A New Year’s Raid on the Inarticulate

 

The sky lowers, and the horizon disappears. A turning wind attempts to blanket the moon with sea-born fog, shrouding the contours of its face. Impassive, harshly brilliant above the fog, it rises ever higher behind fast-scudding clouds, lighting the transition between old and new: between one year and the next.

As midnight approaches, a lingering few stand silent, shrouded in a fog of thought, tangled in life’s web, caught between the land of no-longer and the land of yet-to-be. Perhaps a passing, shadowed thought suggests itself even to revelers in the street:This is the way of life.

Armies rise. Nations fall. Children squall into existence even as their elders sigh away toward death. Beyond the farthest reaches of the galaxies, unnamed stars explode with pulsating light while on our own shy, spinning globe, rotting leaves and the stench of steaming mud evoke a season’s final turn.

Amid these cycles and rhythms of life, against a backdrop of continuous change, torrents of words flow on: a steady sluice of syllables seemingly uncontained. For those who read, and especially for those who write, this flow of language brings solace. Like the river it resembles, language connects and cleaves, cleanses and comforts: nourishing the creativity taking root along its course.

Still, for poets, novelists, and essayists — for every story-teller or myth-maker stepping into or hesitating around this outpouring of words — another truth clamors for recognition.

Words, too, partake of life, rising and falling as surely as any civilization. Syllables rearrange themselves; paragraphs take on life; sentences fade into obscurity. True to their own rhythms and seasons, turned this way by time and that way by circumstance, words sometimes slip away and are lost: out of sight, out of mind, out of imagination.

Standing between last year’s language and next year’s words, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” whispers of an experience every writer knows:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow…

Within the context of his poem, Eliot’s words carry particular meaning. But for writers of any sort, they perfectly communicate an imperfectly understood truth. Words are not solely ours to manipulate. We do not own words. We are not their masters. However faded and frayed they may be, no matter how lost to consciousness, no matter how twisted beyond recognition or firmly consigned to out-of-the-way corners of our mind, words demand respect, and words will have their way.

When the shadow of wordlessness comes upon us, when we sense our  language has grown old and tired as the visions of our spent imaginations, we can be tempted toward a  misunderstanding of words. Confronted by blank pages, we fuss and fiddle, attempting to revivify that which refuses to be reclaimed. When a loss of language comes, no formula or key, no magic phrase, no sturdy discipline or aligning stars will guarantee the continued liveliness of our words. Last year’s words belong to last year’s language, the poet says, and there the matter seems to end.

But of course it does not end, for next year’s words await another voice. Emerging words, nascent paragraphs, sentences and phrases filled with light lie waiting in the shadows of the coming year. Not yet written, still unclaimed, resonant as the tolling of the midnight bell and brilliant as a half-glimpsed moon, they are, in fact, our new year’s words.

Whether and how we will give them voice remains uncertain. Perhaps we will succeed. Perhaps not. But among those who have dared to ford the swiftly-flowing stream of language, some have sent back bulletins from a newly-discovered territory, granting us guidance for our path:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years —
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres —
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition.
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
                                                                     “East Coker” ~ T.S. Eliot

 

108 thoughts on “A New Year’s Raid on the Inarticulate

  1. I love T.S. Eliot. I really need to “get him out” and re-read again and I’m grateful you’ve shared some most thought-provoking bits of his work here. You’re right about “the shadow” and writing. But it isn’t just writing. It’s any form of self-expression. I find that shadow when I paint — or rather, when I don’t, because something isn’t just clicking yet. And when I write. And sometimes, just when I “am.” That blank page isn’t just waiting for words. It’s waiting for paint and pencil. For hands to mold clay. For the laundry pile to be tossed into a machine, the floor to be vacuumed, the clutter to be relieved. The shadow, to me, is the not-doing — not simply because of lack of inspiration but also lack of motivation. It is both.

    A lovely thought to carry into 2019 would be to take those shadows on. And, in words better than mine: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

    1. I’ve been pondering your idea of the shadow as ‘not-doing,’ and I like it. On the other hand, what is it that keeps us from ‘doing’? I suppose that’s where issues of motivation, inspiration, and sometimes pure laziness begin to shadow us. Exhaustion, too. There’s a mental exhaustion that’s every bit as real as physical tiredness, and I’ve finally realized that all my fantasies about being able to quit work to ‘just write,’ probably would have meant the end of my writing — at least, in the beginning.

