Saturday, October 2, 2010

What I Say, What I Mean, What You Hear

Guy le Charles Gonzalez, a slam poet who has gone on to establish himself as a really bright voice in the conversation about the future of book publishing, reposted a funny Venn diagram with two, distinct, non-overlapping circles: "What the poet meant" and "What you thought they meant."

Funny because, of course, yes. And yet... At last Thursday's NYU reading series, Matthew Zapruder fielded several questions about the difference between public and private language. The questions arose from this line in his poem "Come On All You Ghosts": "In this poem // every word means exactly / what it means / when we use it in every day life." This gesture, startlingly generous and probably surprising to most readers of contemporary poetry, assures the reader that we have the means to understand one another. It asserts that the writer / reader circles of the Venn diagram can overlap. Even for me (my own readerly predilection being for poems in which each word spirals out in countless directions), it's a line that comes sweetly, openly, irresistibly.

But that does not mean Matthew thinks the circles overlap 100%. In the Q & A, he made explicit the difference between public and private language -- and that each word functions in each realm all the time. "Really," he said, "it's a miracle we can understand each other at all." He mentioned his young nephew coming to learn the word "tree," for whom it means, first, the very specific tree in his backyard -- one you and I will never see. That tree will always live inside the nephew's word. And each of us has our own private tree inside the word. ("Towering tree within the ear," Rilke wrote in his first Sonnet to Orpheus.) The word is both "public," the abstraction you and I understand and communicate with, and "private," the particular no one else can know. So the poem -- "a machine made out of words" as Williams has it -- delivers a structure for readers, each of us, to share. Together, privately. As Matthew's brilliant "Come On All You Ghosts" gives us in its final lines: "I have done my best to leave // behind this machine / anyone with a mind / who cares can enter."

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