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KURT BROWN (1 of 2) - SPRING 2005 FEATURE  

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Kurt Brown
Poetry and the Language of Adam considers language from where it began—"the language of the body, the senses, the language of the Eden we have and not the ideal, abstract one we seek."

Kurt Brown

Who Knows Where and Marston’s Field, two new poems by Kurt Brown


Billy Collins

Excerpts from a conversation led by Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, a special audio program of The Paula Gordon Show.


Lucille Clifton
The Power of Mercy, a book review by Teresa Ballard, points to the unanswerable questions about race, gender, and terrorism in Clifton's latest book, Mercy.

Amy Holman
Flow, Eddy, Flood, one chapter of a novel in progress, fictionalizes a poignantly hilarious wedding disaster.

Kurt Brown

Kurt BrownKurt Brown is the author of five chapbooks and four full-length collections of poetry, including Return of the Prodigals (Four Way Books, 1999), More Things in Heaven and Earth (University Press of New England, 2002), Fables from the Ark (WordTech, 2004), and Future Ship, forthcoming from (Story Line Press, in June, 2005). He is also the editor of several poetry anthologies and founder of the Aspen Writers' Conference as well as various other Writers' Conferences and Centers. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and, in spring 2005, was the McEver Visiting Chair in Writing at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

Kurt Brown - Poetry and the Language of Adam

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Poetry And The Language Of Adam    

The Poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson  


One of the things poetry can do is re-name the world. It doesn't matter how many times this has already been done, how many generations rise to inherit and reinvent the language, it must be done over again. And again. In an essential and important way, each individual ever born refashions language to his or her own purposes. Each of us has a unique sense of words and how they are strung together to communicate thoughts, experiences and emotions. Writers, but especially poets, are people who consciously accept this fact and make an effort, in their work, to further the process of renaming and extending the resources of language. When we re-name a thing, when we describe it anew in such a way as to almost re-create it, we call it forth into a fresh dimension and show it to the rest of the world as if for the first time. An old thing, a used and worn thing, about which we thought we knew all there was to know, is suddenly revitalized, brought once again to life under the power of the poet's scrutiny. Of all the things poetry can do, this is not one of the least of its virtues.

Poetry is said to have begun, at least according to one theory, with Adam naming the animals. There are competing theories, but this is one of the most widespread and popular. It places the origins of poetry, not with visions or rituals or courtly entertainments, but squarely on language—the application of word to thing—millenniums before post-modernists would insist on the fallacy of this bond by instructing us that signifier and signified were forever divorced. In the beginning, as it were, language and the world appeared together at the same primeval instant. The inner and the outer worlds, abstract and concrete, mind and body, rose out of nothingness together. By suggesting that poetry, first and foremost, is made out of language, that its primary function is description, the myth of Adam avoids at the outset the Romantic notion of poetry as a covert, magical act and places the emphasis on poetry as a practical, necessary impulse: setting the world in order through making distinctions between things by giving them their proper names. To be able to identify things, to tell one from the other, and to be able to communicate these distinctions to others is, in terms of this myth, essential. To do this, we need language. The Bible makes this assertion clear even before Adam enters the picture: “In the beginning was the Word.” First there was language (“Let there be light,”) and out of it sprang the world.


One of the things poetry can do is re-name the world. It doesn't matter how many times this has already been done, how many generations rise to inherit and reinvent the language, it must be done over again. And again.


The passage from Genesis that describes Adam naming the animals is short and seemingly straightforward. It follows immediately the episodes describing the creation of man and the planting of the Garden of Eden. Within the compass of a few short sentences, it describes the naming of the world's newly created, though still anonymous creatures:

Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field…

Like Adam himself, God made the animals out of dust and clay, which makes them the progeny of earth and underscores their special affinity with human beings. The names Adam uttered on that first morning are the original names, perhaps the proto-language, which Adam, as the first man, would naturally have to invent. We can imagine a language of ur-words, what the linguists call etymons. An etymon is the original form of a word before time and history and the vagaries of human culture combine to corrupt it, changing its meaning and thrust in largely unpredictable ways. The Greek source of the word etymon itself is "eteos," meaning "true." The names Adam gave the animals are their primal names, their "true" names, by which we may know them truly, if only we could somehow reclaim these words for our own.


When we re-name a thing, when we describe it anew in such a way as to almost re-create it, we call it forth into a fresh dimension and show it to the rest of the world as if for the first time. An old thing, a used and worn thing, about which we thought we knew all there was to know, is suddenly revitalized, brought once again to life under the power of the poet's scrutiny. Of all the things poetry can do, this is not one of the least of its virtues.