      Taking on the shadows would be a great project for the coming year. But maybe we don’t want to get rid of them all. During the monarch migration this fall, I looked and looked for butterflies passing through, and couldn’t see them. One day, I happened to look over at the dock next to the boat I was working on, and noticed a shadow fluttering along. I looked up, and there was the butterfly. Once I started looking for their shadows on the ground, I could spot them in the sky. Perhaps other shadows can be as useful.

  2. Gee, Linda! Even from the pen of someone who regularly delivers the remarkable, this is outstanding.

    And how to recharge a spent imagination…..that might be my resolution.

    1. Thanks, Judy. You know how it is; sometimes, things just work. I went to bed not quite happy with this, but this morning, all of the needed changes were obvious, and it took only one revision. I love when that happens, even though I don’t fully understand it.

      Wouldn’t it be nice if we could recharge our imaginations as easily as we recharge our phones or iPads? Even though it’s not as easy, it’s just as necessary. Here’s to a year of finding new and better ways to do it.

    1. I am, too. My life wouldn’t be nearly as rich if it weren’t for a clutch of writers that I turn to again and again for inspiration and pleasure. Beyond that, I’m such a re-reader that some of them begin to seem like old friends. I can go and rummage around in their cupboards for what I need without even asking!

  3. Thank you so much for such a wonderful post to end the year! I patiently wait to see how the old and sometimes tired words are formed once more in the coming new year into a new and vibrant voice.

    1. It occurred to me that your painting Call to Waking is a remarkable visual representation of the sort of in-between time I wrote about here. The sepia tones, the blank-faced houses, contribute to a sense of silent receptivity. Who is calling, and what the message might be, won’t be determined until the waking takes place, but perhaps 2019 will be that time of waking. It’s a fanciful thought, but a pleasing one.

  4. Well written, as always. Keep on daring.

    Given my predilections, your sentence “Words, too, partake of life, rising and falling as surely as any civilization” had me seeing things from the point of view of the words, so to speak, rather than of the writer. Words get born; they live and change and eventually die. In the 400-year-old “Verily, I say unto thee…” only “I say” is still part of the living language.

    1. Thank you, Steve. I’m not surprised you caught my attempt to communicate a sense that words, too, have natural cycles: living and dying as cultures and people change.

      Of course, there’s also that phrase about writers or speakers who “murder the language,” leaving the corpses of perfectly vibrant, usable words lying scattered along the narrative. I’m not sure what to call it — ‘wordicide’ doesn’t quite make it — but I’m going to try to avoid it in the coming year.

  5. You are definitely a writer’s writer. One for the ages that makes people ‘feel’ the words rather than just read them. Happy New Year!

    1. To the degree that what you say is true, Jean, it pleases me immensely. One of the little oddities of this writing endeavor is that when I do manage to evoke emotion in at least some readers, I know it will happen when I post. I think it probably has something to do with Robert Frost’s famous line: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

      I know you enjoy reading about writing, and when I was verifying the authenticity of that quotation, I came upon this short piece which I think you’ll enjoy. Here’s to a new year filled with words that do more than fill up a page.

  6. Beautiful words with which to leave behind the present year and usher in the new. That last line of Eliot’s seems pertinent not only to writing, but much else: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” Best wishes to you for the year ahead.

    1. I’ve little doubt that last line can be taken as evidence of Eliot’s attraction to and study of Eastern thought. It suggests the power of detachment from specific results, and that applies across the whole spectrum of life experiences.

      I can’t help thinking of your work in the last election. Working on behalf of someone you considered the best candidate — regardless of his chances — seems a perfect example of Eliot’s point.

      Here’s to another year of trying — may all our efforts be so successful!

  7. Oh my. I am smiling. Judy said it well… “for someone who often delivers the remarkable…this is outstanding.”
    You are certainly not among the inarticulate, Linda, and yet, like all of us who write, you must understand the shadow or you couldn’t have written this with such depth and beauty.
    Your writing not only makes me smile, it makes me a little bit envious, but sends me back to my own writing. I can’t write as you do, only as I do, and I can’t compare. I have to accept my own shadow and not allow another’s writing to cast a shadow on mine. Instead I revel in how you, and T.S. Eliot, and your readers, put words together. It is a delight. Thank you for the inspiration. Happy New Year.

    1. Comparison can be deadly. Eliot no doubt understood that himself; he left this little hint in the middle of the quoted passage:

      …what there is to conquer
      By strength and submission, has already been discovered
      Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
      To emulate—but there is no competition.

      It’s been interesting to follow last year’s news reports about the deleterious effects of social media comparisons: the unhappiness created by a barrage of reports from apparently perfect lives on Facebook, Instagram, and such. Though I’ve stayed away from social media, I experience a similar envy when it comes to photography. Looking at the gorgeous images posted by people with decades of experience and better equipment, I tend to forget the experience and equipment and think only, “I want to do that, and I can’t.”

