Sunday, May 4, 2014

Voices, Revisited

I'd like to stay a moment with the subject of my previous post:  voices from the World.  Although I used the word "voices," I also used the word "intimations," which is, I think, preferable.  Because we are creatures of language, we tend to want to describe or explain things in words.  But the "voices" I have in mind have nothing to do with words or description or explanation.  Hence, "intimations" is better.

Once again, Ludwig Wittgenstein is on hand to help: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."  Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 7 (translated by C. K. Ogden) (1921). An alternative translation is:  "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

As for the source of these intimations, I am entirely at a loss.  God or gods or animula vagula blandula or imagination: you've got me.  The idea of kami is attractive.  Here is how Jorge Luis Borges describes them in "Shinto" (which appeared here a few months ago):

Eight million Shinto deities
travel secretly throughout the earth.
Those modest gods touch us --
touch us and move on.

Algernon Newton, "The House by the Canal" (1945)

The following poem by Norman Nicholson (1914-1987), who was a devout man, suggests one way of looking at this matter.

                               Nobbut God
              First on, there was nobbut God.
  Genesis, I, v.1., Yorkshire Dialect Translation.

First on
There was silence.
And God said:
'Let there be clatter.'

The wind, unclenching,
Runs its thumbs
Along dry bristles of Yorkshire Fog.

The mountain ousel
Oboes its one note.

After rain
Water lobelia
Drips like a tap
On the tarn's tight surface-tension.

But louder,
And every second nearer,
Like chain explosions
From furthest nebulae
Light-yearing across space:
The thudding of my own blood.

'It's nobbut me,'
Says God.

Norman Nicholson, Sea to the West (1981).

Algernon Newton, "Canal Scene, Maida Vale" (1947)

I do not mean to slight the role of words in all of this.  (How could I, given what I am doing at this instant?)

               In a Word

Sun --
                    In a word --
Rain --
                    A green bird --
Snow --
                    White and furred --
Thunder --
                    All heard --
Applause, applause, applause,
Something's always happening
                    In a word.

Norman Nicholson, The Candy-Floss Tree (1984).

Words are often our first recourse in the face of mystery.  Hence: poetry.

Still, words can be unnecessary and unhelpful (harmful, actually) when it comes to the intimations of which I have been speaking.  And also when it comes to poetry.  This is why, as I have observed in the past, explication is the death of poetry.  Although Wittgenstein had much bigger fish to fry, his remark applies perfectly to a poem:  the mysterious combination of thought and feeling and sound that a good poem awakes in us is something that cannot be put into words.  We must remain silent.

Algernon Newton, "The Surrey Canal, Camberwell" (1935)


John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, Thank you for posting " Nobbut God" here, a great favourite of mine as is Norman Nicholson. A much neglected and sad to say largely forgotten poet.
I am pleased that there are a few of us who appreciate him. I am fortunate to own two of his volumes of poetry, found in second-hand bookshops. Wonderful finds!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: yes, I agree that Nicholson does not get the attention he deserves. And I confess that I don't return to him as often as I ought to -- something that I always say to myself when I rediscover how delightful his poetry is.

It is always good to hear from you. Thank you for stopping by again.