Language is inherently under pressure, even this sentence. There’s the restriction of time, the constrictions of page space. There are the limits of understanding. “The thing itself always escapes,” Derrida wrote. And yet, an utterance’s ultimate inability to fully represent the mysterious source material of its existence can reveal other layers of meanings, which ripple outward from a speech act in ways the speaker doesn’t always control.
I’m just beginning to describe a quality within poetry I’m going to call decomposition, something we as poets can not only identify, but cultivate. For what is a poem other than a tantalizing glimpse at meaning dissolving, a ceremonialized “experience of almost” slipping through our hands? “A word is elegy to what it signifies,” wrote Robert Hass in his most famous poem, “Meditation at Lagunitas.” The very material of our art—words—are mortal. Linguists predict that at least half of the world’s 6,000 or so languages will be dead and forgotten by the year 2050.
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