How Words Fail

Does language reflect the world? Or is it a distorting mirror that never gets reality straight?

In a response to Adrian Blevins’ article “In Praise of the Sentence,” Cathy Park Hong debates Blevins’ notion that syntax reflects the psyche of the writer. “The voice is not always a freeing form of self-expression,” writes Hong, “It can prove to be a difficult transaction.”

I always felt an anxiety about language, an anxiety that grew more pronounced when I began writing poetry. I rationalized this anxiety by rolling out the immigrant truisms. Growing up, I had to negotiate the yawning gap between speaking Korean at home and battling it out in the schoolyard with my faltering English (for a while, my flimsy arsenal was “You shut up!” for every imaginative invective hurled at me). I thought the English language was a tricky, trap-filled activity I had to somehow master like squash or table tennis. Nabokov once called English “an artificial, stiffish thing” and wrote, “If Russian was his music, English was his murder”; yet he wrote some of the most exquisite prose in the English language. I am no persecuted exile, however, but a pampered second-generation American whose childhood difficulties with English nonetheless left their indelible mark.

When professors first introduced the craft of poetry to me, I felt like Leonard Zelig, Woody Allen’s chameleon-man, who appropriated the behavior of whomever was around him. “Write about your family experience! Write about what is true to you,” one dramatic poetry professor told me in his office, and then gave me poems by Asian American poets who sounded exactly like Sharon Olds. I tried to compose clear, confessional gems but thought of them as interesting exercises in imitation. When the professor looked at them, he told me I was beginning to find a voice. “Whose voice?” I asked. “Yours!” he announced, and the meeting was over.

“Finding your voice” is a familiar workshop trope, one that assumes poetry is an expression of an authentic self. I was asked to write in natural, plainspoken speech (none of which felt natural or plain to me), and this teacher mistook the result as me. He embraced the principle that a poem represents a person who is a unified whole, and that the syntax of the poem is a window to the person’s, or writer’s, mind. The professor’s assumptions proved only that I was a damn good mimic.

My teacher’s concept of “the voice” is shared by many poets, including Adrian Blevins, who wrote an essay about the music of sentences for She opines that the sentence structure of a poem gives us a clear diagnosis of the poet’s mind. In her reading of John Berryman’s “Dream Song 29,” she writes, “The ungrammatical . . . excerpt produces the emotional effects of an anxious or scattered psyche.” She sees a direct correlation between Berryman’s progressively unraveling mind and his unraveling syntax, concluding, “It’s interesting to note that Berryman began playing with syntax as a young man, when he was still, as far as anyone can determine, happy enough. As his life becomes more and more pressured . . . he becomes more and more serious and seems to lose, as a result, the sense of daring syntactical play. . . . It is therefore possible to speculate that Berryman’s suicide was at least partly the result of a loss of his syntactical distinctiveness.”

Blevins believes in a causal relationship between the author’s psychological state and the author’s syntactical choices, asserting that Berryman’s “loss of syntactical distinctiveness” helped lead to his own suicide. If we are to follow this logic, how to explain Hart Crane, who offed himself yet wrote poetry that is syntactically distinct? Or Sylvia Plath, who was at the top of her syntactic game when she shoved her head in the oven? Or that many poets today are happy on antidepressants yet write syntactically dull poetry? Blevins also observes that the sentences of Gertrude Stein and certain “post-post-post-postmodernists” are “stark raving mad,” implying that the poets must obviously be bonkers.

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.

The repetition in “Psalm” creates a propulsive cadence. The poem begins with a negation of Genesis. The recurrence of “No one,” a reference to God (or his absence), creates a tonally hammering antiprayer as it denies Creation. “Blessed art thou” is negated by the thudding absence of “No one.” “No one” becomes “Nothing” and then returns as “No-One’s Rose.” The song, driven by absence, ends somewhat redemptively, as the flowering song or the word sings “over” the imagery of suffering, Christ’s thorn. Yet the singing is also fractured—the invocatory “O” in the line “Over, O over” is a hesitant break in cadence. Driven by spiritual necessity, the music of Celan’s poetry is both brutal and brutalized.

Like Celan, the poet John Taggart entwines the music of his linguistic experiments with a deep spiritual sensibility. Son of a Methodist clergyman, Taggart was born in Guthrie Center, Iowa, in 1942 and spent most of his childhood within the church culture. He equates “poem as gospel service,” positing that poetry should have a spiritual power that can be wrought from its own music. But Taggart is no traditional lyricist. His “voice” is not a stand-in for the self. His ultimate goal is to turn the poem into what he calls a “sound object,” where words cease to be metaphor and become part and parcel a compositional score.

Deeply influenced by the experimental music composer and writer John Cage and Objectivist poets such as George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky, Taggart incants through the “silence of the gaps” that surround the unadorned word. His words are mortarless, often unbound by clauses or punctuation. Rather than isolated poems, Taggart composes poetic variations that are circular, repetitive, and serial. In fact, his largest collection of poems, Loop,is aptly titled since his poetry obsessively returns to a set of nouns in different arrangements, as if each poem is a remix of the previous one. “Nativity,” for instance, scrolls down as if it were enacting a feverish sermon:

If you kneel
sender will teach
will teach you
here’s a sender
no bright harness
still a sender
if you kneel
will teach you
teach the shout.

But Taggart does not completely abandon content. Like Celan’s work, Taggart’s poetry can be read within a cultural-political context. Here is an excerpt from “Twenty-one Times,” Taggart’s most explicit poem about Vietnam and his own version of Wallace Stevens’s“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:

Napalm: soap will not wash the word out
The word breaks through partitions and outer-walls
Breakthrough of cells of the word in the mouth.

