Two experiences have got me thinking about language – its potential and its limits – in these days after Pentecost. In this blog I am going to reflect on the first.
Tuesday evening I had a spell-binding hour in the Chapel of St Chad’s College, Durham listening to the poet Micheal O’Siadhail. It was a virtuoso reading, not least for his own commitment and vulnerability. You could feel him feeling the depths of his own writing. You could see his toe tapping to his own rhythms. You could delight in his delighting in the improvisations captured on the page. His relish, not only of words but languages and grammars, was captivating. It was a feast, typically, from this poet of feasting, thanksgiving and appreciation.
It was more than performance. It was presence.
O’Siadhail’s new book is called ‘Tongues’, but I first came across his writing in David Ford’s, ‘The Shape of Living’. That book was a real God-send to me. I took it on a retreat and read all about being ‘multiply overwhelmed’. It was a profoundly healing, precisely because those words named my experience at the time. But the analysis of multiple overwhelmings was chapter one. Being overwhelmed was not the end of the story. It was the beginning.
And so it is with poetry. Poetry, it seems to me, begins in what cannot be expressed in words. And yet the result is never quite adequate either. Even the best poem is a kind of failure because it points us to both the potential and the limits of its own medium. So even the greatest poem is a failure to put something wholly and precisely into words. Which is why poems need to be read and heard and felt. Smelt, even.
My point is that this particular failure is intrinsic to poetic success. Or should I say that In poetry, as in life, success and failure walk hand in hand. The moment we don’t want to come back to a poem it has either become to us a poor poem or a piece of prose. A sad ending, whichever it is. And the moment a person loses their mystery to us the relationship is either dull or dead. So it is that the people we know and love the best perplex us the most. That’s life. Or rather, that’s love.
One thing about a good poem, well read, is that it can elicit a special sound from an audience, a long and warm ‘mmmmm’. I think it means something like, ‘oh my goodness, that touched my soul and I don’t feel hurt by it. In fact I feel rather grateful.’
This capacity of poetry to marry success and failure is, I think, deeply important. If a poem reduces an audience to an inarticulate ‘mmmm’-making group then… guess what? The poem has taken them to a place not unlike that which gave birth to the poem in the first place. The feeling that what ever it is that is on the tip of my tongue right now is not going to go into words without remainder and yet absolutely demands to be communicated.
It’s a good, real and mysterious feeling. Maybe ‘spiritual’ is the right word. It is about communicating accurately and communing deeply in that space just beyond the reach and grasp of language.