      That’s when I remind myself of the rule my sailing instructor insisted on enforcing so many decades ago: “Never say, ‘I can’t.’ Instead, ask, ‘How can I?'”

      Here’s to a year of finding our answers to that question.

  8. I entered the online diary/blogging world 7 yrs ago. An early piece I wrote asked why we write so much. Your post seems to address that question. We are hard-wired for it. I wonder what new words I will discover and use in 2019.

    1. In only a moment, NASA will begin their press briefing with flyby results from ‘Ultima Thule.’ Those are new words for a lot of people, and they point to one of the reasons I think we write: we’re explorers at heart, whether we’re exploring outer space through technology or the inner spaces of the human heart with words.

      Personally, I think the advice to write what we know is just slightly wrong-headed. It’s a place to start, but perhaps not the best place to end. I love writing about what I don’t know — and learning about it in the process. Here’s to a year filled with new discoveries, and new words.

      1. I just watched the press briefing. What a great bunch of people. I am so happy for their success. There is so much more to come in the months ahead as the spacecraft downlinks the data.

        I think it is important to write about what you know. I might start working on something I know little about. Gradually, I know more and feel confident I can present and explain so I and others understand. I see a subtle difference in ‘write what you know’ and ‘know what you write’.

        1. I saw the first image, and listened to the “is it one piece or two?” discussion. It’s fascinating stuff. I’m looking forward to the next images.

          It occurs to me that knowledge might not be the primary key. When I began my blog, I decided to write from interest and curiosity. Sometimes, curiosity led me to learn about things I knew nothing about, and the process of learning and writing was immensely satisfying. One thing is certain: if I’m not interested in my topic, readers won’t be, either. So, here’s to an interest-filled year!

  9. ” But for writers of any sort, they perfectly communicate an imperfectly understood truth. Words are not solely ours to manipulate. We do not own words. We are not their masters. ”
    Love this.
    Perfect (amazing) image at top and solid reflective post.

    1. Thanks, Phil. There’s a lot of word-manipulation going on out there. Standing against it may be one of our primary tasks in 2019. In the meantime? Dare I say “Hoppy New Year”? I think I might, especially since great minds are thinking alike again.

  10. I will second ‘automatic gardener’–your essay perfectly captures the desire and drive to communicate, but that we, (most of us, anyhow), lack the talent of delivery. Wishing you a 2019 full of words!

    1. Thank you, Tina. Words are a bit like your birds. Some are flighty and fluttery, and get away before I can get them in focus, but now and then some decide to perch. It’s always fun when that happens. I hope your day is as pretty as ours is now that the fog’s lifted, and that the year follows suit.

  11. A very fine close to the year, and opening for the next.
    Your posts always sally forth in fine order, and seem not so much raids, as fine parades of thought, and thoughtful language. I’ve enjoyed each & every one of your posts this year.
    In the new year, I’m resolved to get my digressions into line, and following the darn train of thought. I’ll whip my shabby, undisciplined squads into some sort of order, even if that whole hairy horde of verbiage has to be slaughtered and erased. Time to reinstate the drafts and try again. :) Happy New Year, Linda! :)

    1. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the posts, Rob, and I certainly hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as I enjoy your comments. You’re a great reader — attentive and alert to nuance — and you’re funny as can be. When I tell certain stories in person, they’re much funnier than when I try to write them, probably because I’m over-sensitive to the fact that humor on the internet can be so open to misinterpretation.

      That’s one thing I’d like to get past this coming year. While you’re whipping your thoughts into line, I’ll be trying to let mine roam a little: free-range words, if you will. Here’s to success for both of us, along with having a little fun in the process. Happy New Year!

    1. Ah, Twitter. I’m on the platform, and follow a few people there, but as with so much in life, the key is selectivity. In some ways, I worry less about Twitter than I do about the increasing promotion and use of emojis. I’ll stick with words, thank you very much. A peaceful new year to you and yours, filled with clear skies, broad vistas, and those lovely west Texas flowers.

  12. I more than like this. Thinking of what to say next, I’m looking out the window where small black capped birds jump and dance at our bird feeder in the rain. I’m feeling like dancing too, so to speak. It’s wondrous how many persons can come and go happily, knowing that word feeders like yours are there In any weather.

    1. What a wonderful image: word-feeders. In truth, we all need them, and I’m delighted that you thought of my work in that way. My best to you for the coming year, Albert. I’m looking forward to sharing it with you.

