The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart by Jack Gilbert
I think this poem killed me. The last thing I remember, I was enjoying the unique imagery, and now I find myself sitting in silence, heart stopped. Maybe not murder. Maybe an orgasm.
What I admire most in Jack Gilbert’s “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart” is its beautiful specificity. The poem is an exercise in phonaesthetics of name (“Michiko,” his now-deceased wife) and demonym (“French,” “Etruscan,” “Sumerian,” “Ethiopian,” “Egyptian,” and “Minoan”). The symbols, too, carry specific complements: not “O Lord, thou art salt and copper” but “O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper, / as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.” Subjects progress from single unadorned symbols to detailed complements, and overarchingly, the poem progresses from abstraction to specificity: the italicized nouns (“Love” > “God” > “Rome” > “Michiko”) in the second and third lines, for example. The specificity grows.
Specificity in poetry is a drug. Specifically, mine. Montreal in June witnessed an impossible transformation: fortunate me, in the months prior a lowly intern at Summer Literary Seminars, suddenly the teaching assistant of Tony Hoagland. Incomparable Tony Hoagland. Let’s just digress for a moment, shall we? I was on high-fiving terms with Tony. I called him Tony. The great American poet Tony Hoagland? Nope, just Tony to this moi. I got a voicemail from Tony. Tony bought me a drink at an open bar. In what world…? Digression over. Back to specificity—zing!
In workshop, Tony regularly stressed the importance of particularity in poetry. Our exercises largely comprised experiments with interesting, phonaesthetic diction. His lesson recalled the “sensory particulars” of Ezra Pound’s Imagism, but unlike Pound, Tony didn’t present it within a framework of concision—especially helpful to me given my desire to depart from a concise poetic. I got hooked on particularity, on specificity, and ever since I’ve seen it grow within me. In my writing for Poets and the News, for instance, I began to notice a sharp increase in faunal imagery. I had never before entered the animal world with such poetic abandon. Happily, I discovered that it housed a rich vocabulary and a fullness of sound. The derivatives found in scientific terms are often phonetically alluring: “ducula goliath,” “megapode,” “superprecociality,” “markhor,” “capra falconeri,” “imagines,” “holometabolic,” “exuvia,” etc. Then there’s the surprise, too, of nominal compounding, which offers an attractive vibrancy: “spoonbill,” “caddisflies,” “antlions,” “lacewings,” and so on. Likewise, I recently wrote a poem about a room whose interior design featured prominently, and so too did design terminology feature prominently. I came across a palette of intriguing colours and materials: “canary,” “teal,” “cornsilk,” “acrylic,” “gouache,” “eggshell,” “tangerine,” “linen,” and more. All of these words are specific in sound and meaning because their uses are so specific, and bizarrely, consequently, I’ve learned to embrace scientific jargon as a poetic mine.
I’ve also learned to appreciate my education in Linguistics as a great writing asset. I reckon it’s to thank for my improved diction, what with the phonetic training and all. And who says the study of Linguistics is irrelevant with no practical career applications? I mean, of course, who besides my bank account?
“Forgotten Dialect” is a poem not only of sound sound, but of fierce intellect also. It grabs at my naughty linguist parts, a tease with implications. Where do we turn when our words lose their meaning? When semantics fails us, betrays us, leaves us just with our phonemes, morphemes, and syntagms huddled together, what do we do? This futile grasp on language, on slippery meaning, is a writer’s nightmare. Maybe a poet’s dream. Perhaps Gilbert’s message is hopeful. Following “But what if they / are poems or psalms?” is a series of copular sentences, in which Gilbert links a given subject to unusual complements drawn throughout the poem as pictographs. The result is a section of renewed symbolism: pictographs in translation may drop their original meaning yet pick up others. The signifier divorces its signified and remarries. What is emptied can be filled again.