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across a tall-stemmed cup from ancient Greece that has Sappho saying, “Mere air, these words, but delicious to hear.” The phrase inscribed into the cup, translated onto a museum label, stopped me cold. I paused for a long time to drink in the strange truth that all the sublimity of poetry comes down in the end to mere air and nothing more, to the sound of these words and no others, which are nonetheless delicious and enchanting to hear. Sappho’s lines \(or the lines atgance suitable for writing, for inscription on a cup or in stone. Writing fixes the evanescence of sound. It holds it against death. The sound of the words is the first primitive pleasure in poetry. “In poetry,” Wallace Stevens asserted, “you must love the words, the ideas and images and rhythms with all your capacity to love the first condition of a capacity to love anything in poetry at all because it is the words that make things happen. There are times when I read a poem and can feel the syllables coming alive in my mouth, the letters enunciated in the syllables, the syllables coming together as words, the words forming into a phrase, the phrase finding a rhythm in the line, in the lines, in the shape of the words crossing the lines into a sentence, into sentences. I feel the words creating a rhythm, a music, a spell, a mood, a shape, a form. I hear the words coming off the page into my own mouth in transit, in action. I generate I re-create the words incantatory, the words liberated and self-reflexive. Words rising from the body, out of the body. An act of language paying attention to itself. An act of the mind. “Mere air, these words, but delicious to hear.” In poetry the words enact they make manifest what they describe. This is what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls “the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation.” Indeed, one hears in Hopkins’s very phrase the trills or rolled consonants of the letter r reverberating through all four words, the voiced vowels, the r-o-1 of “roll” echoing in the back of “carol,” the alliterative es building a cadence, hammering it in even as the one-syllable words create a rolling, rising effect that is slowed down by the rhythm of the multisyllabic words, the caroling creation. The pleasure all this creates in the mouth is intense. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” I read Hopkins’s poems and feel the deep joy of the sounds creating themselves \(“What is all this drenched spirit, “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!” The poem is an act beyond paraphrase because what is being said is always inseparable from the way it is being said. Osip Mandelstam suggested that if a poem can be paraphrased, then the sheets haven’t been rumpled, poetry hasn’t spent the night. The in and of themselves. The poet is first of all a language worker. A maker. A shaper of language. With Heinrich Heine, the linguist Edward Sapir affirmed in his book Language, “one is under the illusion that the universe speaks German.” With Shakespeare, one is under the impression that it speaks English. This is at the heart of the Orphic calling of the poet: to make it seem as if the very universe speaks and reveals itself through the mother tongue. IN PLAIN AMERICAN WHICH CATS AND DOGS CAN READ! The lyric poem walks the line between speaking and singing. \(It also walks the line between the conventions of poetry and the con deliberately different than the way that people actually talk and yet it is always in relationship to speech, to the spoken word. “It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place,” as Wallace Stevens puts ii in his poem “Of Modern Poetry.” W.B. Yeats called a poem “an elaboration of the rhythms of common speech and their Auden said: “In English verse, even in Shakespeare’s grandest rhetorical passages, the ear is always aware of its relation to everyAmerican vernacular from Walt Whitman to William Carlos “Having a Coke the sensation of someone speaking in a texturized version of American English, that create the impression of letters written, as Marianne Moore joyfully puts it, “not in Spanish, not in Greek, not in Latin, not in shorthand, / but in plain American which cats and dogs can read!” A demotic linguistic vitality what Williams calls “the speech of Polish mothers” is one of the pleasures of the American project in poetry. Here is the opening of Randall Jarrell’s poem “Next Day”: Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All, I take a box And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens. The slacked or shorted, basketed, identical Food-gathering flocks Are selves I overlook. Wisdom, said William James, Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise If that is wisdom. One hears in this poem the plaintive, intelligent voice of a suburban housewife who knows she has become invisible, who wants only to be seen and heard. What particularly marks the poem as a verbal construct is the self-conscious treatment of the words themselves, the way the words behave in rhythmic lines and shapely stanzas. There’s the delightful pun on the names of household detergents, the play off “hens” and “flocks,” the acute way the woman sums up her companions in the supermarket, how she pivots on the word “overlook” and ruefully quotes William James’s pragmatic American notion of “wisdom.” I’ve always been touched by the way Jarrell animates the woman’s voice in this poem, how he inscribes his own voice into her voice and captures the reality of someone who is exceptional, commonplace, solitary. IT IS SOMETHING OF AN ACCIDENT THAT YOU ARE THE READER AND I THE WRITER Lyric poetry is a form of verbal materialism, an art of language, but it is much more than “the best words in the best order.” It is language fulfilling itself, language compressed and raised to its highest power. Language in action against time, against death. There are times when I am awestruck by the way the poems incarnate the spirit the spirits and strike the bedrock of being. Other times I am struck by how little the poem has to go on, how inadequate its means. For what does the writer have but some black markings on a blank page to imagine a world? Hence these lines from the splendid Florentine poet Guido Cavalcanti: 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER APRIL 16, 1999