Lily Iona MacKenzie's Blog for Writers & Readers


How does language shape us?

5d9cf373-e31c-400e-9fe0-1655625ab9b2Recently, my husband and I got into a discussion of poetry and our different approaches to it. His training is in new criticism. Mine embraces more contemporary work, though I’m eclectic and like many different styles, including John Ashbery’s method of disjointed narrative.

My husband recognizes I’m onto something that Melville was alluding to in Moby Dick—the gap between language and what it tries to depict…how language organizes and creates our way of seeing.

After this conversation, we looked at some poems I had written recently, and he was reading them differently than he previously had. This time he was able to grasp what I was doing. We talked of how our training can shut us down, put blinders on us. He said, “Joseph Brodsky believes language has a life outside of us and uses the writer.”

I agree. I think there’s truth to the statement “in the beginning was the word.” Language is absolutely mysterious in its relationship to humans and the things it touches.

I also see a relationship between impressionism, some kinds of abstract paintings, and the poetry I write. It tends to mainly suggest something. Give only enough information/detail to set the readers’ imaginations working. I don’t want everything spelled out. I want mystery in my poems (and my prose)—new worlds.

I’m reminded of this quote: “Mark Rothko, painting his stripes in Greece, was asked: ‘Why don’t you paint our temples.’ He replied: ‘Everything I paint is a temple.’” I’d like to think that everything I write is one.

There seems some evidence for the idea that we are changed by the things we create—actually shaped by them. Ralph Ellison shares it. He says the novels we write create us as much as we create them. How mysterious language is and its relationship to writers.

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