Why Words Matter, in the Words of Diane Ackerman: An Excerpt from “Language at Play”

The following is an excerpt from “Language at Play,” an essay by Diane Ackerman about the power and use of language, and the role poetry plays in all of our lives.  She says it better than I could.  This is the kind of writing that paralyzes me and that I can only react to after it has lived inside of me for a while.  Enjoy!

We ask the poet to reassure us by giving us a geometry of living, in which all things add up and cohere, to tell us how things buttress one another, circle round and intermelt.  Once the poet has broken life into shards, we ask him to spin around and piece it back together again, making life seem even more fluid than before.  Now it is a fluency of particulars instead of a nebulous surging.  We ask the poet to compress and abbreviate the chaos so we don’t overload from its waterfall of sensations, all of which we nonetheless wish somehow to take in.

Every poem is a game, a ritual dance with words.  In the separate world of the artwork, the poet moves in a waking trance.  By its nature, poetry and all art is ceremonial, which we sometimes forget, except perhaps when we think of the Neolithic cave painters in the mysterium tremens of their task.  Intent on one feature of life, exploring it mentally, developing it in words, a poet follows the rules of the game.  Sometimes artists change the game, impose their own rules and disavow everyone else’s.  Then they become an ist among the isms.  But there are always rules, always tremendous concentration, entrancement and exaltation, always the tension of spontaneity caged by restriction, always risk of failure and humiliation, always the drumbeat of rituals, always the willingness to be shaken to the core.

Once, after a lecture, a woman asked why accomplished scientists and prose writers (such as Loren Eisely), who turned to poetry late in life, were such poor poets.  Is it easier to switch from poetry to prose than from prose to poetry? she wondered.  I don’t think the genre is what matters, but the time of life.  If you read the first book by famous scientists–J. B. S. Haldane, Werner Heisenberg, Francis Crick, Fred Hoyle–you find minds full of passion and wonder.  Those books are thrilling to read because mystery is alive in them, and they are blessed by a youthful, free-flowing enthusiasm.  But in later books these same people become obsessed with politics and sociology; their books are still of intellectual interest, but they’ve lost the sense of marvel.  Those who stay poets all of their lives continue to live in that youthful state, as open and vulnerable and potentially damaging as it can be.

I suppose what most people associate with poetry is soul-searching and fiercely felt emotions.  We expect the poet to be a monger of intensity, to pain for us, to reach into the campfire so that we can watch without burning ourselves.  Because poets feel what we’re afraid to feel, venture where we’re reluctant to go, we learn from their journeys without taking the dramatic risks.  We cherish the insights that poets discover.  We’d love to relish the moment and feel rampant amazement as the seasons unfold.  We yearn to explore the subtleties, paradoxes, and edges of emotions.  We long to see the human condition reveal itself with spellbinding clarity.  Think of all the lessons to be learned from deep rapture, danger, tumult, romance, intuition–but it’s far too exhausting to live like that on a daily basis, so we ask artists to feel and explore for us.  Daring to take intellectual and emotional chances, poets live on their senses.  In promoting a fight of his, a boxer once said: “I’m in the hurt business.”  In a different way, artists are too.

And yet, through their eyes–perhaps because they risk so much–we discover breathtaking views of the human pageant.  Borrowing the lens of an artist’s sensibility, we see the world in a richer way–more familiar than we thought, and stranger than we knew, a world laced with wonder.  Sometimes we need to be taught how and where to seek wonder, but it’s always there, waiting, full of mystery and magic.  I feel that much of my own duty as a writer is to open those doors of vision, shine light into those dark corners of existence, and search for the fountains of innocence.

The world is drenched with color and nature is full of spectacles.  you would think that would be enough.  yet we are driven to add even more sensations to the world, to make our thoughts and feelings available in words.  We use words for many reasons.  As a form of praise and celebration.  To impose an order on the formless clamor of the world.  As a magical intermediary between us and the hostile, unpredictable universe.  For religious reasons, in worship.  For spiritual reasons, to commune with others.  To temporarily stop a world that seems too fast, too random, too chaotic.  To help locate ourselves in nature and give us a sense of home.  Words bring patterns, meaning, and perspective to life.  We keep trying to sum life up, to frame small parts of it, to break it into eye-gulps, into word-morsels that are easier to digest.  Sometimes words allow us to put ourselves in harmony with the universe, to find a balance, however briefly, in life’s hurricane.  They make it possible not only to communicate with one another but to do it in a way that may change someone’s life.

