Yes. I, too, witness in these famous utterances of Pound and Williams an efficacious wisdom being limned for our instruction: a worthy poem, duly engaged, avails for the reader uncommon access to what is the most necessary news—that news upon which we depend in our ongoing enterprise of meaning-making. My own sense of what that continuing enterprise involves—what that enterprise requires if it is ever to be realized as a useful enterprise—has undergone a good bit of change in the years since my undergraduate days when, frankly, I misunderstood poetry’s purpose. Hobbled, perhaps, by the limiting errors of most of my teachers, I suffered under the still common impression that poets—and most writers—sought primarily to communicate information, opinions, emotions, experiences, or any number of circumstances that they already had in mind as they sat down to shape a text.
Granted, there are many sorts of texts whose primary purpose it is to deliver from one mind to another—or to many others—some previously understood matter. Technical manuals, legislation, assembly instructions, driving directions, and—come to think of it—conventional journalistic texts of the sort we most often have in mind when we say the news. Of course, we are grateful that these various texts can serve what I would call their referential and documentary operations. Even so, such a referential, documentary operation is not the kind of experience and activity that a poet seeks, nor is it the kind of experience and activity that any genuinely poetic operation of language offers to us as readers.
As most of us will acknowledge, theories of literary reception span a wide range of expressions. I pray that you will forgive my cutting to the chase as I suggest that the majority of those theories can be characterized in their undertakings as privileging one of two general dispositions towards what words are, and what words do—or what they can do, if given the chance. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll characterize the two dispositions as leaning toward either a neo-platonic or a rabbinic understanding of words, as such.
In her still pertinent 1983 book, The Slayers of Moses, Susan A. Handelman cites Hans Georg Gadamer as having articulated a very telling difference between certain Greek and Hebrew words for word, and observes in that distinction that reveals a priori dispositions regarding what a word does and what it doesn’t.
She writes, “We must begin then, as usual, with the Greeks”; and, quoting Gadamer, she continues, “Greek philosophy more or less begins…with the insight that a word is only a name, i.e., that it does not represent true being.” Handelman continues, “[i]ndeed the [commonplace] Greek term for word, onoma, is synonymous with name. By contrast, its Hebrew counterpart—davar—means not only word but also thing.
Well, there are, besides onoma, other Greek words that one might enlist in this discussion: lexis, epos, mythos, and the most familiar (to Christian Bible readers, at least) logos. Handelman’s observation, however, applies without quibble to all but one of these cases; lexis, epos, and mythos all participate in an implicit dichotomy of name and thing; each is understood, in its activity, as a particular flavor of utterance, that is, as an expression of or reference to prior matter. The final case, logos, actually provides an instructive complication of Handelman’s contention, for it illustrates that, were it not for Christendom’s onetime acutely neo-platonic turn, general Christian attitudes towards words, even today, might have been far more suggestively Hebraic, and far less reductive, less likely to limit our terms to their acts of denotation.
When the evangelist, theologian, and poet—Saint John—uttered Logos as his word for Word, he was making what I suspect to be a very Jewish point with a very Greek gesture. Until that moment, logos was generally consigned to the transcendent realm of Platonic Ideas, the realm of Real Things, of which the apparent world was supposed to be only a shadow. When Saint John wrested Logos from the ether and placed it in the muck among us, he was articulating a collision of realms, a collision whose concurrently disruptive and generative powers Christians appear to have all but forgotten, even if certain of the fathers and mothers of the Church intermittently have tried, without much success, to keep us cognizant of our inheritance.
Whichever Greek word for word we choose, its usage is similarly problematic; because the neo-platonic notion of the written word assumes it to be a name merely, it is, in practice, perceived as a sorry substitute for the spoken word, which is itself a sorry substitute for the thought, which is a sorry substitute for the very distant Idea—that objective reality to which we have no real access, save through this tortured ontology of diminishing returns—or by some act of transcendence, which skirts the matter at hand (and often discounts all matter in general) in favor of a purely intellectual apprehension of the allegedly real.
