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On Language and Naming
Honey, Cinnamon, Goats, & other wonders: a poem & and prompt
Some poems have an impact that is beyond explanation. A feeling in the pit of the stomach, in the well of the throat, your whole body on the edge of something, not knowing whether it is about to fall or fly. I feel this way every time I read Jack Gilbert’s book The Great Fires, which chronicles (among other things) the loss of his wife Michiko. I might even say, if I had to choose just one, that this poem is my favorite poem. I used a line from it to name my reading series (A Hundred Pitchers of Honey), and I dare anyone to read it without feeling something or even gasping aloud.
The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart by Jack Gilbert
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.
The opening is such a profound statement about both the power and the fallibility of language to convey experience. The fact that it’s followed by striking images, many of them drawn from the ancient and natural worlds, worlds before or at the beginnings of written language, shows that this paradox has existed as long as language has. And the possibilities presented in the poem are ones to mull again and again: that something could die for lack of a word; that something that seems mundane could be something beautiful. How the goods of trade show the transactional nature and value of a relationship, even a spiritual relationship with God. And how we end on five distinct images that are not explicated but left to the reader to determine “what we feel most.”
A few writing prompts for you based on this poem:
Using the last five nouns in the poem, write a draft that uses amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds to try to convey an “unnamable” thing or a thing you “feel most.”
Use parts of Gilbert’s lines as starting points for a new piece. Start with one, write into it as far as it goes, then switch to another. My joy is…/My love is…/We say…/I dream…/Giraffes are…
What missing words/concepts (other than endearment) might cause the decline of a civilization?
Besides “love,” what other word gets it “all wrong?” Choose another abstract idea or emotion that words get wrong and try your best to explain it. Use unusual nouns in your draft.
If you liked this, please let me know and feel free to share.
The Great Fires is available here: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/59984/the-great-fires-by-jack-gilbert/
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