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Posted on: Tuesday, December 10, 2019

We know. Beauty is Truth etcetera. Neither of which (de)nominations (de)note much in the current signification climate.

When I first experienced Adrienne Rich’s ‘Transcendental Etude,’ I was much taken by the “clear tones of the world.” They are identified with “cloud, bough, wall, insect, the very soul of light.” Non-consonantal, I suppose. Not words at all. Which may be truth before truth was thought of as something different from something else.(1)

The etymological emphasis in the OED is on the personal qualities of loyalty and trust, and the roots connect with those of “troth” and “truce.” So truth is distinguishable (as we know) from fact. Fact as descended from facere, to do; so what is done, has been done, what occurs. If truth exists, it must be a quality contained in an event and not the event itself.

The personification of Nature (purporting to be a virgin) in De Planctu Naturae, having impugned the credentials of Cupid [civilised love] with all sorts of pernicious effects, explains her motivation:

Disparaging malice, with its deep rust, did not drive me to these upbraiding and reproving censures, nor the intensity of burning hate breaking forth from within, nor the tyrant of jealousy raging furiously without, but the fear lest I should seem to strangle clear and eloquent truth by silence.

[. . . non enim vel detractoriae malignitatis caliginosa rubigo, vel incandentis odii fervor foras egrediens, vel invidiae tyrannus extra desaeviens, ad has invectivas accusationis me impulit, sed ne veritatis per se loquentis evidentiam videor silentio strangulare.]

– Alanus de Insulis (d. 1202)(2)

I came to this (very wordy) text by accident, but it’s an unlikely accident that Adrienne Rich also spoke of silence as the opposite of truth. The problem is, speech isn’t true either.

A conversation begins
with a lie. And each

speaker of the so-called common language feels
the ice-floe split, the drift apart

. . .

Silence can be a plan
rigorously executed

the blueprint to a life

It is a presence
it has a history a  form

– ‘Cartographies of Silence’(3)

The line-breaks and word-spacing imitate the silence, exhibiting by gaps and hesitations the presence of a question that has no grammar. The word “form,” ending this section of the poem without punctuation, also suggests hiatus. 

Harold Bloom wrote that the word “form” goes back to a root meaning “to gleam” or “to sparkle” but that in a poem form does neither. He says form is itself a trope, a figurative substitute of the “outside” of a poem for what the poem is supposed to be “about.” “Meaning,” he says, goes back to a root that signifies “opinion” or “intention,” and is closely related to the word "moaning." “A poem’s meaning is a poem’s complaint . . .” (4)

In that case, one might say that a poem is always against something, or in relation to something, but the something gets swallowed up or compounded within the glimmer/glamour of its form.

‘Meaning,’ in my own scheme, is a wholly relativistic procedure whereby one thing is wilfully read in terms of another thing: it is simultaneously illusory and necessary to our survival.

– Don Paterson(5)

Don Paterson waxes scientific in his comprehensive book, The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre. What we perceive is dependent on our organic constitution. Moreover, meaning is a power system, entailing the subservience of one frame to another. He proposes “meaning” itself as a form of trope that, if operating within a “false cultural metaphor,” may produce a “total lie.” [Paterson’s italics.] Poetry, he says, is our way of bringing some sort of reality to language. I don't think he means “clarity”—he has already explained reality as diverse and dependent. I think he means a way of expressing the complexity of what’s there. Experience, perhaps.

One way of summoning a clearer tone, or a wordless truth, may be irony. Harold Bloom described irony as “a rhetorical and structural limit that prevents the dissolution of art into positive and exploitative truth.”(6)

The expression “exploitative truth” set me wandering for examples. I think of point-heavy work (I’m not unguilty) where the writer burdens the reader or listener with irrefutable facts that ethically elicit sympathy or indignation, but are presented so gracelessly that one seems to have lost the feeling in one’s flesh (I hope I’m unguilty).

We know. The prime purpose of poetry is pleasure. Via pleasure to the truth of pain. Or via pleasure to the truth of pleasure. Where did I read that we equate moral goodness with pleasure and its opposite with pain? On the popular term “post-truth,” Yuval Noah Harari writes that the human is a “post-truth species.” [Would a better expression be “pre-truth” or “truth-illiterate”?]

Indeed, Homo sapiens conquered this planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.(7)

The wilder the fiction, he says, the more reliable the cohesion. An empiricist can hardly be trusted not to change ideological loyalties. I suppose one could say that by their fictions you shall know them.

Poets have often been called liars. This begins to look like a compliment. But Adrienne Rich spoke of clear tones, not clear meanings. The book where the phrase appears is on the trail of a "common language," perhaps a translation of the “clear tones” or a discussion of them, or a performance of how each person hears them.

I’m wary of a “common language.” It sounds too static and too subject to hegemony; “accessible languages” might begin to revise it, but doesn’t sound as good. Tones, on the other ear, are crucial. Tones have some reality in them. The reality might pass, but during the event a tone has a sensible feel—one supportable by flesh.

“. . . we have seen a myriad faces
Ecstatic from one lie.”

– W. H. Auden(8)

We know. This is precarious ground. Group hysteria and all that. I mean, I think, that, in so far as tone is vibration and attitude, the artist should be able to detect and channel it; and experiencers of art to detect and place it on a conceptual and somatic map.

In the first section of 'Images for Godard,' entitled "Language as City: Wittgenstein," Adrienne Rich alludes obliquely to Wittgenstein's statement that "The limits of my language means the limits of my world."(9) Refering to "the city of words," she writes:

when we come to the limits
of the city

my face must have a meaning.(10)

What is the meaning of my face before I speak or after I speak. I find faces unreadable. Their purpose might as well be the obfuscation of meaning. Nor can I read my own, but I see other people reading it who will never translate it for my benefit. No, not a face-book. Not a voice-book either, as many people tell nothing with their voices. Something like a mixed-media tome that communicates presence in its flux of signals.

Now I’m thinking that silence may be less a lie—or the support of a lie as Harari says—than a source of truth. “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”(11) Silence may be truth in its winter sleep.

< Next Blog: February 2020. >


(1) The Dream of a Common Language. W. W. Norton & Co, 1978.
(2) De Planctu Naturae.
(3) “Cartographies of Silence.” Cit.
(4) Deconstruction & Criticism. Harold Bloom et al, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979, 1.
(5) The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre. London: Faber & Faber, 2018, 113-116.
(6) Cit. viii.
(7) “Humans are a Post-Truth Species.” Edited extract from 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. London: Jonathan Cape, 2019.
(8) “Sonnets from China,” XII. Collected Poems, Edward Mendelson ed. London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1994, 190.
(9) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
(10) The Will to Change, W. W. Norton & Co., 1971.
(11) John Cage. Silence. Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

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