    1. Thanks so much, Jeff. I’ve enjoyed several treats from your blog, so it’s nice to know you’ve found a bit of nourishment here, too — albeit of a different sort! Best wishes for the coming year for you and yours.

  13. Linda, part of me is just pea-green over your mastery of the English language — my friend, YOU are a poet, seeing the world in vivid colors, muted shades, and everything in between … and having an uncommon ability to express yourself! Kudos on another beautiful piece of prose. Thank goodness there’s no teacher standing over the two of us comparing and contrasting, for ’tis certain I’d appear nothing but a hack (and that’s okay, too, because we each have our strengths, right?!) Happy Happy New Year and keep these beauties coming!

    1. Reading and learning from the masters of language is so important, but comparing ourselves to everyone around us can be — unhelpful. I mused a little on comparisons in my comment to Martha Goudey, up above, so I don’t need to repeat that. I will say that I’ve come across some hacks in my life, and neither of us qualifies.

      Of course we’re different; you prefer writing fiction, while I fantasize about turning into John McPhee. That’s what makes life interesting, and that’s what’s going to make the coming year an interesting one for us both. Won’t it be fun to see where we are when 2020 rolls around?

      1. What a kind and understand response — thank you! Perhaps all fiction writers secretly envy those whose words SING with beauty, those who can describe people, places, and things in a way that makes the reader FEEL things. It’s way different to write dialog or come up with a plot like a roller coaster.
        You’re right, of course. We’re different people and that can’t help but affect our writings. It’s all good. There’s plenty of room in this wide world for lots of different styles — how sad it would be if we couldn’t learn from, and appreciate, one another!!

    1. Oh, Dina. You’d better believe they elude me: more often, than not. The trick is to develop new ways of catching them — just like you and your fellow workers have to be creative with your critters. Granted, pulling out the right word can resemble pulling a cat out from under a bed. Sometimes it works, and sometimes there’s nothing for it but to abandon the effort and go read a book. Here’s to a year of easy captures for us both!

  14. A perfect photo to accompany your beautiful story of words. I think you once wrote, in a reply to me, that writing so eloquently requires a lot of sweat and tears just to get the perfect flow of words. I think you did right by your self on this one. It is quite beautiful, and wow- what a marvelous ending to old year today and to a new beginning, tomorrow as well.

    1. Sweat and tears sounds a little too dramatic: it’s has a sort of crazy, angsty-poet-in-the-garret vibe. But writing does require time and persistence. A little routine doesn’t hurt, either. This past year, figuring out how to find time for both writing and photography has been an issue, but I’m slowly working through that one.

      So, I’m happy with this piece, and with some photos I have ready to share, and besides all that, the sun is shining. It’s a great New Year’s Day, and I hope the coming year is just as good for us both. I do love a fresh, new year, even if arrives dragging a bit of the old one along with it.

      1. Words certainly do matter. One of the problems on social media is the ease with which the level of rancor can escalate — not to mention the level of profanity. If it weren’t for the Urban Dictionary, I wouldn’t know what some people are talking about, and more often than not, once I figure it out, I wish I hadn’t!

        One of my hopes for the new year is that our leaders can learn to control their own tongues a bit. But whether they do, or whether they don’t, we still have the opportunity to fill our pages with graciousness and truth in the coming year. For that, we can be happy.

    1. Shoot, Ellen. We’ve all let fly with an unfortunate word or two. I’ve even made an occasional bad decision, and done a couple of totally stupid things. So it goes. I suspect the same will be true in the coming year, but last year’s done and gone, and we have a nice, fresh one in front of us. Enjoy it, and the good challenges it will bring.

    1. Thank you, John. Eliot isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m delighted to know you appreciate his work. Given the number of books you’ve published, I suspect you’ve had your fair share of shuffing, revising, and walking around the living room wondering, “Now, what?” It’s all part of the process, and well worth what we put into it.

      Happy New Year to you and yours, even though I suspect it will take a little while yet for that empty space in the house to be less noticeable.

  15. Helvi too read your latest writing, Linda, and thought it a lovely and very thought provoking piece. To remain alert on the possibility of ennui setting in when words pale and stale like a leftover slice of post-Christmas pavlova. To remain fresh and innovative with words can become so devilishly tricky. One cannot lie to words. Sooner or later they will catch one out.

    We are so lucky to have words. The evolution of words, ‘proper’ words, has been slow in coming and the transformation in getting words in print a marvellous invention that we can now use. Some people think words are free, but they come at a cost when without the following of the creative spirit that we were all born with, ‘words’, may fail us.

