A word is dead when it is said
Some say –
I say it just begins to live
F278 (1862) 1212
There are some fascinating and profound depths to this short poem (which was penned as most of a letter to Dickinson’s cousin). An unspoken word is alive with possibility. Meditate upon almost any word and its richness of suggestiveness, connotations and denotations will flower and multiply. There are almost endless possibilities of meaning. The word seems to have a life of its own.
But “Some say” that once the word is spoken this life (in a given situation) is over: the word is “dead” and lies inert where it has been rendered, having coughed up its meaning. Like a pinned butterfly it can be observed and described or categorized but it will no longer fly. This reminds me of (what little I know of) quantum mechanics where in the collapse of the probability wave several different possibilities are reduced to one possibility as seen by an observer.
|Like a Mandelbrot set fractal, sometimes a person's words
take on a life of their own
Dickinson, however, takes the poet’s view: a word pulled from its shadow world of limitless possibilities is only truly alive when it is birthed by articulation. It needs the light of day to breathe. What makes it breathe and live? The very ambiguity at the heart of language and communication. Playwright George Bernard Shaw once said something to the effect of “The main problem with communication is the perception that it has occurred.” Sometimes we replay and replay in our minds what someone has written or said to us. The words have a life far beyond what the speaker or writer had in mind. And how often do we try to explain ourselves to someone who interpreted what we said in a way contrary to what we meant? Or take, for example, the word “love.” As a dictionary word its meaning is fairly clear. But when someone says it to us it comes to life and resonates with real feeling and real consequence.
There is a similar life-giving process for words in literature: stories, poems, plays and movies. The same words spoken by one actor in one director’s vision will mean something entirely different in another movie. One version might be heroic, another ironic, another manipulative.
Dickinson herself once asked a writer and mentor if her verse were “alive.” I think she wanted this richness and diversity in interpretation. She did not want to be a poet whose words were dead on arrival: flatly literal or spouting airy generalities. The entire reason I’m going through each of her poems on this blog is because she succeeded in making not only her poems live but the phrases and even many of the very words. As an example, I just selected, with very little searching, the phrase “miles of stare.” This is what the poem says remains after Heaven, like a circus, packs up its silken tents and disappears. The “stare” lives in our startled response to this poem, enlivening both our understanding of the word and our understanding of what absence is. There is a mystery at its heart and so it continues to live.