Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus, God
in the details….
– Elizabeth Alexander, from “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe
In a dialogue with Krista Tippett, poet Elizabeth Alexander talked about words that shimmer, and how her young children would stop and ask her to repeat certain exceptionally beautiful words. It made me think of my nieces, at Christmas, discovering words together and particularly loving the word sock, repeating it over and over to each other, lingering on the S and the K.
We mostly lose that attention to the feel of language as we get older, but traces of it still remain. When James Lipton asks his Inside the Actor’s Studio guests what their favorite word is, some still answer with a word that has some music in it, or a particularly interesting arrangement of sounds. Meryl Streep confessed to asking her daughter this question before the show and then using her answer: coconut milk.
Elizabeth Alexander and Krista Tippett discussed the extent to which poetry was a necessity, especially in difficult times. Alexander said it must be necessary, because it’s as old as humanity itself. We have poems dating back to the beginning of language, just as we have images painted on cave walls.
This makes me wonder if we didn’t invent language as much for the beautiful feel of words in our mouths as for the meaning the words carry, and if marrying the two wasn’t one of the more brilliant things human beings ever did.