Reading: Words by Dana Gioia

Dana Gioia (b. 1950) is an American poet and writer. I found her theoretical poem about Words for a friend with whom I have an ongoing conversation about language and the other of language.

The world does not need words. It articulates itself
in sunlight, leaves, and shadows. The stones on the path
are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.
The fluent leaves speak only the dialect of pure being.
The kiss is still fully itself though no words were spoken.

And one word transforms it into something less or other–
illicit, chaste, perfunctory, conjugal, covert.
Even calling it a kiss betrays the fluster of hands
glancing the skin or gripping a shoulder, the slow
arching of neck or knee, the silent touching of tongues.

Yet the stones remain less real to those who cannot
name them, or read the mute syllables graven in silica.
To see a red stone is less than seeing it as jasper–
metamorphic quartz, cousin to the flint the Kiowa
carved as arrowheads. To name is to know and remember.

The sunlight needs no praise piercing the rainclouds,
painting the rocks and leaves with light, then dissolving
each lucent droplet back into the clouds that engendered it.
The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always–
greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon.

The poem reads like a Wittgensteinian reflection, albeit in a more naive register than the philosophical giant. Language is at first betrayal of some true reality here. I found that naive, as if anything can be ‘itself’ without the intervention of language. But this is poetry, not philosophy. The example of the kiss I like. I wrote a long expressionist poem entitled ‘the kiss’ when I was 20. I don’t feel I was betraying anything though: The poem didn’t describe a kiss in any way.

The insight is of course that what matters is how ‘real’ things are ‘for us’ who can name them, actively or passively. Things in historical context are so much richer. What goes for the Kiowa’s arrowhead flint related red stone also goes for the kiss. We have all the kissing of world literature at our disposal.

The poem ends with a lyrical description of light and rainclouds, then returns to the opening statement, that the world doesn’t need words. But because of that it is great than ourselves. Because our words are futile, we cannot stop saying our praise.

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