WHAT IS THE LANGUAGE USING US FOR?

What is the language using us for?
Said Malcolm Mooney moving away
Slowly over the white language.
Where am I going said Malcolm Mooney.

Certain experiences seem to not
Want to go in to language maybe
Because of shame or the reader’s shame.
Let us observe Malcolm Mooney.

Let us get through the suburbs and drive
Out further just for fun to see
What he will do. Reader, it does
Not matter. He is only going to be

Myself and for you slightly you
Wanting to be another. He fell
He falls (Tenses are everywhere.)
Deep down into a glass jail.

I am in a telephoneless, blue
Green crevasse and I can’t get out.
I pay well for my messages
Being hoisted up when you are about.

I suppose you open them under the light
Of midnight of The Dancing Men.
The point is would you ever want
To be down here on the freezing line

Reading the words that steam out
Against the ice? Anyhow draw
This folded message up between
The leaning prisms from me below.

Slowly over the white language
Comes Malcolm Mooney the saviour.
My left leg has no feeling.
What is the language using us for?

**

What to do when you love part of a poem, love that part enough to want to learn it by heart, but not the whole thing? This happens to a certain extent with every poem I decide to learn. There is always a part of the poem that seals the deal, those few lines that you think: “YES!!! I want to be saying these words every day for the rest of my life!” And then there is the rest of the poem.

Maybe this is also a way to think about relationships. You might meet someone, go on a couple of dates, and find in that person something that you can’t get enough of: the way they interact with you, a certain kind of humour, their physicality. Whatever it is, you want access to that. And then there is the rest of the person.

It is for this reason that my guru, Kim Rosen, doesn’t parse poems. You will find if you peruse Kim’s poetry liturgy, that Kim has learnt some very, very, very long poems. Some of which really can’t have been line-for-line gratifying to either learn or repeat.

The most perplexing of these is a 1,500 word poem by Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss – Seuss rhymes with “voice” btw; also check out the oedipal tension in Theodor’s bogus Doctor title). Seuss’s poem, I surmise, may have a handful of lines, maybe as many as a dozen that filled Kim’s soul with joy when she first read it, but enough to spend a month or more learning “Happy Birthday To You” by heart?

Then again, if you think about the last thing you dedicated 50 – 100 hours of your life to, aren’t we all, whatever thread we’re following, some kind of demented Roy Neary (that Richard Dreyfuss’s character in Close Encounters of The Third Kind) building mashed potato sculptures of our own Holy Mountain, whose holiness is divined mainly by us alone?

“I’m going to learn 100 poems by heart!”, says I.

“Why?” says you.

“Because,” I reply.

I often think about Kim learning that Seuss poem, line by line, day after day, week after week. Did she learn it to recite at a special party for a friend perhaps? Was this her Happy Birthday Mr President moment, the recipients of her recital in awe of her memory skills in the way that those 15,000 people in attendance at the 1962 Democratic Party fundraiser cum birthday bash  were bowled over by Monroe’s saucy creative chutzpah?

I would worry about boring another person with a 12 minute poem recital. But then don’t the easily-bored at swanky parties all stop talking and sip quietly on their champagne flutes for fifteen minutes at a time whilst being serenaded by string quartets, or a rock star who’d been paid a boatload of cash to show up and sing three songs to them? Is it different if you’ve written the interminably long birthday poem yourself? Did anyone ever feel that way when Frank O’Hara stood up at a party to read one of his latest, like the ten page Ode he wrote for Michael Goldberg, a freely-associative noodle about all the things he, Frank, remembers at this juncture in his life about his childhood: porch doors, brown velvet suits,  hearing Mendelsshon in Carnegie Hall. No mention of Goldberg, or birthdays, apart from the title of the poem “Ode To Michael Goldberg (‘s Birth and Other Births)”. That poem just an excuse for Frank to be Frank. As this one feels quintessentially Grahamsian.

Maybe poem parsing in order to learn only the bits you like is a form of egomania too? There is a kind of humility, a surrender to learning a long poem warts and all. It is a kind of marriage, you might say, as opposed to a fling where you get to choose when and how to be in contact with another human being, sampling only their most enjoyable offerings.

Still, what do you do when you love a third or maybe even half of a very long poem, but find the rest of it almost execrable? This is the problem with Graham’s classic “What Is The Language Using Us For” (full poem quoted at the end of this post).

Am I the only reader of poetry who finds the sections beginning “I met a man in Cartsburn Street…” and “The King of Whales” section quasi-doggerel? I understand, in a faintly disinterested way, that the attempts made by this “double-breasted Sam” accosting the poet while he’s out doing his errands, “a far relation on my mother’s West-Irish side” are put there to enact some kind of sociolinguistic turn.  As if to say: see how language functions in creating speech communities and social networks, be they loose (distant cousins) or close (human friends, or the literature we love as friends, like this poem).

