On Language, Loss, and the Fullness of All Things

Oct 16, 2013

There is a writing assignment that I do with my classes (slightly modified) that involves studying a picture–really capturing a picture in your imagination–and then attempting to express that picture through writing, through words. Essentially, the assignment is designed to demonstrate the way language always involves some sense of loss; when we try to communicate an experience, a feeling, a memory, an image, we often sense how even the best words seem to leave so much out. I'm not sure if it is a universal human experience, but I think it must be universal to anyone who has ever tried seriously to write poetry.

Imagine what it is like to try and describe to someone a vivid dream that you had the night before. In your mind there swirls a jumbled set of pictures, impressions, and sensations, and the more you try to pinpoint exactly what it was like, the more you realize it was really nothing at all like what your words are actually expressing. It is as if, in the transfer from image to words, meaning inevitably slips through the cracks–like trying to hold water in your fist. 
 
But poetry, I think, can sometimes come closest to overcoming this loss of meaning. The poet (if he is skilled) finds the best words to paint the picture, or idea, that exists in his imagination. And if he is successful in the way he selects and arranges his words, then a corresponding picture will arise in the imagination of the reader. At its best, poetry can act as a way of bridging the gap that exists between us and the world. It allows us to edge closer to really 'saying what we mean.' But no poetry will ever fully capture the essence of life; no one poem will ever encapsulate the whole of truth. Human language is simply too flimsy for that. 
 
As I contemplate the inevitable loss that comes with writing, I think of the contrast between human words and the Divine Word. In the creation myth of Genesis, we see that, unlike human words, God's Word is performative: He speaks, and it is so. When God speaks, there is not loss of meaning, but creation of meaning. In God's Word we see the second person of the trinity, Christ himself, the logos: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him." In Christ we see the Word made flesh; the Word of God taking on an image, but without loss, corruption, or blemish. This is a great mystery: the thing by which all other things are made itself becoming something made.
 
When my oldest son, Ransom, was just beginning to speak, I was upstairs one Sunday morning before church when I heard a huge crash, followed by a peal of tears. I came downstairs to find Ransom in my wife's arms; she explained that he had been throwing his ball into the air when it had knocked down a hanging picture of Christ square onto Ransom's head. My wife suggested that I go get the picture and show it to him, in order to help him understand what had happened. Once he had been comforted and had calmed down, I picked up the picture and handed it to him. He studied it intently for nearly a minute, in silence, before he pointed to Christ, looked up at me, and said, "Poetry."
 
In Christ we see the fullness of all things–even poetry.
 

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Joshua Leland

Josh Leland is a humanities teacher at Covenant Classical School in Concord, NC. He earned his BA and MA in English from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He and his wife, Rebekah, also a teacher, and their four little children, Ransom, Calvin, Alethea, and Mary, live in Charlotte, NC. [Editor's note: He's also quite a good poet]. 

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