All language is poetry. Each word is a small story, a thicket of meaning. We ignore the picturesque origins of words when we utter them; conversation would grind to to a halt if we visualized crows whenever someone referred to a flight of stairs. But words are powerful mental tools. We clarify life’s confusing blur with words. We cage flooding emotions with words. We don’t really know what we think, how we feel, what we want, or even who we are until we struggle “to find the right words.” What do these words consist of? Submerged metaphors, images, actions, personalities, jokes.
Seeing themselves reflected in one another’s eyes, the Romans coined the word pupil, which meant “little doll.” Orchids take their name from the Greek word for testicle. Pansy derives from the French word pensée, or “thought,” because the flower seemed to have such a pensive face. Bless originally meant to redden with blood, as in sacrifice. Hence “God bless you” literally means “God bathe you in blood.” The snub of a cold shoulder originated in Europe, during the Middle Ages, when people who overstayed their welcome were served cold beef shoulder (rather than hot food); after a few cold meals, guests got the message. We say “windows” because Norsemen kept their doors closed in winter, relying on a ventilation hole (or “eye”) in the roof. The wind played through it expressively, and it became known as vindr auga, the “wind’s eye,” which the English changed to “window.”
We inhabit a deeply imagined world that exists alongside the real physical world. Even the crudest utterance, or the simplest, contains the fundamental poetry by which we live. This mind fabric, woven of images and illusions, shields us. In a sense, or rather in all senses, it’s a shock absorber. As harsh as life seems to us now, it would feel even worse—hopelessly, irredeemably harsh—if we didn’t veil it, order it, relate familiar things, create mental cushions.
One of the most surprising facts about human beings is that we seem to require a poetic version of life. It’s not just that some of us enjoy reading or writing poetry, or that many people wax poetic in emotional situations, but that all human beings of all ages in all cultures all over the world automatically tell their story in a poetic way, using the elemental poetry concealed in everyday language to solve problems, communicate desires and needs, even talk to themselves…
Sometimes I think we mainly invent words to help picture ourselves in metaphorical mirrors. We humans are easy to know, but hard to know well…
Despite our best efforts, the closer we look at anything, be it wildflowers or fever, the scrappier language becomes. It fails where we need it most, at the outskirts of mind, memory, and emotion. Poets solve this problem by fusion (metaphors), bridging (similes), and other devices. But whole cultures do it, too….The art of the brain is to use poetry to navigate the world. We breed symbols, we speak fossil poetry.
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“Poetry is a dream dreamed in the presence of reason.”