I am reading Endymion, the third book in the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons. The acclaimed sci-fi series has a depth and texture that rivals George RR Martin’s Seven Kingdoms. The downside, of course, is that it is difficult to keep track of so many crucial details. So to refresh my memory I am re-listening to the audio version of the first book in the series as I make my way through the third. While doing so I was struck by this passage from the poet Martin Silenus, one of the more colorful characters in the story. It’s a remarkable reflection on the unique power of language and words.
The twentieth century’s most honored writer, William Gass, once said in an interview: “Words are the supreme objects. They are minded things.”
And so they are. As pure and transcendent as any Idea which ever cast a shadow into Plato’s dark cave of our perceptions. But they are also pitfalls of deceit and misperception. Words bend our thinking to infinite paths of self-delusion, and the fact that we spend most of our mental lives in brain mansions built of words means that we lack the objectivity necessary to see the terrible distortion of reality which language brings. Example: the Chinese pictogram for “honesty” is a two-part symbol of a man literally standing next to his word. So far, so good. But what does the Late English word “integrity” mean? Or “Motherland”? Or “progress”? Or “democracy”? Or “beauty”? But even in our self-deception, we become gods.
A philosopher/mathematician named Bertrand Russell who lived and died in the same century as Gass once wrote: “Language serves not only to express thought but to make possible thoughts which could not exist without it.” Here is the essence of mankind’s creative genius: not the edifices of civilization nor the bang-flash weapons which can end it, but the words which fertilize new concepts like spermatozoa attacking an ovum. It might be argued that the Siamese-twin infants of word/idea are the only contribution the human species can, will, or should make to the raveling cosmos. (Yes, our DNA is unique but so is a salamander’s. Yes, we construct artifacts but so have species ranging from beavers to the architect ants whose crenellated towers are visible right now off the port bow. Yes, we weave real-fabric things from the dreamstuff of mathematics, but the universe is hardwired with arithmetic. Scratch a circle and π peeps out. Enter a new solar system and Tycho Brahe’s formulae lie waiting under the black velvet cloak of space/time. But where has the universe hidden a word under its outer layer of biology, geometry, or insensate rock?) Even the traces of other intelligent life we have found—the blimps on Jove II, the Labyrinth Builders, the Seneschai empaths on Hebron, the Stick People of Durulis, the architects of the Time Tombs, the Shrike itself—have left us mysteries and obscure artifacts but no language. No words.
The poet John Keats once wrote to a friend of his named Bailey: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affection and the truth of Imagination—What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not.”
The Chinese poet George Wu, who died in the Last Sino-Japanese War about three centuries before the Hegira, understood this when he recorded on his comlog: “Poets are the mad midwives to reality. They see not what is, nor what can be, but what must become.” Later, on his last disk to his lover the week before he died, Wu said: “Words are the only bullets in truth’s bandolier. And poets are the snipers.”
You see, in the beginning was the Word. And the Word was made flesh in the weave of the human universe. And only the poet can expand this universe, finding shortcuts to new realities the way the Hawking drive tunnels under the barriers of Einsteinian space/time.
To be a poet, I realized, a true poet, was to become the Avatar of humanity incarnate; to accept the mantle of poet is to carry the cross of the Son of Man, to suffer the birth pangs of the Soul-Mother of Humanity.
To be a true poet is to become God.
Hmmm. Ponder that for a while.