By Damian Rollison
This talk was written and originally delivered in 2005, and read again on November 21, 2021.
Long before automobiles, airplanes, and telephones; long before recorded sound, motion pictures, radio, television, and computers; long before that amazing but, to our eyes, rather dated technology of the book, humankind was composing and listening to poems. Long before there were any novels and before there were any plays, poetry being the oldest of the literary genres, the genre from which, according to one theory, all the others emerged. Few other cultural products would appear to fulfill so basic a human need. Humans were able to get along rather well for thousands of years without automobiles, airplanes, and the rest — as difficult as that might be to imagine, when you stop to think about the prevalence of these technologies in our lives — but we seem never to have been able to get along without poetry. Poetry is about as old as fire-making, we might surmise, although because poetry is older than history we cannot do more than surmise, imagine, wonder about its origins. As old as the wheel. As old as the notion of making a picture on a cave wall. As old as song. As old as language, perhaps. If poetry belongs to the prehistory of humankind, then to speak of its origins we must imagine ourselves back in the era of first propositions, the age when those fundamental achievements that distinguished man, for better or worse, from the animals were accomplished.
We might think of poetry as a kind of technology. It is, like the wheel and the making of fire, one of the first technologies — a basic technology, but no less elegant for that. The Greek technología derives from téchnē: art, craft, skill; or, a set of rules in art. Technology is the application of knowledge via a set of rules to practical ends, and as you see its origins are associated with the idea of art. But since we are dwelling in the era of first propositions, I should point out that “art” itself is not a word, or more properly it is not a concept, that should be considered foreign to technology. Art derives from ars, more or less the Latin equivalent of the Greek téchnē: the principles and methods governing a branch of learning; skill in conducting any human activity; and most importantly, skilled workmanship, execution, or agency, as distinguished from nature, a point which I’ll be returning to shortly. But I was careful to distinguish between the word and the concept a moment ago because the blurring of the boundaries between ars and téchnē, between art and science,is itself older than either of those words or the languages from which they come. It is certainly older than etymology. In the age of human origins, as I imagine it, art and science were wedded together in the seemingly innate human desire to take inspiration from the raw materials of nature and transmute them into objects for human use. There is something sculptural, and even poetic, in the invention of the wheel, just as there is something fundamentally technological about the invention of poetry. The invention of the wheel took place, let us imagine, according to a three-stage process. First, humans took note of the fact of curved bodies in nature: the curves of hills, of clouds, of rocks smoothed by moving water; the imperfect spheres of eggs and fruit. Second, our capacity to transform the data of experience by means of imagination permitted us to conceive of the idea of a perfect roundedness, a circle, an object that by itself does not exist in nature, where the closest approximation is an ellipse. Third and finally, we developed tools and a set of skills whereby we applied the concept of a perfect roundedness to that very raw material that inspired us to begin with, and thereby transformed the inherent but imperfect roundedness of stones into objects that matched or came close — closer than anything in nature — to matching our concept of the perfect circle. Nature transformed, first by imagination and then by skill, becomes art. Artifice: the creation of objects for human use by means of applied knowledge. Artisan: the one who creates. Artificial: made by human hands, by human skill; derived from nature but no longer a part of nature. It’s a short step from artisan to artist, from wheel-maker to poet. I imagine that it didn’t occur to the first humans to make the distinction.