Isn’t it odd that one big-brained animal can alter the course of another’s life, change what the other sees when it looks at its reflection in a mirror, or in the mind’s mirror?  And do that by using the confection of words.  What sort of beings are we who set off on symbolic pilgrimages, pause at mental towns, encounter others who–sometimes without knowing it–can divert or redirect us for years?  What unlikely and magical creatures.  Who could know them in a lifetime?  When I start thinking like this, in words, wonder shoots its rivets into my bones.  I feel lit by a sense of grace, and all my thoughts turn to praise.

*This excerpt is from pp. 184-187 of In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction.   The rest of Ackerman’s essay is well worth reading, as are the other essays included in the book.

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Losing Myself in the Desert

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Death Valley, California. My dad, Steven, took this picture. There are two people on the dunes. Can you find them?

*I think the second half of this post is much stronger than the first half.  When I write, I usually start off pretty weak, so why not be honest about that? 🙂

I sit atop a sand dune.  I stare out at the desert and I wonder at its bleakness.  I try to understand it.  I rest my eyes for an hour on one mountain peak.  I stare at a cactus.  I leer at a clump of vegetation that has crowded around a trickling spring.  The desert confuses me.  It envelops me.  It includes me, so that even as I gaze at that mountain and that cactus and those plants around the spring, I stare into myself.  Is that what I love about the desert?  That when I look at it I look at myself?  Do I gain a heightened sense of the universe peering in at itself through my eyes, and do I see myself as the universe does, as something small, fragile, barely existent, some spark that in a moment will fizzle out?  I try to understand the desert, but before long I realize that I’ve embarked on a futile endeavor.  I can’t hold this landscape in my mind.

Death Valley, California. That's my mom.

I love the desert because I lose myself in it.  My soul, my thoughts, my selfish drives, my everything seeps out into the emptiness that surrounds me.  In an enclosed room, let’s say in a prison cell, my self would bump up against the brick walls of the prison.  It would try frantically to slip through the bars and escape into a larger space in which it may roam with greater freedom.

Death Valley--this bench no longer exists.

In a prison cell I would suffocate in my own company.  But the desert disperses me.  It turns me into an insubstantial vapor that is now here, now gone.  I disappear, and with me my pain and my sadness disappear, too.  I’m nothing, and all that remains of me is the lingering residue of a thought, a question, a sigh.

Then the moment slips away.  The desert returns me to myself.  I remember who I am and what I’m doing here.  I leave my perch atop the sand dune and I carry with me the pain, the sadness, the complex mix of emotions that churn inside all of us even in our happiest states.  But I leave with something more, a memory of the sigh, of a moment in which I was both everywhere and nowhere, and everything was all right.

——–

This was something I was going to expand on during my trip to Chile, but it’s fine as it is.  When I wrote it, I was thinking of Death Valley, where from some points you can see mountains two hundred miles in the distance.  And at night, if you park yourself at the southern end of the valley and look north, you’ll see dots of light below the horizon.  They stand still.  You know they can’t be buildings because the desert is empty.  You know they can’t be stars because they lie below the horizon and they don’t twinkle.  They don’t flicker like candles suspended in space.  They shine steadily.  After a moment you see that the dots of light are moving.  They rise and fall with the contours of the now invisible mountains that line the valley.  They sway right, they sway left, as if unsure where to go.  Every right-left motion brings them closer to the valley floor.  They sink deeper into the sea of darkness.  You hear nothing but the sound of your own breathing.  You hold your breath and you hear even that, because there is nothing else, only the mysterious dots winding their way silently through the emptiness.

You realize that the dots are headlights.  They light the way for a lone driver, maybe a family.  They may be thirty miles away from you, but since nothing stands between you and them, they’re as present as a stranger sitting across from you in a café, sipping her coffee, glancing your way in between sips.  Who is she?  Who are they?  And where is everyone going?

Funny: The first half of this post was about losing yourself in the desert.  The second half was about finding yourself, and in some strange way connecting with a distant dot of light that represents a person who will never know you saw her.  Alone, in a prison cell, I would see myself everywhere and I think that eventually it would drive me crazy.  In the desert, also alone, I would see myself nowhere; the landscape would erase me for a moment, and I would become nobody.  But again in the desert, seeing another human being thirty miles away, I would feel my individuality contrasted against the driver of the car.  I would come into focus, and so would she, and I would feel some kind of fellowship with someone I’ll never know.

Old, old car near an old, old gold mine, Death Valley.

Death Valley. My dad took this one, too.

NOT Death Valley. This is the Grand Staircase Escalante, in Utah. I'm including this picture because of the road.

Also not Death Valley. This is from the Great Sand Dunes National Park, in Colorado. Don't we all want to take our own version of that famous Ansel Adams self-portrait?