On the surface of it, the passage from the Bible offers no particular difficulties. It describes in the simplest terms what appears to be the simplest of acts. But naming a thing, especially for the first time, is a more complex matter than one might suppose. To begin with, naming a thing truly demands a knowledge of that thing—a penetrating grasp of that thing—not ordinarily required in our everyday experience of it. We must know a thing in its essence in order to name it properly. We must know its quintessence, its soul, not just its general qualities. This suggests an acuteness of perception, an extraordinary effort of attention in order to see into the nature of what is to be named. Further, to give something its exact and proper name is to somehow bestow an identity upon it. It is just this thing, and no other. It is now named, known, which are perhaps two aspects of the same thing, or perhaps subsequent aspects: we know first—through the act of acute attention—then we may name. The thing is now individuated, defined. Finally, this kind of naming amounts to nothing less than recognition, promoting something to its full and ultimate status. To name things properly is to celebrate them in their ultimate singularity. The scene with Adam among the animals in Eden resembles a mass baptism, during which the animals are sanctioned, accepted, blessed.

For poets, the task is not to name things for the first time, not to recover the lost language of etymons in all their pristine splendor, but to describe things in the unstable language of history and culture—the corrupt, inexact, approximate, language of the fallen. I am speaking here not in religious terms, but in terms of metaphor and available myth. Almost every poet who has ever thought about it has testified to the faultiness, the inherent imperfections of language as a medium of expression. "What is perceived and what is said," Charles Simic has written, "rarely match." T. S. Eliot put it differently: every poem is "a raid on the inarticulate." Description for the poet, then, is not something florid or self-indulgent, not something to be skipped-over to get to the good parts—the action—it is the very source of the action, the revelation itself. It is where poetry engages and grasps the world, where language, like Jacob, struggles with the mute and begrudging angel to get it to breathe out its blessing finally in a few surprising and original words.

This is the case with Walt Whitman, who has often been referred to as the "new Adam" in the New World. Whitman himself honors the old literature, including the Bible, but assures the reader that "Song of Myself" will be a new source of knowledge and inspiration for human beings—at least in the United States. His brash self-confidence is not the point here, but how he went about pioneering a new prosody, a new kind of language to describe a world that had never been really described in poetry before. For this, paradoxically, he had to revert to ancient sources, Biblical rhythms, and Biblical forms—the long free line, the catalogs, the high rhetoric, the great resounding metaphors of nature—in order to employ words in fresh and illuminating ways. So for instance, describing a carpenter planing a beam of wood in section 15 of "Song of Myself," Whitman explains:

The carpenter dresses his plank…the tongue of his foreplane
          whistles its wild ascending lisp…

The action of the carpenter's plane as it "whistles its wild ascending lisp" has been captured—named—in such a way that we feel it has never been adequately described before, never really been noticed or heard, though carpenters have been planing wood since before the time of Jesus, who was certainly familiar with the sound Whitman describes. The auditory image here is not simply functional or decorative, it is revelatory—a small rift in the fabric of time and space is opened and the world becomes sensually immediate, as if we were actually standing beside the carpenter hearing the sound of the plane for ourselves, not just reading about it in a book. And the effect of the passage cannot be attributed to onomatopoeia alone—that beautiful pattern of "S"s that, along with the assonance of two short "i"s, echo the sound the plane makes as it runs up the wood. It exists as well in the metaphor: the "tongue" of the foreplane whistling, like the worker himself happy at his labor. It inheres too in the word "lisp," which captures a slightly broader shade of sound than mere sibilance—the flat, curling edges of fresh woodshavings. It resides in those two crucial adjectives: "wild," and "ascending," suggesting vigor, the unchecked sexual energy Whitman loved to praise. It is in each of these and all of them—the precise, surprising choice of words, and how they are placed together until language and reality, for once, seemed perfectly attuned.

Whitman referred to "Song of Myself" as, in part, a "language experiment." He wanted to see what he could do in the way of inventing a language that would more directly engage reality than the older poetries whose words and metaphors had grown conventional and stale. In this effort he would enlist any term and every term at his disposal, including common speech, slang, argot and cant. So he describes the sound of shoes striking pavement as "the sluff of bootsoles." It is probable that the word "sluff"—so accurate and exact—had never been used in a poem before, and very seldom in ordinary speech as well. It is not only sonically precise—we hear the sound of shoeleather scraping pavement—but somehow existentially correct as well—we feel the foot-dragging weariness of the masses as they make their way to office or home in a never-ending routine of labor and rest. Throughout "Song of Myself" and Whitman's other poems, words and phrases crop up that seem to name reality, call it out from behind its veil of inarticulateness, and show it to us naked, immediate, whole. Like a photographer who uses his lens in order to frame and focus our attention, to really make us see, Whitman uses words to pinpoint and focus reality in poem after poem. We know the words are not the reality, but the illusion created is a powerful one, one that can return us to the world with greater knowledge and awareness.


