Rehearsal and reversal

Verbal Lego

Verbal Lego

I like to think sometimes about imaginatively (although not actually) palindromic phrases, that could make sense either way.

You listen, but do you really hear?

You hear, but do you really listen?

These two sentences don’t mean exactly the same thing but either way you reverse and rehearse them, they are intelligible.

Possible alternative articulations:

A: You pay attention but do you understand on a deeper level? B: You got the information, but did you really get context?

English is a language bursting/overflowing/welling up/exploding/erupting with synonyms. Which means we can do a lot of this rehearse and reverse. This can create elastic ideas that at their best are suspension bridges to the soul, and at their worst are snapped slingshots. ‘You heard, but did you listen?’ and ‘You listen, but did you hear?’ are not identical but easily exchangeable – they stretch language in a way that pings back and hits you in the face. George Orwell’s fantastic essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ has much to say about the glib way we use language, such as in this sentence. Using tired or ‘dead’ metaphors that no longer ‘paint pictures’ because they’ve become shortcuts, paths too often used. His point is that this alienates the reader from what is written, but more dangerously alienates the writer from what they write. So we get doublespeak and euphemism and collateral damage.

I do not always live up to Orwell’s standards, nor would I want to, but they are a useful resource, especially today when his frightful examples have become the norm.

A rehearsal and reversal, I modestly suggest, that does work:

You are open to suggestion, but do you suggest the open?

The reason I’m thinking about this is the phrase – ‘learning a new language is an act of poetry’ occurred to me. I limbered up and wondered if ‘learning poetry is an act of learning a new language’. It sounds potentially meaningful. But I don’t think it is. For me, writing now, there is more to draw from the idea that learning language IS poetry and learning poetry IS NOT like learning another language. For me, to rehearse and reverse this is (to pain George Orwell) a stretch too far.

If spoken interaction is a gas (and often it is), and the written word in prose fluid, then I would argue that poetry is solid. This is a deliberate attempt to subvert the idea of poetry as gentle and delicate. Simon Armitage talks about how poetry commands a page. Prose flows on and off but a poem occupies space. A poem, like a sculpture, is dependent on what isn’t there, what isn’t said, the gaps and space. Prose perhaps is more like a painting, an image built up from many brushstrokes or pourings (I recommend Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots, at the Liverpool Tate for a few more days).

The picking up and examining of blocks, putting them together, seeing where they fit, of learning a language, is an act of poetry, of dealing with solid and strange things. Verbal Lego.

To rehearse and reverse, to say poetry is an act of learning another language however, is to do poetry a disservice. It is to suggest that poetry is somehow ‘out there’. It is not universally accepted but broadly felt that poetry is something that happens ‘down here’. To suggest that learning poetry is learning another language is to suggest that it is something outwith ourselves. Again, not universally, but poetry is surely something within us.

So I urge you to engage in the poetry of learning another language, but not to see poetry as something ‘else’, as something ‘other’ as ‘another’ language.


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