Sunday 5 July 2015

Language and the weight of knowledge

Yesterday I found myself thinking about weight; the weight of what we specifically bring (and cannot help but bring) to our reading of texts. Our heads are full of language, and what we know and understand that language to mean, all the associations that we have built up over the years pertaining to specific words and phrases. Say the word house for example and you will be able to conjure up an image of a house – but that image will be different for everyone. It may be an icon or a childish rendition of a house, or it may be a specific house – the house you live in, your childhood home, the house of a friend or lover, or a house that you admire. For me it is the house across the street from mine – an image I see everyday from my living room window, so it is firmly etched on my mind, but I live on a terraced street in a city, so that house comes attached to another house - it is hard to think of one without seeing the other. We each bring our own memories and associations (our own baggage) to that one simple word – house.
I found myself wondering what would it be like to not bring this burden (if it is a burden) of knowledge to the reading of a poem or text? Would it make the words seem fresher, newer? Would we glean a deeper or greater meaning from the text? Does our store of language, meaning, images and understanding weigh the writing down and skew the intended meaning? Or does what we bring to the table add something positive to the writing, taking the meaning beyond the page?

Yesterday morning I was reading a poem by Rosemarie Waldrop. The second line of the poem contained the phrase “with pieces of torn underwear.” Even though the full line was “A clothesline with pieces of torn underwear, reflected in a puddle.” My mind zoomed in on the phrase “pieces of torn underwear” and I proceeded to apply to it all the connotations I have built up around such an image: crime novels I have read, TV series and films I have watched and news stories that I have heard over the years. My mind immediately began wondering (picturing even) how the underwear might have been torn and it concluded it could have been rape and possibly also murder. Of course there could be a hundred other reasons for torn underwear. And you might also wonder why I wasn’t also wondering why they were pegged onto the line and not on the floor or in the bin – in fact I did pay attention to this, but not before my mind had done the whole torn underwear dance I just described. So you see I brought the weight of all the things I have heard, read, seen and understood to this one simple (if loaded) phrase. My mind would not allow me to simply read it for what it was – pieces of torn underwear on a line, reflected in a puddle. Is this meandering of the mind a burden or a blessing? I couldn’t quite decide. But as my artist friend pointed out, it is knowledge and experience that enables us to understand written language (or language at all) in the first place – and without it the text would be meaningless to us.  So maybe it is a blessing after all – and this post is meaningless…