When asked, What is an intellectual? he said: ‘An intellectual is a participant in his own society, listening to people. That kind of truth cannot be put anywhere by us, not in words, never put in its place. The human mind can apprehend, not comprehend.’

Our native language shapes us, does it not
even as it shapes itself upon the page?
The languages you’ve learned, in life and college,
carve and emboss characters in your thought?

      Hebrew’s ornate iron, its quirks around the line
      (vocal or consonant) in you have wrought
      the odd intransigent openness — and untaught
      much we grew up to mimic — or disdain.

Myopic, skeptical, sometimes distraught,
slowly your readers see themselves as foreign,
trotting for safety through our little warren
of walled ways. Now, perilously, we’re out

in a big world of foreigners, finding that they are not!
Ink on white paper keeps informing those
who learn, to listen long, until there glows
within the friendly signs of being understood.

      Urdu’s visual/inner shapes I’ve not
      seen on the page to see in you. I know
      Persian and Arabic’s fluid music though
      (to the eye); which to your nature also brought

a spare poetry. Such surprises dot
and wink away through universal
(meticulously measurable)
spaces, and what’s been sought
within shines there, articulate, through the night.

  Margaret Avison
From Always Now: Volume Three.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916 – 2000) was a professor of comparative religion whom Avison knew in his last years.


  1. How do you read “or disdain” in the second stanza? Semantically it seems to follow “grew up to mimic,” but the way it’s punctuated leaves open the possibility that it follows “intransigent openness.”
    Also, I just love that last stanza.

  2. To the man-in-the-street, who, I’m sorry to say, is a keen observer of life, the word ‘Intellectual’ suggests straight away a man who’s untrue to his wife.
    W H Auden

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