    There is a marvellous book by Jack Lynch; ‘The Lexicographer’s Dilemma.’ A great work that I will finally delve into, on the advice from Helvi. It is never too late to learn.
    Thank you, Linda.

    1. I read the NY Times’ review of The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, and it was interesting, if a bit breezy. I found myself wondering whether Lynch would consider emojis legitimate language, for example. Still, it’s always fun to be reminded of the ways words insist on changing and adapting in spite of the efforts of so-called experts who’d like to keep them a bit more corralled.

      Tell Helvi I appreciate her reading my piece, too, and give her my best wishes for the coming year. The past one’s been fraught, to say the least. Both of you should take it a bit easy through your heat spell: but you already know that.

      I love your image of words wilting like your Christmas pavlova, but even more I appreciate your observation that we cannot lie to words. I think that’s true, even though I can’t quite explain why. I’ll have to think about it more. We’re well accustomed to people lying with words, but lying to words seems somehow different. Thanks for the good words, and the observation.

  16. As usual, Linda, you rarely seem at a loss for well-crafted, well-thought out words. Only time will tell how well we have done with our writing. But, ultimately, who is to judge. One person who is effected, one person who gains a new insight, one person who is inspired, one person who finds joy in what you have written, one person who has had the darkness driven away, if only for a moment, may make your effort worthwhile. I have confidence that your words will resonate over time. A very special year to you, my friend. –Curt

    1. I grinned at your comment about well-crafted and well thought out words, Curt. One of the best tricks for achieving that is refusing to publish poorly-crafted and off the cuff words. Heaven knows quality varies for any of us, but I began taking the advice of a Danish blogger very early in this little venture. The tagline on her blog was, “If I don’t have anything to say, I won’t say it.” That’s wisdom, right there.

      One of the mysteries of writing is that we never know the effect our words will have on others. There are metrics that can be used to measure the effects of political ads and cereal advertisements, but with what you and I do, it’s a little harder. Book sales and online clicks are one thing; personal response is another. I’m firmly convinced that living by statistics of any sort has left more than a few would-be writers along the side of the road: some curled up in fetal positions.

      Well, here we are, in a fresh new year. It’s going to be fun to see how it turns out for us both. Here’s to the journey.

      1. Yes, Linda. Here’s to the journey!
        There was a time in my life when I used words as a community activist and saw much clearer results. But I have a lot more fun doing what I do now. Fortunately, I don’t have to make a living off of it! –Curt

  17. Thank you for the light, although it’s taken me the entire day to dare add anything to your exquisite piece. I hope I have something between yesterday’s words and the words that belong to another voice. Perhaps we can be one of those voices, but — you’re right — it means finding and articulating that other voice, which seems easy when I’m inspired by language like yours, but wretchedly distant and vague here amidst this “general mess of imprecision of feeling.”
    Only the fight. Let me not sigh away toward death.
    Happy New Year, Linda.

    1. Brad, thank you. You certainly have done enough reading and writing to understand — even if imprecisely — the issues here. I’ve come to think that one misunderstanding of that ‘other,’ personal voice is that it has to be created, much as one would create a voice for a fictional character. Finding and articulating seems more true to me, and more often than not that means eliminating those blocks that slow the “steady sluice of syllables.”

      Which reminds me that, when I was writing this, the sentence containing that phrase just wouldn’t work. I tried this and I tried that, and probably had created a dozen iterations before it occurred to me to try alliteration. That’s how “sluice” rose to consciousness. If it hadn’t been for our recent discussion about Sir Gawain, it probably wouldn’t have happened. It tickled me to consider the possibility that, from time to time, we even need to translate our own words: from the prosaic to the poetic.

      Happy New Year to you, Brad. I’m looking forward to enjoying your writing — and learning from you — in the coming year.

  18. Ahhh, my words are simply awaiting another voice! Hoping mine begin to spring from the shadows soon as they have had a good, long yearend slumber. Happy New Year to you, an excellent inspiration for me as I try to reawaken and press into duty the troublesome little critters.

    1. I’ve assumed you were traveling again, as well as being involved with family and friends through the holiday season. Even the most delightful distractions can make it hard to gather and express thoughts.

      I’m almost glad we have these two days of rain ahead of us. It’s making it easier to slide into the new year, rather than having to jump in at full speed. It’s an in-between time, with all of the complexities those can bring. But it is a new year, and I hope it’s a good one for you — with no more flooding!