The Wisdom of Innocence

I wonder sometimes if the simple wisdom we attain as kids is often superior to what we think we know as adults.  Because then, when we were young, it was all so new, and since we were experiencing the world for the first time, new experiences came to us pure and unfiltered through the minds of others.  No one had yet told us how to think and discriminate.  The first sunset we saw must have been the most beautiful we’ll ever know, because we saw it for what it was: illuminating, mesmerizing, mysterious.

Now that I’m older, I rank sunsets.  I can tell you that yesterday’s was more beautiful than today’s, and that the best sunset I ever saw was over Yosemite Valley, in California, when the sun found a sliver of sky on the western horizon through which it lit from below the clouds hanging over the valley and set them aflame.  I can tell you how the normally white cliffs surrounding the valley glowed orange and curved toward the sky like a tidal wave of molten lava about to break on the fragile green valley below.

But how can a sunset over Yosemite compare to the first one I ever saw, when one sunset was all sunsets and all sunsets were beautiful, when ranking was neither necessary nor possible?  Then again, maybe, when I’m struck with awe, I’m actually recalling my first experience of it and I’m feeling it as strongly in the present as I did when I was a boy.  Maybe awe is a state in which we forget to pick apart what we’re seeing, to rank it, to categorize it, to place it alongside other experiences and judge it against them.  Maybe in that moment we slip back into our childhood selves and see the world for what it is.  That feels right.

At the Dance Club: Power, Beauty, Influence, Inspiration

At an undisclosed dance club I witnessed power of a sort I had never seen before.  A lone woman in her mid-twenties wandered onto the dance floor during a brief pause between songs.  Her skin was tanned.  Her black hair gave off a rainbow sheen that shifted in the dim lights of the club.  It hung to her shoulders and swayed from side to side as she glided to the center of the dance floor.  Where other women in the club wore elegant dresses with low necklines, she wore a simple pink tank top and white shorts that revealed an athletic body with soft curves.  Where the other women wore high heels and lustrous footwear, the woman in the pink tank top wore only flip-flops.

In the idle moment between songs, the throng on the dance floor milled about, sipped martinis, laughed and yelled at a volume still adjusted to the music that had just cut off.  They took no notice of the woman in the pink tank top who had wandered into their midst.

Then, the music resumed.  Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop The Music” issued from the speakers and the woman in pink began to undulate to the song’s rhythm.  The music worked its way slowly through her, from her hips to her arms and her legs, even to the tips of her slender fingers, until the whole of her being became a physical extension of the music that pervaded the club.  Her movements rippled through the throng on the dance floor as waves of gravity through space, and, slowly at first, but with quickening speed, the dancers around her fell into her orbit.  Their movements mirrored her own.  Their bodies turned toward hers.  First one man joined her, then another.  These men flew in like comets, and like comets they soon hurtled outward after their brief encounter with the sun at the center of their solar system. 

The woman in pink danced at first with her eyes closed, lost in the music yet aware of everyone around her.  Then she opened her eyes and in an instant rested them on everyone in the club, as if every dancer enjoyed her undivided attention.  Each person felt her stare as a private linking of souls, as if they alone existed in her world.

When the music stopped, the woman in the pink tank top stopped dancing, too.  The solar system that had coalesced around her flew apart in an instant and scattered in all directions.  As she glided off the floor, as inconspicuously as she had glided onto it, some of the dancers whom she had drawn into her orbit stared after her as planets longing after their wayward sun. 

What is power?  There’s brute force power—the power to force action in others.  There’s power in beauty and grace, in movement and skill.  There’s power in doing something well and inspiring awe in those around you.  There’s power in suggestion, in planting seeds of thought and action in those around you and waiting for them to act of their own accord, influenced by your suggestion, but not forced or coerced into action.  The power of influence spreads surreptitiously.  It ripples from its source like waves in a pond, often accidentally.  Brute force bangs its chest and howls, makes itself known through volume, because in these acts lies its power.  It barks and flexes its muscles, shakes its fists, and sometimes levels blows against those whom it wishes to control. 

The woman in the pink tank top walked into a club knowing no one.  She danced with grace, skill and beauty.  She drew people into her orbit in spite of herself, not in an effort to control, but because she was herself.  She was authentic.  She was joyful.  Maybe it’s a mistake to use the terms “power” and “influence” to describe what she possessed.  Maybe the better word to use would be “inspiration.”  The woman in the pink tank top inspired a crowd of people she did not know to array themselves around her and to dance to her rhythm, to give rise to something transcendent, an organized system that didn’t exist before her arrival.  A person may play the violin to perfection; she may sculpt statues with precision or write computer code as poets craft verses.  A person may simply show kindness.  Any of these acts, done well, can inspire.