I understand all this, and yet, I still find myself crossing the road to avoid these sections, as Willie does himself when Sam hovers into view. Can’t we just stay in the weird, heady realms of abstract language, in metaphor, and analogy where the rest of the poem resides? That lonely,” telephoneless, blue / Green crevasse” of our own heads, where we too “can’t get out”, other than through language, which lets us down with its ready-made phrases and silence in the face of ineffable suffering or joy?

Of course one reader’s doggerel is another’s Poetic Ambrosia -a kind of God fodder, libation of quintessence- probably far too refined and subtle for this pleb to appreciate. I feel somehow behoven at this point to go and read some critical writing so that I can present a balanced argument for the memorisable worth of the lines that leave me cold, but I can’t be bothered to do so just for the sake of BBC-like balance [can’t be bothered, but I still do, see below].

I challenge anyone who loves Graham, who loves this poem, to commit a chunk of their lives to learning and reciting the passages that I have chosen not to learn. Instead I decide to learn three sections of the poem (the first quoted at the start of this piece), filleting the poem like a fish, keeping only the juiciest, most allusive, most poetic (?) parts for me to recite until the day I die.

**

What makes Malcolm Mooney’s plight so moving to me? Many things: his attempt to trail some language, slug-like, across a blank page, which still remains blank even after he has smeared his weary words over it – a literary version of Manzoni’s Achrome painting, or Robert Ryman’s Ledger. The way he shows us language’s constraints and impediments, its dreams of connection and reciprocity belied by a culture where we spend most of our time thoroughly alone, crawling around and through webs of language, rather than directly communicating with each other.

Damian Grant singles out Graham’s genius as being able to “put into words those sudden desolations and happiness that descend on us uninvited there where we each are within our lonely rooms never really entered by anybody else and from which we never emerge’. This is a poem that is “attentive to the chill conditions that isolate us from each other” writes Peter Robinson in his essay “Dependence in the Poetry of W. S. Graham”. Hear, hear. 

And even when we do emerge from our lonely rooms, most of us prefer texting to calling. Like a future-gazing sci-fi dream, the poem seems prescient, but also timeless  in terms of what it wants to share with us about our fundamental alienation from ourselves and each other as clothes-wearing, language-using hominids.

It is this tension between risky, vulnerable connection and a safer insularity that makes this poem so moving. Graham struggled, as we all do, with the former. In a letter he wrote from the orthopedic ward of the Royal Cornwall Infirmary to Moncrieff Williamson after a drunken fall (“I walked 5 miles into St Ives to attend a birthday party and coming home I managed (don’t ask me how) to fall off a roof 30 feet and land on concrete”), he relates: “All Art is the result of trying to say to an other one exactly what you mean. Because we are all each so different from each other inside (different even from good friends we think we are extremely sympathetic to), one of the things we try again and again is to establish communication.What a stuffy pompous lecture. FINIS.”  

It is this tug of war in him between the shame-induced inner-censor and the more modest human-ape wanting to “establish communication” that makes those moments when they occur in his poems so affecting. Perhaps the most memorable phrase from his 1946 “manifesto” (Notes On A Poetry of Release) is this one: 

It is a good direction to believe that this language which is so scored and impressed by the commotion of all of us since its birth can be arranged to in its turn impress significantly for the good of each individual. Let us endure the sudden affection of the language.

Let us endure the sudden affection of the language. I love that. We sense that Graham himself endures this sudden affection of intimate contact with another through a poem, in the way a teenager might “endure” a hug from a parent or relative: grimacing, but appreciative nonethless.

This inner-conflict can sometimes appear to be solipsistic. Metaphysically, in this poem at least, that seems to be very much the case. Solipsism, let us remind ourselves, is from the Latin solus ‘alone’ + ipse ‘self’.  

I am in a telephoneless, blue
Green crevasse and I can’t get out.

The point is would you ever want
To be down here on the freezing line

Reading the words that steam out
Against the ice?

If all we have are our own thoughts and self-experience (“the words that steam out / against the ice”), our own private, cut-off independent world with scant access to other ways of being, then the fallout from that is sure to be alienation and loneliness. This shared, validated alienation and loneliness are certainly two of the chief merits of this poem.

I like these (more hopeful?) words by Neil Corcoran in his essay on Graham in “English Poetry Since 1940” where he remarks that Graham’s “solipsism is mitigated by the sense that consciousness becomes most alive in these written exchanges between writer and reader, that the most alert self-consciousness may be created and shared within the poem’s language, so that the poem is always dialogue, community, intertext, ‘The longed-for, loved event, / To be by another aloneness loved”.”

When I am reciting parts of this poem to myself, I feel love for William Sidney Graham, and a shared camaraderie too. For does not any poem, even one now canonically packaged in a handsome Faber and Faber hardcover with its distinctive teal jacket, share the plight of most writing on the internet: to be unread, unseen, just another instance of white language, cultural white noise? What is the Language Using Us For is alive to this lack.

