this.

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.