“It is interesting to note that poetry, a literary device whose very construct involves the use of words, is itself the word of choice by persons grasping to describe something so beautiful it is marvelously ineffable.” ~ Vanna Bonta
We sometimes hear people say, “words fail me.” Have you ever been stymied trying to write about something you care deeply about, frustrated that everything you come up with falls short?
Whether grief, elation, bafflement, or love — we often fall victim to cliché or manage a fair approximation at best.
In this poem, Jack Gilbert suggests that love — the most intense and wide ranging emotion human beings are capable of experiencing — might be the most challenging to describe in words. It’s ironic how Gilbert acknowledges the imperfection of language with a poem that is perfection in itself. 🙂
THE FORGOTTEN DIALECT OF THE HEART
by Jack Gilbert
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient tongue
has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.
Pittsburgh native Jack Gilbert once described himself as a “serious romantic.” Born four days after Valentine’s Day in 1925, he flunked out of high school but was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh due to a clerical error (yes, really!).
After his first book of poetry, Views of Jeopardy (1962), won the Yale Young Poets Prize and was nominated for a Pulitzer, he became quite the literary and media darling. He did not embrace this role, however, and for most of his life went into self-imposed exile, eschewing fame and traveling around Europe where he sometimes taught American Literature for the U.S. State Department. He would not publish another collection of poetry for twenty years.
Many of his poems are about love and his relationships with specific women. The “Michiko” in “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart” is the sculptor Michiko Nogami, a former student 21 years his junior, with whom he lived in Japan until she died from cancer at age 36.
The cultural references in the poem, especially the “spiral Minoan script,” reflects Gilbert’s time living in Greece and brought back fond memories of my visits there. The Phaistos Disc in the photos is one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of all time. At least 4,000 years old, it was discovered by an Italian archaeologist in 1908, and people have been trying to decipher its mysterious code ever since.
Recently, after working together for six years, Dr. Gareth Owen (linguist researcher with the Technological Educational Institute of Crete) and John Coleman (phonetics professor at Oxford), figured out what the mysterious language sounded like and what some of it means. Reading in a spiral direction from the outside to the inside, they’ve concluded it’s a prayer to a Minoan goddess.
Because the inscriptions were made by pressing hieroglyphic “seals” into soft clay, producing a text with reusable characters, the Phaistos Disc is considered by some to be a very early example of “movable type printing.” Fascinating!
Jack Gilbert, who published five volumes of poetry, died at age 87 in 2012 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. I love the idea of dreaming about “lost vocabularies that might express some of what we no longer can.” And I am grateful to poets for inventing their own “lost vocabularies,” giving voice to our deepest yearnings.
Enjoy this reading of the poem by Tom O’Bedlam:
How will you express your love this Valentine’s Day?
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The talented and clever Sally Murphy is hosting the Roundup this week. Take a trip down under to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared in the blogosphere. Have a good weekend. 🙂
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