Thursday, March 10, 2005

Breakneck Pursuit of Heightened Language

To be honest and accurate, I am much more a fan and practitioner of “heightened language” than of “poetry.” Poetry certainly utilizes and exemplifies heightened language more so than your average narrative, but they are far from being equivalents. It’s important for me to be aware of this, because it informs what kind of poet am and what my poetry aspires to do. Put simply: I write poetry because I want to create experiences of heightened language and poetry is the form where that heightened language emerges naturally for me.

What is heightened language? Well, it is more exciting than typical conversation, more image-filled than your average journalism, certainly more daring in its length and breadth, and generally veers toward a manic abuse of words and syntax.

The first example that always comes to my mind is the voice of the narrator, Jack Burden, in the novel All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. While Jack does not speak in heightened language for every sentence of the novel, there is a large proportion of heightened language between the covers of this classic. It took me only about four minutes to zero in on this passage as I flipped the pages for my example:

He took us to a night club where they rolled out a sheet of honest-to-God ice on the floor and a bevy of “Nordic Nymphs” in silver gee-strings and silver brassieres came skating out on real skates to whirl and fandango and cavort and sway to the music under the housebroke aurora borealis with the skates flashing and the white knees flashing and white arms serpentining in the blue light, and the little twin, hard-soft columns of muscle and flesh up the backbones of the bare backs swaying and working in a beautiful reciprocal motion, and what was business under the silver brassieres vibrating to music, and the long unbound unsnooded silver innocent Swedish hair trailing and floating and whipping in the air. (140 Warren)

Here we have a run-on sentence that imitates whirl and twirl of the figures in the scene. The event being described was designed to create shock and awe, so as Jack reacts to it, the shock and awe (if even short lived) adds fuel to the language.

The word “and” appears a dozen times as Jack attempts to recreate all that he saw. The effect is something like “I saw this . . . and this . . . and this . . . and this . . . “ The same style might be used to emulate free-associative thoughts as they flash through someone’s mind. The sense the reader gets is one of overflow, overabundance, and overload.

Some of the most intense experiences in life can seem that way--overloaded, almost too much to handle. In our busy lives, images zip past us with insane speed. Regretfully sometimes those blurs are our own families and friends. While the realities of speed can be costly, the emulation of that speed in language gives me pleasure. It recreates the experience of that speed through the music of language. It surprises me with its effectiveness.

Note also the repetitions of words and sounds in the Warren passage: the word “flashing” and the “-ing” sound. The repeated sounds create a rhythm that pluses through the passage, emulating the rapid heartbeat of those attending the described event.

These effects excite me as a reader. They get my own blood flowing in tune with the blood flow of the narrator. I aspire to write heightened language like Warren’s much more so than to write the perfect sonnet. I get many more thrills and chills from a kick-ass run-on sentence than I do from a traditional form handled with poise. I think it is only fair to myself as a writer and poet to be aware of this and to allow that awareness to inform my process.

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