The origins of poetry are similarly inextricable from the origins of language itself. And language, in turn, is perhaps the most fundamental of human technologies, and perhaps also the most mysterious, because it is the technology that contains all the others. If we say that language developed according to the three-stage model of the wheel we will be left ultimately unsatisfied by the explanation, although it does not feel entirely inaccurate. We hear the bird call to its mate and note that sound can carry the burden of sense. We take this basic mechanism and transmute it by means of imagination into a general notion of matching a sound to an object, or more properly, matching a sound to a concept, for even words that name physical objects are naming a class of things rather than a particular thing, so that without “a tree” we could not have “the tree.” Finally, we apply our skill as sound-makers and our ability to imagine a seemingly limitless myriad of concepts to develop a systematic correlation of sound to meaning. Certainly it can be said for this model of the development of language, at least, that it reaches the right conclusions. According to the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who more or less invented modern structural linguistics around the turn of the twentieth century, the basic unit in the structure of language is the sign. A sign for Saussure is a two-part entity, consisting of a signifier, or a particular sound-sequence, and a signified, a concept with which that particular sound-sequence is more or less arbitrarily associated. With a few exceptions, such as onomatopoeia, those words that imitate the sound they stand for (“moo,” “beep,” “snort”), we have no good reason for assuming, according to Saussure, that typical word-sounds such as “tree” or “bird” have anything to do with the concept to which they refer, except that language functions by establishing a fixed relation between the sound and the concept. After all, how could we account for the very different sound-patterns that designate the same concept in different language families (bird in Anglo-Saxon English but oiseau in Saussure’s native French) if sound had an essential rather than an arbitrary relation to sense?
Language thus makes a fundamental break from nature in order to reflect nature from a different vantage point — it holds the mirror up to nature, as Shakespeare said of art — and thus language may be thought of as the ur-technology, that first technological breakthrough from which all others descend. The innovator of the wheel would not have been able to conceive of and to execute the notion of perfect roundedness in anything more than a half-formed or chaotic fashion, I believe, had he or she not been able to communicate, first privately and then publicly, that notion in words. But I have said before that this account of the origins of language would leave us unsatisfied, and this is true because the raw materials from which human language is formed are not taken entirely from outside of us, and do not depend merely on man’s capacity for observing external phenomena and transmuting them by means of imagination. Rather, we ourselves are sound-making creatures, and we must first have been able to engage in our own version of the birdsong or the lion’s roar, our own fundamental welcomings and warnings, our own grunts of pain or squeals of pleasure. So it was from human raw materials as much if not more than observation of other creatures that language must have arisen. Our ability to take these instinctive grunts and groans and, by reflecting on the functioning of those sounds — by reflecting, that is, not on birds and stones but on ourselves — our ability to transform those sounds into a system for communicating the most abstract and ethereal of concepts — roundness and squareness, life and death, love and hate, good and evil, nature and artifice — relies on our capacity for imagining patterns and our fundamental desire to name them. More than anything else, however, language comes from the human need to believe and, more importantly, to feel and to know, that man’s nature belongs to the whole of nature.
Paradoxically, however, language in order to function requires that we surrender a portion of that connection to nature. We must have keenly felt our separation from the birds and the lions in order to have the desire to establish the connection in the first place, a connection these other creatures do not reflect on but merely express; and if language is the result of that desire then the invention of language must have been accompanied by a kind of anxiety. The fact is that language as the ur-technology involves a loss in order to gain. We gain the ability to name concepts, to recognize and describe patterns, to systematize our experience, but at the same time we lose the instinctive joy — or is it joy? Any name we give seems inadequate — of the bird who, as Shelley said, “pours forth [its] full heart in profuse strains of unpremeditated art” (emphasis mine). Poetry, as I conceive of it, is an attempt to make reparations for that loss; it is the expression, in other words, of an innate desire to return language to the state of nature.
Speech is improvisatory; prose is conceptual; poetry is designed. We feel a deep pleasure in the making of sound patterns in language for their own sakes. The poet T.S. Eliot famously said that he could listen by the hour to poetry written in languages he did not speak or understand, merely for the pleasure afforded by the sound and the rhythm. Indeed, we respond to poetry on the level of the emotions and ideas it expresses, but that requires a degree of concentration, and often of repeated listenings or readings. First and foremost, we respond to poetry on the level of sound. It may seem a large leap to go from grunts and birdcalls to Shakespeare, but if you listen to this poem you may get an idea for what I mean:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove. O no, it is an ever fixèd mark That looks on tempests and is never shaken; It is the star to every wand’ring barque, Whose worth’s unknown although his height be taken. Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle’s compass come; Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom. If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
If you know this poem well, and it’s of course a famous one, you’ll be able to follow some of the more complex thoughts it expresses without much trouble; if you don’t, you’ll at least notice that it’s a poem about the endurance of true love. But imagine that we didn’t understand any of the words in the poem; it would still communicate a deep pleasure, a pleasure we might describe as itself a kind of love, a love for the pattern-making capacities inherent in language. Shakespeare, as you probably know, is one of the great practitioners of the short lyric poem called the sonnet, and sonnets are some of the most carefully executed patterning activities that language is capable of producing. We have, at the level of overall design, a pattern of rhymes in distributed pairs that closes with a proximate pair — in other words, a series of quatrains where every other line rhymes, concluding with a couplet or a rhyming pair of lines. Such a pattern is something we respond to instinctively; it evokes a funneling down from general to particular, from speculative to definitive, or, to put it in simple, physical terms, the most important terms for my purposes today, from large to small or from broad to narrow, and so the rhyme pattern of a sonnet resembles the narrowing of hand to finger, of branch to leaf, of a mountain’s base to its apex, of the horn of a bull or the tusk of an elephant. A fundamental formal category in nature, that of the funnel or cone, has been replicated in patterned language.