This overtly Gnostic model, of itself, poses no great hardship until one begins to suspect how it undermines the status, the intrinsic value, of whatever immediate body or body of text it’s applied to. The human body, for instance, might be understood to be—as Plotinus understood it to be—an unfortunate prison house for the human spirit; the earth itself becomes little more than the vehicle of some cosmic allegory. Back in the realm of text, the difficult poem in the hand becomes little more than an encrypted message whose code must be cracked if we are to get at the thing, the prior and preferred event or idea or other experience it is able only to point toward, the thing it merely names, or gestures in the direction of. Once that code is cracked, once the poem delivers its directions to the ballpark, the poem itself can be discarded, for its message has been received and put to what passes for proper use.
On the other hand, the Hebraic notion of the written word ( דָּבָר / davar) presumes the word itself to be a thing, and even to be a power; it is a thing with generative agency. Recall the Genesis account of creation, during which all that we know is spoken into being. Duly apprehended, this perspective enables a consequent, Hebraic understanding of a text as a made thing capable of further making.
A made thing capable of further making—this will serve, at least for now, as my definition of any art worth pursuing.
The difference between such neo-platonic and Hebraic dispositions is perhaps helpfully demonstrated by comparing conventional, Christian habits of exegesis (whose tonal inflections are often strident, insistent, definitive) with traditional rabbinic habits of narrative commentary (whose tonal inflections are more often playful, speculative, and always provisional). For the commonplace Christian exegete (and please note that I’m not saying every Christian exegete), the scripture is revered for the Reality it allegedly points back to; the scriptural text is pored over and explicated, often in great detail, but its words are most often perceived as the static names for prior things, and the resulting exposition (being made of words, and worse, of subsequent words, belated words) will always remain distinctly referential to scripture, distinctly secondary, and valuable, if at all, only to the degree to which it avails the decoding of the prior, the scriptural text, which is itself understood as something of a gloss of the transcendent Real, which lies some distance behind even that scriptural language.
So, let’s hurry back to the more generous other hand: the rabbinic writer (as well as—I should add—the Semitic writer of early Eastern Christendom) approaches the Torah as if its every word, its every letter, were a live and powerful thing, possessing live and powerful agency.
As a possessor of live and powerful agency, each word, each letter of Torah is capable of provoking endless response, generating endless new production, which, by its nature, also partakes in the holy, the inexhaustible. And which, by its nature, also carries the germ of reproductive power, and therefore also bears live and powerful agency. Any printed edition of Talmud manifests a useful illustration of the result.
At the center of the page rests a column of Torah, a column of sacred text.
This passage is framed by a surrounding layer of narrative explication, inscribed in response to the provocations of that scripture’s suggestive phrases, words, letters.
Over time, this outer layer itself has provoked additional, subsequent layers of commentary.
Now, imagine this activity continuing until the generated power of Torah emanates outward, continuously infusing every layer of response with its own, original power to generate further text.
Our immediate interests—I’m told—have most to do with how poems work to deliver necessary news. The heart of the matter appears to pulse around the question of how meaning is made.
It seems safe to say that all cognitive activity begins with some such manner of reading—either the literal act of reading a text or, more figuratively speaking, the sentient reception of all that one encounters; this is also an act of reading, yes? Whenever we read, we make something of what we see; we participate either consciously or subconsciously in the constructions of our receptions and responses. This is what the rabbis know, it is what the “fathers” of our faith knew, and it is what most poets worthy of the name understand. None of this, of course, is to say that there is no objective reality that surrounds our every subjective construction; it is only to say that our only access to any provisional glimpse of that objective reality is our own subjective, participatory, and collaborative co-creation.
So, what is the news that the genuine poem makes manifest for our ken? It is the new made thing constructed at the point of our leaning into the text that lies before us and—bringing our current selves to the meeting place—our willingness to make with it. Poems are not the only texts that educe from us this new sense of things, but they are, perhaps, the texts most deliberately constructed to do so. Today’s news will not be tomorrow’s news, but we are obliged to receive today’s news if we hope to be in position wisely to receive what follows tomorrow. This is why great poems—like our sacred scriptures—support and encourage return visits; this is why a familiar poem or familiar passage of scripture can be (and perhaps must be?) re-read to some advantage. Each is live and enlivening text; each is capable of serving as scene for our ongoing meaning-making—delivering, today, the news we need.
Scott Cairns is a poet and Program Director for Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing.
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