  19. I echo the remark of Automatic Gardener above. I am not a skilled writer, or thinker for that matter, so am always impressed with your writing. But this is outstanding poetic prose. Wish I were equipped to respond as this deserves but others better spoken are taking care of that for those of us who love what you write but have no words to compliment what we have read.
    Best of everything in the coming year for you, Linda.

    1. I’m not a skilled musician, but I still enjoy the work of composers and performers. Most of the time, I don’t have a clue how they’ve managed to produce what I enjoy, and wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to describe what I find so appealing — except in the most general terms — but I suspect that’s true for all of us when it comes to a field that’s not our own. For me, it’s enough that you read what I write, and then take time to say, “I liked that.” Those words are simple, but they’re more than adequate.

      Here’s to a productive year for us both: filled with images and words that please us as well as others.

  20. “… words will have their way.” That really gets to the heart of the matter in my mind. It calls to my mind Yoder’s language around “working with the grain of the universe.” We cannot make words do what they do not want to do. It only results in schmaltz or worse. Writers do a lot of hard work, but it seems to me that the most important work they do is waiting.

    1. Speaking as someone who had to learn the importance of sanding with the grain, I’m especially fond of that phrase of Yoder’s. I hadn’t heard it, but it’s impossible not to begin apply it in every sort of circumstance. We know what it means when something goes against our grain, but it’s intriguing to imagine what would happen were we to begin going against the grain of the universe. Unfortunately, there are examples galore today.

      And I do agree about the importance of waiting. I’d only add what you know but what others might not: that it isn’t a passive waiting, but active, as we toy with the bits of thought and experience that eventually fall into place.

  21. I have yet another interpretation of the shadow that falls on writers leaving wordlessness in its wake… in that I used to have access to far more vocabulary and ability to use it than I do now. I wrote about it in my own blog in my ‘something about me’ post (second part – the first part was more of a whinge!) and how I lost most of my vocabulary when my ability to visualize left me, the two being linked. Some of that has returned, but not enough and I spend most days in a kind of fog. So I read your post and was left in a state of both wonder and of confusion, the latter to do with my inability to keep the previous few sentences in my head long enough to connect them to the later ones. I will return to re-read it and gradually more will sink in. I do have to say, though, that even with my deficits, I can still tell you write well, and I wonder if you know it?

    1. I remember you writing about those difficulties, and discussing them with other readers. I’m at the stage of life where I sometimes have to search a bit for words that should be familiar — particularly names of flowers and such — so I have at least a slight sense of your frustrations.

      I often have the experience of having to re-read, as well: particularly when I’m trying to grasp new or unfamiliar concepts. It can be interesting, to say the least. Sometimes, it’s a bit like peeling away an onion, layer by layer. Eventually, I get to the point where the “heart” of what’s written reveals itself. That doesn’t always happen, of course, for a variety of reasons.

      In any event, I glad you were intrigued enough by this post to return to it. In response to your question, I’ll just say that I’m certainly a better writer than I was a decade ago, and I hope to be much better in the future. Learning how to write’s more than being able to spell and knowing how to punctuate properly. I have most of the mechanics down, and can learn the rest. Now, it’s time to hone those intangibles that lead to good writing: curiosity, knowledge, honesty, discipline.

  22. Thought provoking and beautifully written. To me the shadow in the first poem is not just the challenge of finding words. It is the fact that whatever words we choose will only imperfectly express the ideas and feelings we have in our minds, and whatever action we take will almost certainly fall short of achieving the results we want. Another thought: people may ask why we continue to produce more words when there are already so many. You may as well ask why people keep having babies, since there have already been so many.

    1. Your point about words imperfectly expressing our ideas and feelings is spot on. Sometimes there’s a one-to-one correspondence between a word and the reality it’s meant to convey — a stop sign’s a pretty good example — but those make up a separate category. Imperfection’s woven into the fabric of life, which can be frustrating, intriguing, or even satisfying, depending on where we find it, but those imperfections can make the best stories.

      I think from time to time about the Navajo weavers and similar artisans of other cultures who intentionally add an imperfection to their work. There’s a good bit of wisdom in that practice, too.

      Now that I think of it, that imprecision’s probably the reason for so many words, too. We want to communicate our experiences, our hopes, our failures, but finding the right words can require piling up a lot of the wrong ones.

        1. That’s interesting. I wasn’t familiar with him, but I see that he’s produced a good bit of work, and was the subject of an interview in The Paris Review..

          I was struck by this sentence in the interview: “the Chinese authorities are afraid of truthful stories told from an individual’s point of view.” That reminded me of Yoani Sanchez, the Cuban blogger who began her subversive career by writing about the unavailability of milk and lemons. Thanks for the introduction to Ha Jin.