The rhythmic pattern or meter of the sonnet is just as carefully organized. Shakespeare’s sonnets follow the most familiar rhythmic pattern in English poetry, iambic pentameter; that is, the rhythm of the poem consists of more or less regular alternations of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable — this metrical unit is called an iamb and the adjective is iambic — and each line contains five of these units, thus pentameter, penta meaning five. I find it interesting to note that this most common English meter consists of an odd number of metrical units per line; in fact, the second most common English meter, the ballad stanza, which consists typically of a four-beat line followed by a three-beat line and thus adds up to a repeated pattern of seven beats, works in odd numbers as well. An asymmetrical or organic kind of patterning is suggested by the use of odd meters, so that one line is always flowing into the next rather than standing self-sufficiently on its own in perfect symmetry. I hear the odd meter as a way, again, of replicating the designs we sense in nature, not the perfect circle of our conceptual imagination but the form of the cloud or the branches of a tree: organized, clearly not haphazard, and yet exceeding our ability to systematize. Meter in poetry is nothing more than an underlying pattern, anyway; rarely do poetic lines match the metrical pattern perfectly. If I overemphasize the metrical pattern in Shakespeare’s sonnet I will destroy a large portion of the music of the verse. So again, rhythm in poetry is a matter of creating loose, organic patterns — natural patterns — rather than rigid, conceptual ones.
Local patterning is evident in many places in the sonnet as well. You may have noticed that the poem is full of repeated word-forms — alters, alteration; remover, remove — and vowel and consonant sounds that suggest hints of correspondence, half-rhymes, momentary sound similarities that give pleasure to the tongue and ear. “Within his bending sickle’s compass come” might be thought of for this reason as a great line of poetry even if every word in it were nonsense. These local instances of partial and short-lived patterns, picked up and dropped at will, overlapping with others and conforming to no easily predictable rule, are like the momentary insights of an ordered activity in what appears to be a disorderly grouping: the realization that birds flying in a flock can all suddenly will themselves to turn at the same angle at exactly the same time.
Let me be clear on this point: I am not claiming that Shakespeare meant consciously to imitate the structure of a bull’s horn or the flight of birds when he composed this sonnet, nor am I claiming that the formal features of the poem necessarily correspond to natural phenomena in exactly the way I have described. It would be silly to assume so, because such an assumption would be very easy to refute. If I want to claim that iambic pentameter as a fundamental feature of poetry is a direct reflection of asymmetrical design in nature, I will have to contend with the fact that in French poetry among the most common meters is the alexandrine, a regular pattern of six metrical units per line, and that the oldest Anglo-Saxon poetry consists of a repeated four-beat line, both instances of even-numbered beats that evoke a sense of symmetry rather than asymmetry. The point is not that pattern-making in poetry reflects some particular truth about the relation of language to the natural world, but rather that the fact that we feel the need to use poetry in order to create patterned language objects is indicative of our desire to replicate patterned entities in nature and thus declare our allegiance to the natural by means of the artificial, to recover from that loss of connection to nature that is a consequence of language. Poetry makes us one again with the ebb and flow of waves, with the motion of the running horse, with the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of birth and death, with the orbits of the planets, and ultimately, with our own heartbeats.