Description for the poet, then, is not something florid or self-indulgent, not something to be skipped-over to get to the good parts—the action—it is the very source of the action, the revelation itself. It is where poetry engages and grasps the world, where language, like Jacob, struggles with the mute and begrudging angel to get it to breathe out its blessing finally in a few surprising and original words.


It is not too much to say that for poets, the world doesn't exist in some real sense until they describe it, until it has been captured and measured in words. Then, and only then, is perception confirmed. Only then is reality verified in concrete, evocative terms. This is the case with James Dickey, who has spoken about the "personal" in poetry—meaning not the intimate or confessional, but the unique, inimitable core of an individual sensibility, a diction and syntax so exact as to be almost equivalent to one's fingerprints or particular configuration of DNA. Dickey has hardly written a poem without this signature quality, without somewhere finding the words necessary to equal and therefore body forth the world. This is true of his earliest work, poems of his experience in World War II, with its "besieging mud," the "clumsy hover" of its air transports, and the "licked, light, chalky dazzle" of the South Pacific. For Dickey, the whole project of poetry is not so much to develop and articulate psycho-socio-political themes as to match language to reality, or reality to language, until description itself is the point, the revelation which the whole poem seeks. Certainly there are intellectual, paraphrasable themes in Dickey's work. But his poems imply something else too, something more, as if each declaimed: "This is what it's like to be alive, to inhabit a body, to be conscious and aware." In a fundamental sense, this same ambition pervades the poetry of Walt Whitman and is one of its most important achievements. "Song of Myself" is as much a hymn to consciousness as it is to anything else, proclaiming in no uncertain terms, and proudly: "I was the man, I suffered, I was there."

The poet is still the singular, passionate observer we need in order to translate the world into penetrating, accurate language that somehow makes reality available to our minds in a way in which experience alone cannot thoroughly provide. Before Adam, there was perceiving without knowing. A pre-verbal silence in which things were indistinguishable from one another, or generalized, until they were finally specified. Then, like Athena from Zeus's head, things sprang into being fully themselves, startlingly present and clear. This sense of discovery, of locating and naming the distinct quality of things is immediately recognizable in Dickey's work, and easily illustrated. When, in "The Movement of Fish," for instance, we read:

No water is still, on top.
Without wind, even, it is full
Of a chill, superficial agitation…

we feel that those three words—chill, superficial, agitation—are rigorously exact. They conform perfectly to our own perceptions of the behavior of watery surfaces. We have noticed this phenomenon before, perceived it clearly with our own eyes many times. Now it is acknowledged, defined. This is more than description. In a way, it is bestowal of being, a making-it-clear-to-the-mind, manifesting something without robbing it of its inherent mystery and essence. Again and again we feel Dickey making an effort to translate what he perceives into precise revelatory language. In "Diabetes," he writes of "The rotten, nervous sweetness of my blood," and we feel the disease has been characterized, diagnosed in words as seldom before. When he speaks of animals, pouncing "upon the bright backs of their prey/…In a sovereign floating of joy, " or the monotonously identical figures on blankets "…made by machine / From a sanctioned, unholy pattern/ rigid with industry", we are convinced that he has defined the essence of these actions and things, nailed them down with meticulous, unremitting care. They may be familiar, but now they are also designated clearly, accounted for to the language-requiring mind.


It is not too much to say that for poets, the world doesn't exist in some real sense until they describe it, until it has been captured and measured in words. Then, and only then, is perception confirmed. Only then is reality verified in concrete, evocative terms.


Whatever we think of Dickey personally, his politics or behavior, his sometimes inflated rhetoric and exaggerated stance, we cannot deny the obvious power of his best verse. Another poet capable of translating the world into exact terms, phrases of distinct radiance and acuity, is Mary Oliver, especially in four books: Twelve Moons, American Primitive, Dream Work, and House of Light. With a profound grip on her subjects, Oliver employs the telling adjective, the one expressive term that—more than merely describing—characterizes creatures and things, revealing their particular nature, their sure and unmistakable "itness" to borrow a philosophical term. She speaks of the butterfly's "loping" flight, the "morose" movement of turtles, the ocean's "black, anonymous roar." In poem after poem, she displays what fellow-poet Hayden Carruth notes as "The depth and diversity" of her "perceptual awareness." So we read of the "blue lung" of the Caribbean, the "muscled sleeve" of the fox, the "iron rinds" over winter ponds, and more. The list might be extended at length. Regardless of her proclivity to sentimentalize nature in her more unguarded moments, the power of her observation seldom fails. At her best, she looks at the world with a predator's eye and articulates the way things are—how creatures, plants, minerals and weathers look, move, change, and manifest themselves to the discerning mind.

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