The irony of writing is that it comes from a place of wanting to communicate, to connect to others and belong through our words, when really its chief company and solace are to language itself. Let us then all endure, or even celebrate, the sudden affection of the language. Or as he says later on in the poem: let’s try and make language “a real place / [for ourselves], seeing [we] have to put up with it / Anyhow.”

Let us make some peace with language, and therein we might start making some peace with ourselves.

**

WHAT IS THE LANGUAGE USING US FOR (FULL POEM)

FIRST POEM

What is the language using us for?
Said Malcolm Mooney moving away
Slowly over the white language.
Where am I going said Malcolm Mooney.

Certain experiences seem to not
Want to go in to language maybe
Because of shame or the reader’s shame.
Let us observe Malcolm Mooney.

Let us get through the suburbs and drive
Out further just for fun to see
What he will do. Reader, it does
Not matter. He is only going to be

Myself and for you slightly you
Wanting to be another. He fell
He falls (Tenses are everywhere.)
Deep down into a glass jail.

I am in a telephoneless, blue
Green crevasse and I can’t get out.
I pay well for my messages
Being hoisted up when you are about.

I suppose you open them under the light
Of midnight of The Dancing Men.
The point is would you ever want
To be down here on the freezing line

Reading the words that steam out
Against the ice? Anyhow draw
This folded message up between
The leaning prisms from me below.

Slowly over the white language
Comes Malcolm Mooney the saviour.
My left leg has no feeling.
What is the language using us for?

SECOND POEM

1

What is the language using us for?
It uses us all and in its dark
Of dark actions selections differ.

I am not making a fool of myself
For you. What I am making is
A place for language in my life

Which I want to be a real place
Seeing I have to put up with it
Anyhow. What are Communication’s

Mistakes in the magic medium doing
To us? It matters only in
So far as we want to be telling

Each other alive about each other
Alive. I want to be able to speak
And sing and make my soul occur

In front of the best and be respected
For that and even be understood
By the ones I like who are dead.

I would like to speak in front
Of myself with all my ears alive
And find out what it is I want.

2

What is the language using us for?
What shape of words shall put its arms
Round us for more than pleasure?

I met a man in Cartsburn Street
Thrown out of the Cartsburn Vaults.
He shouted Willie and I crossed the street

And met him at the mouth of the Close.
And this was double-breasted Sam,
A far relation on my mother’s

West-Irish side. Hello Sam how
Was it you knew me and says he
I heard your voice on The Sweet Brown Knowe.

O was I now I said and Sam said
Maggie would have liked to see you.
I’ll see you again I said and said

Sam I’ll not keep you and turned
Away over the shortcut across
The midnight railway sidings.

What is the language using us for?
From the prevailing weather or words
Each object hides in a metaphor.

This is the morning. I am out
On a kind of Vlaminck blue-rutted
Road. Willie Wagtail is about.

In from the West a fine smirr
Of rain drifts across the hedge.
I am only out here to walk or

Make this poem up. The hill is
A shining blue macadam top.
I lean my back to the telegraph pole

And the messages hum through my spine.
The beaded wires with their birds
Above me are contacting London.

What is the language using us for?
It uses us all and in its dark
Of dark actions selections differ.

THIRD POEM

1

What is the language using us for?
The King of Whales dearly wanted
To have a word with me about how
I had behaved trying to crash
The Great Barrier. I could not speak
Or answer him easily in the white
Crystal of Art he set me in.

Who is the King of Whales? What is
He like? Well you may ask. He is
A kind of old uncle of mine
And yours mushing across the blind
Ice-cap between us in his furs
Shouting at his delinquent dogs.
What is his purpose? I try to find

Whatever it is is wanted by going
Out of my habits which is my name
To ask him how I can do better.

Tipped from a cake of ice I slid
Into the walrus-barking water
To find. I did not find another
At the end of my cold cry.

2

What is the language using us for?
The sailing men had sailing terms
Which rigged their inner-sailing thoughts
In forecastle and at home among
The kitchen of their kind. Tarry
Old Jack is taken aback at a blow
On the lubber of his domestic sea.

Sam, I had thought of going again
But it’s no life. I signed on years
Ago and it wasn’t the ship for me.
O leave ’er Johnny leave ’er.
Sam, what readers do we have aboard?
Only the one, Sir. Who is that?
Only myself, Sir, from Cartsburn Street.

3

What is the language using us for?
I don’t know. Have the words ever
Made anything of you, near a kind
Of truth you thought you were? Me
Neither. The words like albatrosses
Are only a doubtful touch towards
My going and you lifting your hand

To speak to illustrate an observed
Catastrophe. What is the weather
Using us for where we are ready
With all our language lines aboard?
The beginning wind slaps the canvas.
Are you ready? Are you ready?

 

Comments are closed.