I have always loved language, and especially poetry, for its exactness and its clarity. Poet Donald Hall suggests that poetry is “saying the unsayable,” which I think is the perfect bridge to the notion of god or spirit. How can we use language, ultimately a clumsy, inexact tool, to say something that is really important to us? How can we speak our truth? Or the details of living a spiritual life in human form? Philosopher Wittgenstein said you cannot enter a country for which you do not have the language, so the language of spirit and of spirituality is a country we may have difficulty inhabiting, at first, if we don’t know how to name what we are seeing, experiencing or feeling. How can we talk about god, or our experience of the divine, if we don’t have the language for it? That’s what poetry does: it gets as close as possible to saying what needs to be said, and the poet casts a net of words out across the divide we think exists between us.
I remember my old grammar teacher who smelled like cats and who felt completely ancient to me, even though she was probably 65. She was small and stooped over, as she taught transformational grammar where I finally saw the link between language and thought. Anyone who actually liked diagramming sentences (you know who you are) typically thought about how the prepositional phrases or verbals could be mapped out in their relationship to each other. The more complex and complicated the sentence, the more of a puzzle to solve. I loved it: it was the adulthood version of my grandmother paying me to organize her spice cupboard or linen closet. It was making things orderly and neat, but with words. Learning transformational grammar began to shift even this: every sentence, no matter what type, kind or length, had a kernel idea, a central thought that began in the mind, around which the phrases and modifiers circled and gravitated. It was the equivalent of sentence DNA, or a map of a molecule. It was the cosmos, a Milky Way of words, swirling around one, single combination of subject/verb and maybe object. There was an answer, a meaning, and it was grand! If the subject was understood (not stated) it could be even more mysterious. What was the thinker thinking to create this organization of language, of words, of syllables and the smallest of the small particles of language: the phoneme. One single sound. All of it, every tiny bit, had meaning. There was no meaningless menagerie of stuff: everything meant something if we could say it.
The poets, according to my teacher so long ago, were right “up there” with the mystics because they were trying to bring god to the people through language. In the beginning, there was the Word . . .