Dear reader, I want you to try a little thought experiment with me.
Given the vast literature encompassing human knowledge, and all the teaching and learning that go on in the world, you probably take it for granted that the languages we employ keep up with the task of articulating, representing, translating, recording, and communicating all that we need to. In other words—now that I have articulated that thought—you probably think that language per se is adequate to the task of consolidating the reality of the world, and not merely personal partial realities, but a bigger, in principle total, understanding of the world. We take the time, make the effort, and the language does indeed ‘keep up’.
Or maybe you have already begun to smell a rat and are willing to imagine the opposite, to imagine that language is inadequate to the task. Well, that is the point of this thought experiment. Take that imaginative leap and consider:
What happens when the reality one is trying to negotiate pushes the language to the limits of intelligibility?
I thought I would ask Gilbert Adair, a poet renowned for his ‘linguistically innovative’ work, to bounce a few ideas back and forth with me …
Gilbert. Hi. …
When the reality one is trying to negotiate pushes the language to the limits of intelligibility …
When the felt pressure of a ‘real’ one is trying to discern does that—so that.
Never forgetting that (to leech on Olson) what is not poetry is the will to make poetry (altho’ who could call that ‘primary,’ because, you know, society & language)—that last phrase being idiomatic & “to leech on” also, probably, & the lack of a question-mark a (voice-inflected) nother. We teem w/ references, key ones being experienced as (different kinds of) knowledge & many potentially movable up there in a moment of recontextualized “Aha!” that may afford both a concern for a poem or poetic project & a glimpse of the real that will now make its recalcitrance felt to verbal approach while also being contingent on random haecceities of the poet. Specifics I talk. Yes, once your madness has been absorbed by history.
A case in point: What might aesthetic investigation of the notion of pidgin lead to—once you realize that the scholarly acronym for one pidgin (HCE, Hawaiian Creole English) chimes w/ old Here Comes Everybody himself or themselves; & that you presently live on Kauai, northernmost of the Hawaiian islands, & have experience of both Singlish (Singaporean English) &, I suppose, Irnglish (various operations on English as it moved into Irish sensibilities & contexts); & now have a truculently arbitrary means of linking Hawai‘i & Ireland in a 3-part project called h c e.
A pidgin, of course, is much more than an idiom or even a dialect, closer but cigarless to a jargon. The word likely comes from the Chinese pronunciation of ‘business.’ A pidgin is an ad-hoc cobbled together to enable people of disparate languages, cultures, & ranks to function in a variety of work situations: mining, mercenary, trade, shipboard, plantation … a discourse to facilitate proto-imperial coercion from the start, it was almost as soon one of subaltern camaraderie. (When it outlasts a generation—when parents pass the ad-hoc on to their children—a pidgin becomes a creole, a language in its own right.)
I claim no fluency in any of the Hawaiian pidgins (minor variations island to island). As a poet, I’m more interested in what can be glimpsed or grazed, startled into apprehension, via the potentially heretical notion of ‘a pidgin of one.’ The first two sections, h & c, have, among many other things, built a vocabulary of repeating words for use in e (standing, at least in my own mind, for english—or extinction—or emergence—or elder tree, etc) in a variety of fictional work situations, beginning w/ a trial, or mebbe only a trial. When I first came to Kauai, I could understand perhaps 30% of what one of our neighbors said; now I’m at around 70%. & section e as I embark on it is much to do w/ finding means of crafting relative meaning-opacities, given our experience of rushing-in aspects of the world is rather musical (audible, visual, ‘furniture’) than verbal & bearing in mind another of Olson’s remarks, this from his Mayan Letters of 1953: “Joyce … did not improve on … the Irish of the time the Irish were the culture-bosses, what was it, 7th–9th century, or something: he tried to get at the problem by running one language into another … more relevant to commerce, now, than … to the aesthetic problem.” We do run words together, & we like doing voice impressions. & Leopold Bloom, like the hero of North by Northwest (1959), is in advertising.
We hit the poetics from the outset. That chimes with me, with my disenchantment with aesthetics, aesthetics in Modernity certainly. To reprise Olson:
… every element in an open poem (the syllable, the line, as well as the image, the sound, the sense) must be taken up as participants in the kinetic of the poem just as solidly as we are accustomed to take what we call the objects of reality; and that these elements are to be seen as creating the tensions of a poem just as totally as do those other objects create what we know as the world. (Olson, Projective Verse)
With the focus entirely on how the poem is made, the undertow is irresistible, pulling us toward the ontological sense of poetics. What mind and breath can draw together in poetry is a distillation of something occulted already in the mess of the mundane. Say to me: “what is not poetry is the will to make poetry” and I hear the philosopher breaking wind. It can be that bad. The will to make poetry is bound into precedent, principle, pre-existing lines of thought, … it beggars heritage and that is not poetry, but it is the ghost of an ontological poetics: “the objects of reality … create what we know as the world” (ibid). Olson invokes a contrapuntal logic; this is no mere metaphor.
Hence we come to where—take a breath—ontological reserves trigger the production of syllable and line, and do so reflexively to “afford both a concern for a poem or poetic project & a glimpse of the real”—concern for the former in the interests of the latter. But is the motive warranted and is it a genuine prospect? This brings us back to the original question.
If “a glimpse of the real” is “a genuine prospect” the implication must be that in the last instance language is adequate. Yet its recalcitrance impresses itself at every turn; the more the poet pushes and pulls the syllables into breathable lines and the more the vivid specificities that inhabit the poet’s reality, and that represent its most substantial reserve/resource, are brought into play, the more there is that can be said and must be said.
Thus words do not reveal the real, they (ad)dress it, they make a reality of the little that they grasp by fashioning fascinators (as/of/for things). The “random haecceities of the poet” are thus particularly pointed instances of necessary illusion. Self-delusion is not involved; the poet knows full well that they can keep scratching away at the surface of things, that they are expected to do so. Usually the more work the poet puts in the fewer words are needed to make a poem. The clarity of a ‘this’ does not reside in the words used to point to it, but it can seem to when great economy of means is achieved.
The problem is that economy of means may generate monsters. The real may intrude in the guise of an elusive essence, but that is passé for the poet today. Who really cares anymore for another way to say … “I love you” or “goodbye” or “I fear death” or “nature is mysterious” etc, etc? The ‘elusive essence’ is from one perspective a distraction, perfect for play and for time-wasting, while from another it is, through iteration, reductionist fallacy and to be resisted. What matters now are our entanglements, that worlds are at odds with each other, living hells, and the poet’s address in this case defies the distilling trajectory of traditional “clearing” strategies. Babel beckons, the retrieval of an originary linguistic mode that promises a gateway to the real.
So, playfulness and resistance (equally purposeful) define the poet’s dichotomy and confuse the answer to our question: in the last instance language is (in)adequate … which is it to be? There must be more to say.
Post #2 … forthcoming
 Gilbert Adair—born in Northern Ireland, poet and critic, coined the term “linguistically innovative” poetry. In London in 1980 he co-founded, and for the next twelve years curated, Sub-Voicive, a series of experimental poetry readings. His most recent completed project, Syzem, a re-visioning of William Blake’s Milton, was published in two volumes 2014 & 2019 by Veer Books. He lives and works on Kauai, Hawaii, and his current project is HCE, which mixes a mix drawing on Spenser, Joyce, Badiou, Zizek, exile ambivalence, a more nuanced exploration of Christian morality than simply as rationale for empire, and the sonic architecture of Hawai’i Creole English.