Poetry’s ultimate problem is the task of describing the ineffable with words.

Within many great mystical and religious-philosophical traditions–Taoism, Neoplatonism, and Buddhism, to name a few–it has often been maintained that while everything that exists is a unified Totality, our minds conceptually divide it up into pieces in order to understand it intellectually. In our everyday experience, of course, the world consists of a plurality of objects. But closer examination shows those objects to have no clear boundaries; all things are gradated and blurred into each other. How then can they be called separate?

The same can be said of all we experience. Look closely at the content of what you consciously perceive and you find that at every given moment words like “happy” and “sad” to describe emotions, “blue” and “green” to describe colors, “short” and “long” to define lengths, “length” and “height” to describe dimensions, are highly inadequate to describe experience. They are highly abstract. And yet more specific and nuanced words are made so by further contrasts between things, by employing contrasts to an ever-finer degree. A woodcut, etching or sketch can use this principle to make a sophisticated representation of a subject using black and white. In other words, it can use oversimplified binary categories to make something which appears much more complex.

Thus increasingly sophisticated words can be invented to represent better the different facets of experience, though never absolutely. Since language is vastly limited, poetry may make use of such nuanced words, but also explores the boundaries of description by employing words in such a context, rhythm and form as to elicit new meanings.

The core ambition of poetry is to present meaning in the form of an emotional and intellectual complex which surpasses the capacities of ordinary language use. But its presentation of meaning will never be reducible to syntax and semantics. That is its power. Poetry relies on elements whose meaning varies according to one’s personal experience; with words, for instance, whose meanings are constituted not only of one’s knowledge of public usage but also of one’s ingrained associations with them. So it is that to varying degrees, when language affects a person, in that moment its meaning is no longer public. Used poetically, its results are not wholly predictable–though perhaps the poet cultivates some intuitive knowledge of the effects of language and cadence on the human psyche. After all, poetry can be skillful. But its skill lies in invoking meaning rather than representing it. Yet, while finite in its expression, the skillfulness shown by great poets in gesturing towards certain types of experience shows that poetry can manage in some sense to speak of the ineffable by way of words.


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