  23. For years and years I told my students to just start writing, even when the blank page stares back, blankly. The imagination will fire up. As to T.S. Eliot’s final line in the second poem you referenced I would add this ditty: when my father died, my young brother asked the rabbi where my dad went. The rabbi answered that it was God’s Business. I found that comment wholly understandable.

    1. Your advice is good, but it’s also my experience that from time to time the imagination doesn’t fire up. That’s why I have some ‘drafts’ in my folder made up of nothing more than good titles, concluding sentences, or middle paragraphs: not to mention odd, unmoored words just floating around. They get to stay for a while, but one of my first-week-of-the-new-year rituals is a scroll through that draft file, when I dump anything that clearly isn’t worth keeping. If I think to myself, “What in the world was that supposed to be about?” it’s a pretty good clue that it needs to be consigned to the trash.

      Your rabbi was wise. Trying to scrute the inscrutable can lead to frustration, at best.

  24. This morning it is snowing big flakes outside, and there is ambient light and a quiet in the woodlands. Except for the falling snow flakes and a few birds flitting about, time seems to stand still. For me, words to express what I see and feel are just never enough. I often experience a sort of telepathy with the wild things and nature, and wished it could be so with humans. I think it is possible, but there might be too much interference or noise in life, and maybe disbelief or not being open. Linda, your prose takes me on a dance that comes very close to the sensation, feeling and experience of having that kind of transference of the senses. Your writing is beautiful and piques the senses… it’s a little slice of an extraordinary experience.

    1. The quietness of a snowfall is one of my favorite experiences of nature. It’s not simply the absence of sound, it’s the texture of the silence itself. Finding words to describe such experiences is hard, but when we come close, it is as much a wonder as the experience itself.

      Living as close to nature as you do, it pleases me immensely that you found some of your experience echoed here. Sometimes, words do more than describe these experiences. They help us to relive them, and hold them close for days filled with the frustrations and necessary routines of life.

  25. Well put! The last line – “…only the trying. The rest is not our business” is a great deck-clearing summary for the end of the year and the beginning of another. What a title, too! Happy New Year to you!

    1. Clearing the decks is an important precursor to all our plans, hopes, and resolutions for the new year, isn’t it? Some responsibilities or commitments — whether to ourselves or to others — can’t and shouldn’t simply be deep-sixed, but trying to ‘catch up’ before moving on can be frustrating. I still remember the sense of relief I felt when I finally tossed three or four years’ worth of unread New Yorker magazines. There was a lesson there I keep remembering. Happy unburdened New Year to you!

  26. Happy New Year! The poems are wonderful. I especially like the last line of the Elliott poem: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

    1. That line is one of my favorites. There’s a difference between working toward a good outcome and worrying about a good outcome: at least, that’s how it seems to me.

  27. Eloquent! I remember in my youth when I realized words were living things — that language was not fixed and new words were being born — some waiting in the shadows to be birthed by imaginative thinkers. What prompts those word formations and the syllables that join forces to unify into one?

    1. I suspect it’s not committees that give rise to new words, and your comment about the role of imaginative thinkers supports that suspicion. Imagination, curiosity, and a sense of play surely are involved; sometimes, finding the ‘right’ word doesn’t mean selecting from a predetermined list, but creating something new. It may not be wholly new — it probably won’t be, since new builds on old — but that new slant, that new shade of meaning, always is delightful.

  28. There’s something too Platonist in the Hollow Men quote – that there is a gap, a perfection that is missing. And in the East Coker quote, “And so each venture
    Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate” there’s the same sense, that words approximate something that cannot be articulated.
    In my opinion, it’s better to say, “a raid on the unarticulated”. It’s not a failing of the words as such, but a matter of the utterance not getting to the heart of what we want to express. It’s not easy to write, or speak, our minds and hearts.

    1. I was surprised to see your reference to Plato: perhaps the shadow evoked the Allegory of the Cave.

      I thought about your suggested change to “a raid on the unarticulated,” and it seems to me that changes the meaning of the passage significantly. As I read it, the ‘inarticulate’ in Eliot’s poem doesn’t refer to the words, but to the wordsmith. I’ve always responded to that passage because it expresses so well the struggle to get through the tangled mess of history, emotion, ignorance, and sheer laziness that are part of the writing process. ‘Inarticulate’ is our state of being unable to say, while ‘unarticulated’ is what’s left unsaid.

      All that said, you’re exactly right that it isn’t easy to shape what we say or write into a fair representation of what we intended. The process can be frustrating, but it can be a good bit of fun, as well.