Napalm: the heart rubbed and smeared with soap
The young heart is soiled with fire
Soap cannot cleanse the soiling of the fire.

Napalm: why the child caught on fire
The itching as of creatures for possession of words
Glitter for self and nation.

The repeated incantation “napalm” is an attempt at exorcism, as if to cleanse the horrors associated with napalm. But despite the attempt to “wash” it out, the word grows cancerously: “Breakthrough of cells of the word in the mouth.” As in many of Taggart’s other poems, the nouns in “Twenty-one Times” are reshuffled, and each time a noun is reintroduced, its associations become progressively menacing: “the young heart is soiled with fire” leads to “why the child caught on fire.” As the poem’s inexorable momentum builds to a frightening pitch, “napalm” as a word metastasizes inside the mouth, until poem’s end: “Napalm: speak and the word glows and plays / speak and suffer torment for love / because of you no one will have to write the word down.”

Celan and Taggart have created a distinctly haunting and astonishing music through solecisms and hesitations, through the broken sentence. For them, the disassociation of voice from language is not just a philosophical choice. It is also political. The voice is not always a freeing form of self-expression. It can prove to be a difficult transaction, a construction of fragments, as much conflicted demurral as actual communication, as much about what is unspeakable as about what is speakable.

Originally Published: July 31st, 2006

Cathy Park Hong is the author of Translating Mo'um, (Hanging Loose Press, 2002); Dance Dance Revolution (W.W. Norton, 2007), winner of the Barnard New Women Poets Prize; and Engine Empire (W.W. Norton, 2012). She is the recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the NEA, and the New York Foundation for the...

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  1. January 5, 2007
     Kim Robinson

    The "I" is a fabrication rather than a mirror.

    I liked this statement, because the reader may assume that the "I" is who the poet is, what the poet believes, and literally how the poet feels.

    As Hong says, "One (the poet) is not one's self, one is several, incomplete, and subject to dispersal."

    I love this observation--- The poet is so very complex and overflowing with an abundance of emotion, ideas, and sensations--- that many of those feelings are fragmented, incomplete, disoriented, and be no means, should mirror who the true "I" is or who is not. After all, the poets incomplete thoughts and insights may change the next day!

    Does poetry reveal the authentic being? Who the poet truly What the poet truly feels?

    I think there is some psychological validity to this concept---but the state of the being cannot be judged upon the poetry, the fabrication, and disjointed syntactical choices--- but rather the poet themselves.

    Like an actor--the poet can be whoever they wish to be, change whatever they wish to change, and create a world of their own!

  2. March 31, 2011
     Michael Cassady

    Cathy Park Hong’s ‘anxiety about
    language’ is something I knew from a
    somewhat different angle. After
    convalescing from a horrible accident
    while working as a professional diver off
    of Indonesia, and after a more
    damaging law suit— bad farce —I ended
    up in France with a Frenchwoman I met
    through my sister, who was raising five
    children by herself after her husband’s
    mind was destroyed by herpes
    meningitis. At 35, with mediocre
    college-level French, I suddenly found
    myself immersed totally in a French
    speaking environment.

    I found, from the language situation, and
    its attendant expectations (and my
    perceptions of those), that I emerged
    with my own distinct French personality
    after a few years struggle out of
    linguistic isolation. The French Me was
    so distinct, I would have to think twice at
    times to imagine how I would say
    something in English. There were
    words, especially names of plants, I
    knew in French, but not in English. If
    anything, the experience made me
    aware of the linguistic pressures on
    expression, and not only in French; I
    became fascinated too by how much my
    ‘being’ in English had to do with what
    conditioned expression.

    While getting about in the world as a
    soldier of fortune, I had already become
    aware, especially in Asian cultures, so
    far from my own, how opaque another
    culture could be— far from any easy
    entry via zapping. Despite the fact that
    French and English are intimately
    connected, it is fascinating in French to
    see how complicated it is to establish a
    real rapport and share in a conversation
    linking two (or more) minds.
    Surprisingly, I can even feel in French
    how the affective space is smaller, and
    more intimate than the one I would
    understand myself to be in in the United
    States; the English (UK) also speak with
    each other as if they belong in the same
    affective space, in the same system of
    signs. I have a poem to do with my
    French person where my voice-mind
    even takes on the geographical shape of

    In writing poetry, it’s interesting how an
    invented voice actively creates its own
    space, it own raison d’être. Our ‘voices’,
    even in our native tongue, are
    constantly undergoing identity re-
    referencing, a re-mixing of
    connotations, as experience continually
    points up new disparities between our
    concept dependent ways of talking and
    the world in which we express ourselves.
    Poets especially have to have a good
    ear for when a new, or re-worked voice
    finally rings-true, resonates in the
    environment of experience. A new voice
    that resonates just seems right, and is
    very shocking.

    Culturally injected voices like Ms. Hong’s
    Korean-English one, and my bastard
    French one, today, are creating a world
    of cross-cultural mental space where we
    language users expect, as a matter of
    course, to switch registers. This is very
    unsettling to minds whose limits of
    experience allow them to think their
    experience, and their way of thinking
    and talking are universal.

  3. July 27, 2013
     Arlene Bernstein

    In the second paragraph of Cathy Park Hong's article "How Words Fail," Ms. Hong (and/or her editor) allowed a glaring syntactic/grammatical error, as follows: "....I felt like Leonard Zelig, Woody Allen's chameleon-man, who appropriated the behavior of whomever was around him." "Whomever" is incorrect. Since the required prepositional pronoun is the subject of the second clause in the sentence, it must be used in subjective case - - "whoever." I doubt that many readers even recognize this rule, and I am almost certain few readers would give a hoot but, as a 75-year-old student of the English language, I find it sad that, particularly in an article on syntax, this error should have raised its blatant head.