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The Nature of Language:

A Brief Discussion Regarding What Poetry Is

In driving a car, I am not sitting like a back seat driver directing

myself, but rather find myself committed and engaged with little

consciousness. In fact my consciousness will usually be involved in

something else, in a conversation with you if you happen to be my

passenger, or in thinking about the origin of consciousness perhaps. My

hand, foot, and head behaviour, however, are almost in a different world.

In touching something, I am touched; in turning my head, the world turns

around me; in seeing, I am related to a world I immediately obey i the

sense of driving on the road and not on the sidewalk. And I am not

conscious of any of thisNow simply subtract that consciousness and

you have what a bicameral man would be like. The world would happen

to him and [to act] he would have to wait for his bicameral voice

which with the stored up admonitory wisdom of his life would tell him

non-consciously what to do. (85)

Jaynes, in his work The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral

Mind, is here providing an example albeit a simplistic one of the complex idea of a

bicameral human. To borrow his words again: at one time human nature was split in two, an

executive part called a god, and a follower part called a man (84) which both existed within the

same physical form. What we perceive as consciousness, Jaynes posits, only sprained forth as

this partition between god and man dissolved although due to the brevity of this essay, we
must here ignore the very interesting why but poetry, in a rudimentary form, predated the

breakdown of this partition. How could poetry, a thing seemingly created by conscious poets,

predate consciousness itself? It is my belied and here I seem to be not alone that poetry is

the most natural manifestation of language.

Poetry began with the bicameral mind (361). Jaynes suggests here he does point out

that due to the persistent arrow of time, the evidence is only inferential (362) that the god-

part of the mind of humans of antiquity spoke in a type of verse. As consciousness developed

and the following should be obvious it did not spring forth spontaneously and simultaneously

in all people, but rather was brought forth via gradual evolution. Those who lagged behind in this

age of transformation and remained bicameral into the new age of consciousness were often of

two orders: oracles, who communicated, often in a type of verse, messages of their (internal)

gods; and poets, who would pray to internal gods of inspiration, who would aid the poets in the

creation of their works, or perhaps simply speak through them. In our current form, we have all

evolved past these types of internal forces but poetry still exists. It began in the voices of our

internal gods, but in poetrys current state of being it retains a quality of the wholly other

(Jaynes 377). Through poetic inspiration, we can reach into our minds, and access the areas

which, in antiquity, spoke to us internally. Of course, seeing where something began does not

always precipitate an understanding of what something will be, or from our perspective, is. This

idea of an internal god-poet does seem to point, however vaguely, to a natural state: an organic

predisposition to verse from which contemporary poets arise.

This runs, in a fashion, in tandem with the ideas of Emerson and Shelly regarding

veritable child-like states conductive to poetic creation. It would be useful to agree on how to
conceive of this state of child; let us view this childhood, not as a tabula rasa on which the ways

of civilized people must be inscribed, but rather as a sate of natural existence. This state would

be, in a way, closer to the state of our very distant ancestors: not necessarily in mental faculty,

but in base desires and actions, which are later over-written with societys script. Emerson, in his

essay Nature, suggests that poetry lives in a child-like sense of wonder regarding our

surroundings. This state of awe creates a tighter link between thought and word, between a thing

seen and its written counterpart, and in this tighter link our preconceptions of the thing dissolve.

The poet is able to see a tree in a thousand different forms where a wood-cutter may only see a

shaft and timber (216) or, as with Stevens, in able to look at a blackbird in thirteen different

ways. Language, of the mundane everyday variety, had been contaminated by our own relative

intelligence; through over-thought we destroy the true shapes of our ideas. To look at a blackbird,

or a tree, of anything for that matter, in a variety of ways, one must first momentarily forget what

a thing is. The poet must revert to a state of un-knowing in which, as if a child or a savage, they

see something for the first time, hold no definitions of the thing, and experience only their own

pure thoughts. Those who only have basic language speak often in nouns and nouns used as

verbs and in a sense communicate without the contamination of modern language and as

we follow this direction of simplification we see that language becomes more picturesque, until

its infancy, when it is all poetry (224). This infant language of poetry does not dwell in our

children but in the child-hood of our species or culture. This simplification of language and the

state of un-knowing is mirrored in the young of our time, and is what the poet must strive to

approximate. There is poetry in the natural, and it was once natural for us all to see it, but with

the passing of ages, and our individual maturation, it becomes harder and harder to see.
In Shelly we find a connected view. In A Defence of Poetry he states:

Even original language near its course is in itself the chaos of a cyclic poem: the copiousness of

lexicography and the distractions of grammar are the works of a later age, and are merely the

catalogue and the form of the creations of poetry (827).

It should be clarified that I am not suggesting that all children are poets, nor that through, nor

that through not knowing a languages rules can anyone create great poetry, but that the same

degree of poetry that dealt in language in its own childhood can be approximated when a poet

temporarily reverts to a child-like state of wonder , and in that state the poet is not troubled by

the constraints of grammar and the like which our age has imposed upon language. A poet often

has learnt many grammatical rules, as many romantic poets, for example, also write intricate

essays, but a poet must also learn to forget these rules for a time.

In Aristotles Poetics we again find an idea connected to childhood, and in this case

directly, although implicitly, to the natural state which exists in children. He puts forth the idea

that poetry rose out of two natural human elements: imitation and pleasure.

