Language at the Edge

Series 3 No.11 - Frontiers

So is this ‘at the edge of silence where language fails’ a whim of poets, an aspect of romance, a cliché even, now it has been gone over and over, or is it the very experience we must never lose?

There is a persistent notion, not least in translation, of ‘poetry at the edge’, which means perhaps where language is strained, somewhere this side but only just (as it might seem) this side of silence. And there might be some attempt to speak of the ‘beyond’, of the ‘other’, of silence itself as if it can be eased into yielding up more. Or that holding this particular kind of silence is a means by which something ‘other’ is ‘heard’.

This is so hard to find words for, and it has been suggested to me that what might be found towards the edge of silence is ‘not where language fails, but where language is put aside as something in the way of discovery, of discovering what can be found in solitude + silence. A deeper perception? Curious though, the word “edge”’. Lizzi Thistlethwayte, in this response to a draft of my essay, tells me the OED gives meanings that include ‘something that cuts’; ‘something sharp or narrow’, ‘a perilous path on a ridge’. ‘It doesn't feel quite the right word,’ she says, ‘almost too violent for what might be met or found at the “other side of silence'”(to borrow Jerzy Peterkiewicz’s title).’

Perception being what we have, this whole thing is of us. Yet what if? What if there is something like what prayer has assumed to exist? What if we can sometimes pick up vibes from each other across great distances? (If the mobile phone habit and interference haven’t done for this).

Having mentioned prayer, is there a shared perception among us that the poem is this kind of thing – that it might open to, even speak of, more than we know? At least might be as close as we come in words to reaching for it.

A kind of prayer then? Or, more accurately for more poetry-makers now, as far as we can go into a transition into silence – perhaps taking words there – with meaning.

Here is a poem by Lizzi Thistlethwayte, with the date for title:


The season here has been terrifyingly productive.
I am attentive to the slight lean of caving in.
I am keeping my mind on important matters

such as little cakes and till receipts.
Every time I go out the back door
something steps on me.

This is not a poem that should or could be explained; which is to say it bears the marks of what poetry most essentially is, opening to a possibility of perception available by no other means.

No conclusions can be reached, only examples presented. I’m thinking now of Anselm Kiefer’s visual responses to Celan (a book by Andrea Lauterwein, Thames & Hudson, 2007). Celan’s poems are not explained by Kiefer’s mixed-media work. Let this word work have its place here. One might say, as the book does, Kiefer took an interest in Celan, this poem or that in Celan’s life. I am only adding this other way of saying it: took an interest in. Might I say meditated on, spent time with, sought common cause with? Towards what end?

Leaving this unresolved, when ‘translation’ is involved, from medium to medium, between verbal languages, have there been significant differences in what has been taken on by our variety of European languages (I have little sense of languages beyond these)? Whether, say, Polish poets have worked ‘at the edge’ more than have their English contemporaries, whether prevailing religious practice (consciousness) has been pertinent, whether something was ‘in the air’ when Mallarmé or Rimbaud made poems. Whether Hölderlin in his years of distress, of distance, found what he needed that could be found only by him then.

Many instances of attempts to verbalise such elusive phenomena might be quoted. For example:

‘As a poet, Celan fits words to silence – finding them, fabricating them, forging, forcing or fracturing them.’ (John Felstiner on Paul Celan translating Emily Dickinson, in Translating Tradition, ed.Benjamin Hollander, ACTS 8/9 1998).

Jeremy Adler reviewing new Georg Trakl translations (London Review of Books No.25.8, 2003) refers to Heidegger repeatedly quoting Trakl’s line, ‘The soul is a stranger to earth.’ And Adler continues, ‘Every poet, Heidegger contended, always rewrites the same unsayable poem.’

John Cage, in Silence, 1961, ‘…To see one must go/ beyond the imagination and for that/ one must stand absolutely still as though/ in the center of a leap.’

Ingmar Bergman: Images, My life in film, 1994, ‘Today I feel that in Persona – and later in Cries and Whispers – I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances, when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.’

Bergman again, of the ‘feeling that grows stronger and stronger … the desire to force my way into the secrets beyond the walls of reality. To find a maximum expression with a minimum of external gestures… I do not want to follow beaten paths. I still maintain that in the context of that technique Cries and Whispers goes as far as one can go.’

Archbishop Rowan Williams’s sermon at the service to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the Martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer, at St Mary the Virgin, Oxford: ‘Shakespeare’s last plays show him at the edge of his imagination, speaking, through Prospero, of the dissolution of all his words, the death of his magic; Yeats painfully recreates his poetic voice, to present it “naked”, as he said; Eliot, in a famous passage of the Quartets, follows a sophisticated, intensely disciplined lyrical passage with the brutal, “that was a way of putting it”.’

Perhaps Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The sound of silence’: ‘Hello darkness, my old friend, /I've come to talk with you again’, as heard on street corners and in tube stations, suggests, even as we pass by, some unknown region of what we are.

