Same Words, Different Context, New Meaning

Bird. Hand. Rain.

Each word calls up an image in the mind, like illustrations torn from a storybook, floating aimlessly. But the pictures are vague, two-dimensional, and we don't yet know what to feel about them.

We are waiting for the fine detail, for the verbs to set these things in motion, the adjectives to shade in the mood and offer us the wholeness of a sentence. How different the experience of these words would be if they were spoken aloud as we stood someplace together - let's say during a walk in the country. If the context were not the grammar of a line but the being of a shared experience, our minds would read a different world into each of these syllables.

Bird might dart from my mouth with its own invisible exclamation point, meaning: There! Do you see it? The heron gliding from the reeds, drifting along the far shore, its wavering reflection ghosting beneath it across the pond's dark surface. Ah yes, you see it too! We see it together, holding the moment between us.

Now, with just a hint of tentativeness, hand might serve as a request or the offering of a gift. You accept my hand and we confirm the pleasure the afternoon has brought us. The word rain might curl up from my voice embodying the question: Is it going to rain? The clouds from the east are dark and scudding quickly. Did you catch the weather this morning? Better turn back toward home.

This is what is so remarkable to me about poetry: same words, different context - new meaning. The most exquisite or emotionally wrenching verse is constructed from the commonplace stuff of language: words, images, rhythms, tones, silences.

The same language that we use one minute to describe breakfast, the weather, or the cranky transmission in the station wagon can suddenly be pressed into service to convey the experience of a new home, the death of a grandmother, the birth of a son. The poet's language is our language - only more so. It has been intensified, molded into shape, expanded into something musical or reduced to a bare essence surprisingly elegant and charged. Poetry shifts the context of our words, and the context enables us to play the game of language at a very different level.

Which is why I am so puzzled by some of the contemporary critical notions about poetry. When I was in college, New Criticism was the reigning literary theory; it erected a barrier between the poet and the poem. Its method demanded: Do not consider the author, neither his or her biography nor any previous writings; focus only on what the poet has achieved in this particular piece, the universe of this single page. But today, Deconstructionism, the dominant critical stance, makes the whole realm of the author a superfluity, mere afterthought. The primary relationship is between the reader and the text. The author's intention, style, and overall vision are brushed aside. The reader is the creator, the meaning-maker, as he or she works through the poem.

The other day I was arguing about this lack of context with a friend who is an English professor. We stood in his backyard as he put the finishing touches of redwood stain on his deck. ``I don't need the author,'' he proclaimed. ``I can't know the author's thoughts even if I wanted to. All I can experience is my own mind deciphering the words on the page and constructing ideas from their raw materials.''

Somehow this made no sense to me whatsoever. Isn't the essential context of literature - I countered - the shared reservoir of memory, language, and thought? Would these words matter to us at all if they weren't arising from a person like ourselves? We are a succession of receivings: from some enigmatic origin to the poet; from the poet to the page; from the page, through me (through many readers!) into the territory of our imaginations; and then out into the world again.

There is a presumed connection here, a form of intimacy that links minds, words, mysteries into a chain of experiences. Why would I want that chain broken? Why would I want to define the game of literature as a case of supreme isolation - me and the poem, alone in a room? Each person a king presiding over a kingdom of one?

Within the core of each word is a small accumulation of humanity, some resonance of all the people who've spoken these syllables into life. Though we can never know their minds in any absolute sense, we feel their presence. As my pen races across the page, there is some faint recollection: What did my father mean when he used this phrase? What did William Blake mean? The mind is not a closed system, nor would I wish it to be. Don't I owe the language some awareness of its commonality?

By this time, my friend was cleaning his brushes; his expression told me he'd have none of this wishy-washy romanticism. He seemed to think I was somehow afraid to sit alone with the weight of the text, the responsibility for making sense of it all mine.

Again I thought of context: What about a poem presented out loud? After all, poetry began several hundred lifetimes ago as an oral creation; the very rhythm and sound-play of the poem came about so that the bard would be able to hold the entire text in his memory and perform it for an audience.

Though rarer today, the very fact that people still gather in small circles to hear poets read their work prompts a question: Would a critic at a reading be as quick to dismiss the writer from the equation and make off with the creation alone? Even as we interpret the poem in different ways, the audience relishes the intimacy of that bond - the word that passes through the poet, passing through us in turn. In this human rather than purely literary setting, we are the context for the poem, our thoughts are its grammar, our voices its musicality. Together, we fill the room with a hundred unspoken possibilities for each verse. Strangers, we are a little less strange to each other (to ourselves!) in light of this performance, and we leave the room with the poet's text intertwined with our own, still enthralled by the faint scent of mystery, of urgency that prompts such creations in the first place.

In the end, this is simply a choice I am determined to make. Even alone in my room, as I read a poem or write one of my own: I will hold this understanding somewhere in the back of my mind; this language is ours. My words become yours and become mine again. That we are able to at least hint at, if not capture, the transcendent experience of our human days with something so tenuous as words - this will remind me how astonishing the game of language truly is at its heart.

Because once I write or speak these words aloud, you and I are then substantiating a world together, holding it between us as if it were something solid, something fragile, a crystal bowl filled to the brim with clear water. It's something we don't want to spill carelessly, let alone drop to the ground and shatter.

Whether the words point to a long-ago memory, a fragment of a dream, or something as present as the dogwood trees in the garden I can see right now from my window - for this moment, we hold them together.

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