      1. I suppose there’s a bit of both in Eliot: the inadequacy of words and the inadequacy of what we write. It’s just that I question the idea that words can’t express what we want to express. But I’m getting way too philosophical, and I’m out of practice :)

        1. And there’s another aspect of that issue. Sometimes words express other than that which we intend. They carry what some have called a surplus of meaning: reverberations that resemble musical overtones. No matter how carefully we choose words, no matter how perfectly we think they express our intentions, once they’re released into the wild there’s no controlling how they’ll be received, or interpreted.

          I suppose, if pressed, I’d say that even the simplest words sometimes are incapable of expressing our thoughts perfectly. I remember with some amusement the discussions that used to take place in our home after my mother sent my dad to the grocery store with a list. What she intended to have on her counter when he returned often was quite different from what actually appeared.

          Fun, to think about such things. Now, back to word-wrangling!

          1. You may be familiar with the notion of polysemy, multiple meanings. A collection of words can have meanings that have a family resemblence to each other. In context to one reader or another, meaning can have fluidity, and still belong to a family of like meanings.

            What we mean/intend when we write is one thing and how a text is understood by a reader is another. Context is everything – understanding what you read is a process that happens in a particular time and place, and the context expands to the readers history. Thus my understanding of Eliot – which has in part to do with my engagement in the past with philosophy and linguistics. It’s better to wrangle with words (and images) that wrestle with that stuff!

            1. I have fond memories of reading Truth and Method by Gadamer, but my copy is gathering dust, along with the Philosophical Hermeneutics. I’d rather take pictures!

  29. You prompted me to check out last year’s top word trends, but there are always some that are related to politics – a little depressing. Thanks for an interesting post.

    1. I hadn’t looked up any of the word lists, so I did. It seems I’m not particularly woke, but I do pretty well with adulting. I don’t mind words from the political world showing up, but I’d be happier if they were different words. I’m getting fairly well tired of words like ‘witch hunt.’

    1. I keep forgetting about Eliot, and then remembering his work and returning to it. The “Four Quartets” as a whole is so rich, even though there are sections which I’ve never been able to fully grasp. It hardly matters, when there’s so much in his work to explore.

    1. Indeed, he does. As an English friend says, sometimes he comes across as too British even for modern-day Britain, but age-old verities remain true, even if unrecognized.

  30. I very much enjoyed reading your flow of words – it seemed so effortless, yet so poetic and perfect, the way you chose your words. I think that the space between idea and action, that shadow, is relevant to any creative medium. It’s comforting to have a word for it…

    1. I agree that the dynamic can appear anywhere, even in more mundane circumstances. My mother, who was a proficient knitter, decided to design and knit a dress for me one year, since none of the patterns she found seemed adequate. I remember her working swatch after swatch, trying one thing and then another, saying, “No, that’s not quite right.” Eventually, she worked her way to a solution, but the process might have been as frustrating to her Michaelangelo’s were to him. She had a vision of the dress, but turning that vision into reality was quite a process.

  31. I stepped this afternoon into a cold, not quite breathtaking, but getting there. It will go colder. I was at a loss for words. Inarticulate. Sometimes a gasp is all a person can conjure.
    Now, well into a new year not yet shed of the old and cold, in the radiance of a wood stove and furnaced air, I have the surroundings to enable a hope of prose or poetry: But, “shabby equipment, always deteriorating.”
    Perhaps prose and poetry is best evinced in gasps, at least until the tilt lets old sol bring warmth and green.
    Thanks for your Old Year’s goodbye and New Year’s welcome. “Words will have their way.”
    It’s good to be reminded that language is both promise and peril. My stack of books and periodicals and my digital bookmarks, along with my stabs in reading, writing and viewing remind me that, while I’m taking a more prosaic road, I share with the ancients an awe of and delight in wordsmithing, and a hope for audience and context to elevate my tries.
    So true: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

    1. It did indeed go colder up there. A couple of bloggers I know had some attention-getting experiences, but thank goodness what passes for moderation seems to be happening.

      Eliot’s “Four Quartets” is so rich. There’s a good bit in the poems either too opaque for me or just not interesting, but on the whole they surprise me by how well they’ve worn over time. Of course, what holds them together is their concern for time and history. That’s how they were introduced to me, by a professor who taught theology via Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter,, various works by Faulkner (including his Nobel Prize acceptance speech), and Eliot. I wish I could relive those classes, but of course that’s impossible. I don’t even have class notes, because we all were too enthralled to take notes. But the man was the living embodiment of Eliot’s wisdom. For him, there was only the trying. The rest, he didn’t consider his business.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.