There is a poem by Meghan Privitello called “[Even when I’m naked I can’t tell the truth]” which I love and which leaves me feeling utterly gutted every time I read it. This is what I cherish about poetry: the being both emptied and overtaken, the breathlessness of a language whose purpose extends beyond the mere transmission of information and into something of the soul. In a Paris Review interview, poet and essayist Mary Ruefle says of her own poetry, “Poems are my inner life, take it or leave it …When I write a poem, I’m writing for myself, the dead and God, none of whom exist!”
And I think it is something about that — the inner life of poetry, which, when I am lucky, can be rung like a bell to the same resonance of my own inner life — that keeps me coming back to a poem like Privitello’s and leaving it feeling like I have listened to a voice that speaks to me even though it is overheard and I am its secret listener. “Even when I’m naked, I can’t tell the truth,” Privitello begins. “Breasts, knees, cheeks — I’m covered in twins / that cannot speak.” Privitello’s language writhes with a wistfulness for communication, an inner life expressing its hurt. I hear it from the tiny ears of my heart. My body is rendered both ancient and anew.
Whenever people ask me why I like poetry more than most other things, I have trouble articulating a sensical answer because I cannot describe out loud my inner life (I don’t really think anybody can), which is the sinew between poetic language and my feelings of sharp-knuckled gutted-ness after reading a poem I love, the thoughts and fears and hauntings that intertwine within me like an invisible knot.
I love the Privitello poem because it yearns to express this paradox of the privacy of our interiority, which lives, according to Ruefle, among the living and the dead in a realm that is ultimately nonexistent. I like this depiction, and I think Richard Hugo would term this inner world of nonexistence the imagination. In his essay “The Triggering Town,” Hugo writes, “The imagination is a cynic. By that I mean that it can accommodate the most disparate elements with no regard for relative values. And it does this by assuming all things have equal value, which is a way of saying nothing has any value, which is cynicism.”
A few of cynic/imaginative moments from “[Even when I’m naked I can’t tell the truth]” which touch my inner life:
“Maybe if I build a little / dim booth, write For everything, I’m sorry // on my front tooth, I could begin to reveal / the things that hide in the lining of my coat.”
“I understand confession less than therapy, / at which one do I say I need to be touched, // I need a man to make me?”
“When I begin to speak, // I begin to unravel.”
With this in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the life of language and the idea that language that exists solely to convey communication is dead. The cynicism of the imagination, which equalizes all of its elements in poetry, enlivens language so that it is specific to the soul of its speaker. This is what differentiates poetry from journalism, for example, and it is what gives language purpose beyond the mere transmission of information. And the language of poetry is different from that of prose in that it is entirely free from the bounds of reality and rationality, but the unique ability of poetry to touch the inner life also implies that our own communication with each other cannot connect us deeply in this way. I could not explain the rationality behind my connection to any of those Privitello lines, even if I tried, because no clear translation exists for the language of poetry into the language of our prosaic communication.
I want more than anything to be able to communicate in this way with others, my inner life to yours. Ever since I read “The Triggering Town,” I’ve been hyper-conscious of what I am trying to say when I speak with others — I want the space between us that language fills to be alive, I want to connect through a realm that is both real and unreal. To speak in a way that is to unravel. And it’s difficult and exhausting to interact with others in this way, but I also think a lot of our most vulnerable communication hints at this kind of attempt to share our inner lives with those around us.
However, I think baring our inner lives to others would also completely destroy the crux of their existence. So it is all probably for the better, the maintenance of the profundity of our individual existences, despite the fact that the failure of language, especially verbal communication, to fully express these kinds of matters of the spirit can make discourse very lonely. But that doesn’t mean I have stopped trying to peer into the inner lives of others: I’ve been spending time with a lot of new people recently over meals and cross-campus walks and conversations in the grass, and my first questions almost always concern their childhood or the history they have inherited, to me one siphoning way of knowing someone. Which isn’t to say that I know any of these people at all.
I guess the question at the heart of all of this is: Is it possible for us to connect with each other the way we connect with poetry (and, more broadly, with art)? The short answer: I don’t think so, and it feels bittersweet. “The peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener,” writes John Stuart Mill. Poetry’s capacity to express the edges of our interiority comes from this state of being overheard, a line of communication between the poet, the dead, and God which we may feel resonates with our own. In my poetry class a few days ago my instructor told us that poetry has no hold in objective reality but rather creates its own version of reality, which will constantly recreate itself with each new subjective reader. Even a group of people reading the same poetry is an isolated and isolating experience.
But the goal of trying to understand each other, to communicate on a profound level, is ultimately the same one as poetry: to physicalize through language a small part of something largely incommunicable — our inner selves. And even if the level of communication between my inner life and poetry extends more deeply than that of verbal conversation, I think there is beauty in trying to connect with each other anyway, however futilely.
I want to say what I mean, but a lot of the time what I mean can’t be said. I am still learning how to communicate with others through a living language. I hope that those around me feel like they can open themselves to speaking this way with me too.
The Privitello poem ends like this, amazing me endlessly: “If God ever broke into my home and said Speak or be / gone I would say You have it coming to you, being another father // that once woke me in the night to say Pretend I was never here. / And he wasn’t. And he wasn’t. Quiet is my souvenir.”
I am a cynic; I know the imagination and its valueless values, its irrational art. I want to keep my quiet my souvenir. But buried deep within the unlit corners of my home there are many secret things I hope to bare.
Contact Maddie Kim at mkim16 ‘at’ stanford.edu.