Imitation comes naturally to human beings from childhood (and in this [we] differ from other

animals, i.e. in having a strong propensity to imitation and in learning [our] earliest lessons

through imitation. (6) Given, then, that imitation is natural to us, and also melody and rhythm

(it being obvious that verse-forms are segments of rhythm), from the beginning those who had

the strongest inclination toward these things generated poetry. (7)

Here we see a slight difference, but also an important congruency, between Aristotles and

Jayness theories. Aristotle sees poetry as growing from individuals whose natural inclinations to

imitation and verse were strongest, whereas Jaynes sees these early poets as bicameral man who

existed in a constant state of closeness to verse (as their internal spoke in a type of verse-form),
which, in itself, was a natural state. As the internal god-poet of the bicameral human mind gained

its insight through the interaction of the bodys environment, its poetry can be seen to have

stemmed from a type of imitation as well. These details are, however, largely irrelevent to use

here; the most important congruency is the fact that poetry seems to be a manifestation of

language that is natural to us, or at least that poetry grows from natural elements of ourselves.

The elements Aristotle puts forth, imitation and pleasure, though interesting and important in

their own right, both from from a lower common denominator: both imitation and pleasure are

natural to us all.

Paradoxically, what is natural does not come naturally, or rather, not easily to us. Other

than in childhood, when do we speak often and easily in a sing-song voice? If I were to speak

now only in verse though it would be quite an achievement not only would I be

perpetually exhausted by the difficulty of such a task, but the wider world would most likely

think me mad.The copiousness of lexicography and the distractions of grammar to which Shelly

refers are works of our relative age. Their persistent existence is something to which we have

become accustomed, and avoiding or ignoring such rules to enable perpetual poetry seems

absurd. However alien it may seem, to access the natural state of our minds from which good

poetry leaps,9 we must find a way to stop our thoughts before the filtering effects of our ages

grammatical and linguistic constraints. To write poetry, or rather to write poetry of any worth, a

poet must forget the advice of our collective mothers and leap without looking, linguistically


This idea of spontaneity is, by itself, idiotic. To write without any thought would only

produce nonsensical word-vomit: a far cry rom the elegance of Keats. Agamben says that the
inspired poet, or, to add clarity, the poet who relies on inspiration alone, is without works (60).

Pure inspiration is not enough; a degree of manipulation is necessary, but there is an every-

shifting balance that must be maintained between inspired authorship and diligent editing. In the

case of poetry, rather differently than in ordinary speech or prosaic text, this manipulation of text

is akin to an artist sculpting raw clay the initially raw, unedited inspired text rather than an

artist manipulating the clay before it physically exists, after which only subtle adjustments are

made. The absurdity of the latter example should shine light on how ludicrously unnatural an act

it is to employ grammatically constraints to an idea before it exists fully, and thus, how natural

the form of poetry is.

Wordsworth, Shelly, and Agamben all supply theories of the creative act of poetry, and all

these theories express the idea of editing as separate from creation, and seemingly different from

societys firm linguistic rules. Wordsworth sees all good poetry as being created in a

spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, but points out that such poetry must be created by a

poet who being possessed of more than the usual organic sensibilities [has] also thought long

and deeply (396). Shelly sees the poet, whose imagination is expressed through poetry, as an

instrument over which a series of impressions are driven like wind over an Aeolian Lyre,

but adds that there is also, in humans, an ever present internal adjustment so that, in the poet, it

is as if the lyre could accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them (826). In

either case, whether before spontaneous conception or after, the words of the poet are shaped by

the poets own agency, rather than by the impositions of grammar. Agamben refers to an idea

related to this as the idea of the Muse, whereby through inspired authorship, as manifest in
poetry, a poets words can come, and not simply be manipulated (59). Here simply is a key

word, as it implies an equilibrium to be maintained between inspiration and manipulation: the

words of the poet do not simply come either. We have already seen his views on the merits of a

purely inspired text without shaping by the hand of the poet, or rather his view of such a works

lack of existence, but I believe he would be as condemning of a text made of only manipulation,

void of inspiration.

Poets, as in the case with any creative individual endeavouring to create, must labour

greatly to create their works. I assuming that I am in fact a poet, and not some type of

impostor have spent hours meditating on a single word in a poem I have written, trying to

come to a decision regarding its removal or replacement, but only after the first draft was pulled

from my lucid mind. Poetry, like anything important, requires a great deal of mental refraction,

and its creation, like anything worth while, takes time. For poetry to remain pure, however, and

not simple become an imitation of a truer, ancient poetry, the first draft, whether written or only

held in the mind of the poet, must come into being with a degree of spontaneity, and only be

kneaded into its final form secondarily. Without sufficient kneading, as should by now be

obvious, the poem will of course remain flat.

Poetry, as has been my contention thus far, is the most natural state in which language can

exist. It is not, however, the most natural form that language takes when exiting our mouths. To

create poetry, the poet must pay respect to his or her poetic communication. The amount of effort

it takes to return to such a natural state of language cannot be overstated, but I truly believe that

it is always in such a return natural language, whether the poets were themselves conscious of

such a return or not, that the greatest poets of our past and present created their own greatest

works. How else can we explain how as poets age, and their experience increases, the greatness
of their works does not always follow the same curve of increase? Om the case of poetry,

practise does not make perfect, but rather perfection is reached through a combination of

accumulated skill of manipulating language and accessing, through a degree of spontaneity, an

idea in its most pure form. Though it may unprecedented effort, the works of great poets of the

past stand, and the works of great poets of days to some will stand, as proof that such a struggle

is truly worth it, in the end.