A book I bought in 1970, Jerzy Peterkiewicz’s The Other Side of Silence: The poet at the limits of language (OUP 1970), remains as title embedded in me, long after I have forgotten its one hundred-plus pages. The notion in me is: there must be clues there. Thumbing through I find Rimbaud (‘No more words’), Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Thomas Merton, the Polish autentyzm movement, St John of the Cross… I find that in 1981 (or it may be 1987) I left a scrap of paper slipped in, wondering how few words are necessary: what is there to be found ‘almost to silence’?

So is this ‘at the edge of silence where language fails’ a whim of poets, an aspect of romance, a cliché even, now it has been gone over and over, or is it the very experience we must never lose? Are we to say we might be blessed (cursed with?) silence of itself, or that it can be (almost) reached only by taking language that far? If that’s what we want to do, or find we must. If so, what are the essentials of the language that can do it (for our joy, at our peril)?

I have wondered about ‘fragment’ being a corollary of ‘silence’, my thought being that try as one may, only this much remains, has been achieved or found. To this Lizzi Thistlethwayte has responded that ‘fragment suggests “break” and “separation”. Whereas if silence is contemplation then perhaps the opposite to fragmentation occurs? There is a perception of the interconnectedness of things. This is akin to prayer? Is it? And what is prayer? Similar to the repetition of a daily task, the re-writing of the same unsayable poem …. ?’

And to my question, ‘How far can we break grammar, or how far must we before it does finally give way?’ her response is that ‘it’s an intriguing concept: the idea, the imperative of needing to break something. Is this a human imperative (violence)? When I write I think I’m attempting to mend stuff. There are tears, fractures everywhere. Chaos. Rush. I put a word against another word or sound or image and wonder, does this “arrangement” reveal things differently? Can there be made a rest (ie: the structured absence of sound – is this the same as a vacuum? – into which surreal notions tumble, collide?’

The question of what it is that is vital in what we mean by poetry cannot, I’m glad to say, be resolved. Each of us will be led in different ways and at different times in our lives. Lizzi says, ‘But it’s images that motivate me – making collages etc – what happens to language en route is almost accidental – I don’t do anything with grammar intentionally – I’m not aware of it. I think to some extent the weird visual scrambling that occurs when I’m reading or writing or listening contributes to the oddity of some of my grammatical constructions – or perhaps I mis-hear stuff, or I’m unable to be articulate, or things keep falling down in the continual process of building and re-building, or bits wander out, leaving holes – And someone wanders in wearing a hat with absurd floral tributes ….’

One might think it’s odd and thankless to take this on as a task. What kind of training is required, if any? Are there really big stakes: what might it be to use language for religious meaning now? What might it be to re-rehearse well-established meaning that has become stale in the telling? And to do this by means of what we call poetry that is not mere imitation. What is there to be discovered by bringing verbs, nouns and adjectives together that have not usually been found (heard) together? How far can we go in discovery by way of unexpected metaphor? Where can the surreal lead us? Should we know what we intend to say, or might we discover what we have said only after we’ve said it?

For six months from about Advent to Whitsun, some years ago, I was Poet in Residence at Worcester Cathedral. Before knowing this was to happen, I had found myself writing a sequence, which I called ‘Approaching again’, (published in Scintilla 3, then in my book of the residency, In the Men’s Hut, Flarestack 2000). My question had been, how to prepare for making poems? What is the training for it? How to approach? Of course I have never resolved it, nor ever will, but yet something makes poetry both necessary and impossible. Impossible, that is, to reach what seems to be there. And perhaps the habit of preparation is vital to it.

Does the task perhaps involve bringing into fruitful collision, towards unexpected possibilities, sensation/thought/image from the specialised compartments of our brain: the verbal, visual, sensual, mathematical, of dreaming, of memory, playfulness? I have come to think my mind has a mind of its own, and enjoys playing with the resources I have provided for it, overtly and by chance, a process not readily predictable, or amenable to simple analysis or preparation. The resulting poem is open then to other people’s brains (emotions, memories, etc) of the same complexity, which begs the question: what do we/can we/might we share ‘at the edge of language, at the edge of silence’? At what point do we lose each other and for now does it matter?

Of course, it could be we delude ourselves into thinking there’s more to be found, or that ‘the edge’, ‘a quality of silence’ etc mean anything other than that we are incompetently lost for words. Language itself being approximate, when we seem to find ourselves in the verbal equivalent of shadow, perhaps not-knowing is more mundane than intimating.

Or it could be, on the contrary, that there is more to be found and said, or that we have to reach for it anyway because the reaching itself is vitally real to human existence and vital that this attempt be shared, even if we are equipped only inarticulately to sense and speak it. It doesn’t end. Always it begins again.

(I am grateful to Lizzi Thistlethwayte for her response to a draft of this article, and to my questions, and for permission to include her unpublished poem.)

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