Naked Words: Our First Language is Poetry

Our first language is poetry. Literally. All over the world, mothers croon to their babies in rhythm and rhyme. Perhaps this is because the womb itself is a poetic place. Your ear is against the iambic meter of your mother’s heartbeat. You are steeping in sounds that have been changed by their passage through the amniotic fluid into a kind of whalesong. A mother seems to know this. Even before she talks English or French or Swahili to her baby she says, “Goo goo gah gah see see mah mah!”

And we sing-talk back in rhythm and rhyme. I remember hearing my 14 month old nephew amusing himself, alone in his crib, upon waking from a nap: (to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”) “Di-di di-di, moo-moo, cow / ow-ow me-me meow meow wow.”  Only later came “Mine!” and “Down!” and “I want!” and the inevitable “No!”

This entry into the world of words through the portal of poetry recapitulates the history of language, which began as a form of musical poetry. Many archaeologists and anthropologists speculate that our ancestors spoke to each other through song-like sounds that conveyed rhythmic, holographic, emotional messages. This “musilanguage”used by the early hominids was predominantly a function of the right hemisphere of the brain. It communicated through the feeling and intuitive faculties, not the cognitive thinking process. In The Singing Neanderthals, archaeologist Steven Mithen named this system of relating Hmmmmm, an acronym for holistic, multi-modal, manipulative, mimetic, and musical. He theorizes that it was Homo ergaster, our ancestor of 1.8 million years ago, who initially invented Hmmmmm. Mithen’s research suggests that over the eons the language may have evolved to become a highly complex and emotionally rich form of interactive bonding used by the Neanderthals about 250,000 years ago. According to Mithen and other researchers, our ancestors used sign language to communicate the pragmatic essentials, such as: “Look! there’s a saber-toothed tiger behind you!” Vocal communication was reserved for the outpouring of the inner life: feelings, relationship, the ineffable movements of spirit in flesh.

The impulse to speak – both in the evolution of the species and the evolution of the individual human – has its roots in the most intimate realm we experience: that which takes place in the invisible, private interior of our lives. Language comes to us not as a means to an end, not as a way to enforce our will on the world around us, but as naturally as song:  a spontaneous arising from within that overflows into words.

Fast forward to the present. Today, at least in the United States, most of our verbal communication has no connection to its root as an expression of emotion, relationship, beauty and spirituality.  Words seem to have jumped ship on their origin in our oceanic, mysterious interior and enlisted for duty as the troops of the Left Brain, ready for deployment in their mission of getting results in the world around us. As visionary Eve Ensler has said, we have forgotten how to think in metaphor, and this has led to a tragic loss of imagination, ritual, mystery, discovery, time.

I don’t know the plethora of historical and cultural factors that put such a spun on our words. Perhaps they are the same as those that compelled me to quarantine my own expression to the dry realms of reason for many years. The first time I fell in love, for instance, I remember making the disturbing discovery that everything I said to my lover sounded like a lawyer dictating a corporate contract. A voice shrouded in the muted tones of intelligence and devoid of emotion had seemed to be the key to survival in my childhood. I grew into my early twenties unable to admit I was afraid, unwilling to say the word love, and frightened to let the trembling I felt in my belly show in my words or my voice. It took years of therapy to dismantle the tonnage of history and mystery that had constellated into this terror of intimacy.

Then I discovered a much quicker route. I started reciting poems. Those words gave me a way to express my most vulnerable feelings where my own capacity for such intimacy was missing or forgotten. As I gave voice to the poems, layers of self-protection dissolved and my interior life poured out. Not only through the words, but also the silences between them. Not only through the poem, but also through the resonance of my now liberated voice. The German poet Rilke says,

I have faith in all that is not yet spoken.
I want to set free my innermost feelings.
What no one has dared to long for
will spring through me spontaneously.

Is that too bold? Then, my God, forgive me.
But I want to say just this to you:
my true voice should come like a sprout, a force of nature,
no pushing, no holding back;
the way the children love you.

Speaking a poem you love to another person can return you to an original language, a transparency of expression more naked than any outer disrobing. In this radical intimacy a mysterious phenomenon can occur. The sounds and silences become almost palpable with a resonance that seems beyond the sum of the parts. You and whoever is listening are gathered into a kind of grace. The spoken poem smoothes the rough edges of fragmented attention—harmonizing, focusing, and unifying everyone present. As the poet Rumi said of his teacher, Shams, “You make my raggedness silky.”

To put this kind of experience into words is difficult. It can so easily sound far-fetched or like a testimonial of a religious experience that may have been authentic at the time but gets lost in translation. Yet this sudden grace is not exotic or unusual. It happens all the time when people give voice to the poems that speak the truth of their souls. The phenomenon saves me, often several times a day, when I am scattered or in pain and I have lost touch with my real self. Though I have never been one to turn to organized religion, I believe I can begin to understand the experience of those who go to church every morning or bow to Mecca five times a day.

The poems I love most are those that speak of the inner life. They are my prayers. They are holy without being denominational, political without being sectarian, intimate without being bound by gender, age, or culture.

I invite you to join me in returning language to its origin in the heart. Find a poem you love and make at least 30 copies of it. Read that poem to someone every day, then give them a copy. Perhaps you will share it with your partner, a co-worker, your favorite bank teller. Then branch out to people you don’t know. Offer it to the person standing next to you on the corner as you wait for the walk signal. Ask the person beside you on the bus if they’d like to hear a poem. Or the waitress delivering your cup of tea. Pretty soon, you’ll notice that you know your poem by heart.