How to Speak like a Painting
(Virtually monolingual, I’m about to discuss words as they work in English. My knowledge of languages that live off different fundaments entirely is sparse.)
Like its talkative residents, the words of the Earth each have distinct personalities. I see these personalities on a spectrum: a word’s power ranges from the universality of the word’s concept (how applicable it is to everything), to the specific vibrancy of a word’s relevant image. An “image word” as I’ll call it, is actually red and collapsible and fat, colorful and shapely and sidelit– pomegranate, rash; and, neurologically, they might also engage our olfactory or auditory brain levels– cilantro, jackhammers. One word, of course, can conjure only so many sight details–that’s one reason we have sentences, and are able to craft huge, polyadic scenes. Wallace Stevens in his poem “Of the Surface of Things” accumulates detail sentence by sentence: “The gold tree is blue./ The singer has pulled his cloak over his head.”
Sometimes one word can drip with an entire scenery. Notice the breadth of detail stocked in these singular words: Yacht. Eiffel. Scaffolding. Words can move us to see — not with our eyes, with direct perception, but with our minds — coverflaps of old novels, flashbacks of a sweaty moon bounce, or sun-broken trees from the vantage of a slowing car. The most layered scene — one with great potential for metaphor– will usually require many words. But the words, at least some of them, will always require an imagery; the words sky and sun and sea and trees are so common in poetry & everyday talk because they give us imagery 101. They ground us immediately in a world we know– because we’ve experienced it– is involved in our life.
Concept words, usefully, lack such life.
Require, Understand, Best, and From are some words more conceptual than visual. They were not created to harness our thoughts toward rich, magniloquent pictures. In fact, the opposite; they exist as vessels of time, engines that expedite the thinking process, and organize many statues/ glances/ fountains into non-visual ‘categories.’ With concept words we can succinctly say Girl, I’m the best outfielder from the cute part of Maine, a sentence some of whose words abbreviate the specific (the visual, the real). Our single-and-loving-it softball player, by saying best, is summarizing: she’s the fastest, strongest, gets the most air. In one word, she says all of this, or perhaps none of this; she makes her point, nonchalant and open-ended. From, near the same area of the spectrum, says that I (a visual, physical being) lived in a place throughout time (think: a large sequence of seen moments); and, though I’ve left, I still resonate with my roots.
It’s tedious. Concept words are helpful in this way, “wrapping up” a large amount of crisper ideas so we can inflict a summary, get to the point. Language, speedy indeed, activates many of the same areas of the brain used in your eyes’ direct seeing; with this muscle you can mentally “re-see” and even combine memories, to create new head-films: this is imagination. Thus you can “picture” a dragon with treasure OCD — however hazy that image is — even if you’re in Nashua. Concepts are products of the human brain, but their origins are in imagery — in the earth that is quite wordless without us.
Try this, if you’d like: pay attentive the vague, sensitive movement of a shape in your mind, when you read the word Into. Something pushes. Something gives. But the mental shape is nebulous, pale, nearly colorless. This is the concept: you only “see” this because you did see it, once before, days or years ago: a strong adult, wading into the river. The word, though, is so general, maneuvered away from specific fable, that its reality has faded almost completely. It might help to think of words as topography: if the word Piñata evokes the flakes of detail a street map would, zoom out to the state map: there, Birthday lies. Vaguer, but still pink & green. Zoom further out to the globe view, on par with the blurry, but highly applicable, Fun.
Where on the map has the most fun?
Concepts words must be supporting actors in the realms of poetry, prose, and schmoozing, where bloody lips and lakehouse eyes are the stuff of successful wooing. Makes sense why “You’re just–so–beautiful…” feels hawkward date one. If that’s the level of your highly-prepared body the guy can appreciate, he’s basically whispering across the dinner table, “I’m really into qualities,” and “You have, like, multiple features.” (Funny enough, “You’re so beautiful” does have a deep, poetic power–somewhere–despite its inherent, inescapable summary. I’ll get to that.)
No, concepts thrive in the boardroom, in philosophy (“let’s talk about everyone”), and in everyday conversations, when speed is often a must; where language jogs, through categories of tinier, visual moments. Concepts are efficient. Organization is fast. Say two stockholders are at the bar, and one suggests a Mexican enterprise: the other could give a shit, if the pesos in question are “crisp, newly printed, and resting like virgins in my safe.”
If you slow down your Fiat, roll down your window, and ask a Hoobastank teen for directions to the town hall, he probably won’t stop between “go right” and “go right again” and mention the church there, just bathing in light from the diners.
Say he did mention that church, though. You’d notice it, and probably get to town hall faster.
With stories, we tell our companions how we’ve been getting by without them. But we’ve been so immersed, first-person protagonists, that we’re likely to forget our listener wasn’t there. She needs communion, our help in painting her verbal watercolor. That’s why stories our lovers tell us are funnier, with that special victory to them — perhaps nostalgic of literature — when they layer with a few “unneeded” details, humble they may be. Did the mussels come with toast? Was the air romantic or something? What kind of prison did the swingers’ room look like?
In poems and in gossip, our audience will feel let in, as cognitive as we’d been in visually organizing the world, if we share the blessing that is seeing. Once we’re both in the field, the listener has room to breathe, to imagine herself in your story– and the talker can spring more loosely through the crops. He can keep describing the kernels
“each one appeared ready to unhinge, rotted, and frolic the current with me–”
or he can generalize
“it was all about union.”
But, to mean anything, this latter generalization needs a picture. A field needs a kernel.
And yet, as we know, life throbs far deeper than the optic surface. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” nor by its setting. Thankfully, once a talker has reached out to us in scenery, the concepts he intersperses are un-vivid– but not to a fault. Instead, they exist as limbs of a diverse, intelligent being, with both antennae and arms.
Poems often end on conceptual lines. You’ll see them– relatively common in wordplay and vocabulary, the weight lies instead with the breathlessness of a general human; Ashbery’s “Of remembrance, whispers out of time.” Plath’s closing line; “I shall be as good as new.” No words you’d need to look up, not the words these poets preceded with: calico, wainscotted, fruit. The poet wants her epitaph to exist beyond imagery, and so meaning occurs in the soul. A concept bears the weight of a hundred wants.
He grips the steering wheel and looks out over Dawson’s Creek. “You’re–so–beautiful…” he murmurs, over a voice crack. He’s trying to elaborate, but he hasn’t the focus. He’s staring at you. His pits sweat.
There’s nothing to describe.
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