Artefacts of Language.

Peter Manson, a Scottish poet and translator, has a fine blog (and god bless the bloggers who keep stubbornly blogging despite the temptations of Facebook and Twitter); a couple of years ago he posted “An essay on poetry and language,” which starts with the proposition “All language is ambiguous” and quickly segues into a discussion of poetry (“Poetry is what happens when a reader can no longer refer a piece of language back to a speaker to unpack its ambiguities”). He describes Kenneth Goldsmith’s book Soliloquy, “an unedited 500-page transcript of every word Goldsmith spoke during one week in 1996,” and provides an excerpt (beginning “I got. I got every I get all my attitude from him too, my outlook on life. Yeah. I wish I had a sunnier temperament. I’m a little dark, you know. Slightly dark. I don’t know where I would get that from. Yeah. I tell you, aw, I’m gawna sit out here all day and watch the goddamned fisherman. Why not?”) that makes me want to read the whole thing. He ends with an excerpt from a book of his own, Adjunct: an Undigest, which “began in 1993 as an attempt to gather together those interesting or funny examples of found language to which my reading habits had begun to sensitise me”; I’m afraid my eyes glazed over reading the excerpt, but I may just not have been in the mood for it. In between, he has this passage, which I like very much:


Artefacts of language are the most human objects in the world, other than those objects which are human beings. Indelibly marked by human consciousness, they are nevertheless clearly not alive. To interact with such objects on their own terms is to confront our own mortality in a way not open to us by other means, and can be a significant test of our humanity. It’s reasonable to expect a human being to accept other humans for what they are: not rejecting or doing violence to their physical person, not imagining a narrative for them then restricting our sense of their potential to the limits thus placed upon them. The practice of accepting texts for what they are, in the fullness of their potential for branching off into realms of meaning unforeseen by any author, is analogous to the practice of human tolerance, and might be considered a useful rehearsal for it.


The writer who accepts this as a fact of life must accept the consequences. Her writing will no longer feel like an act of communication: she may even come to fear the act of writing, dreading the moment when, Midas-like, her living thought freezes into dead matter on the page. If it’s unlikely that such a writer could experience her work as in any simple sense expressive or confessional, there are nevertheless levels on which it can still be a profound act of reconciliation with our status as material beings in a material universe, animate only for the time being.

Thanks, Trevor!


  1. An undigest? An indigest? Hm.

  2. thank you, I have been stewing upon a similar set of ruminations for some years now.
    I did enjoy the WS Graham poems that Peter quotes, too..

  3. Bathrobe says

    Allow me to peeve a little. I hate it when people try to elevate clearly grammatical ambiguities in language (like ‘Flying planes can be dangerous’ or ‘Fruit flies like a banana’) into deeper ruminations on language or existence. These are the most artificial and, I think, most generally uninteresting ambiguities of language you could find. For the linguist they might provide an spring board to look at the way that structures can be interpreted in two different ways, but little more. The real ambiguities — the ones that can lead to real consequences — are much more subtle. The associations that people give to words, which can be very different; linguistic vagueness that leaves you unable to figure out what the person meant; large, complicated words that are unmoored from grammatical contexts and used as abstractions. Artificial ambiguities set up for the purpose of having fun are just that — little tricks meant to entertain but having no further bearing on the meaning of language or life. Sorry, I’m not very interested in ’em!

Speak Your Mind