Some Thoughts on Naming and Poetry
An Essay by Francine Marie Tolf
Francine Marie Tolf is the author or BLUE-FLOWERED SUNDRESS, a chapbook published by Pudding House Press in 2007. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in 5 AM, New Letters, Rattle, Southern Humanities Review, Under the Sun, and Green Hills Literary Lantern among many other journals. “Some Thoughts on Naming and Poetry” will appear at the end of LIKE SAUL, a chapbook of her poems that Plan B Press will publish in Fall 2008. You can visit her website at http://www.francinemarietolf.com.
Some Thoughts on Naming and Poetry
“Fear not: for I have redeemed thee,
“Calm the heart’s dark waters;
If we love certain words enough, if we say them aloud and re-read them, letting the images they evoke sink deep into our beings, they enter our bodies. The above two fragments, the first from Isaiah, the second from Lu Chi’s The Art of Writing, are now part of me. Maybe it’s because I’m a poet, for both of these brief passages concern naming, and naming is a verb no poet takes lightly.
Yahweh, the god of the Hebrew Scriptures, is the voice that speaks through the prophet Isaiah in those first three lines. Don’t be afraid, Yahweh tells the people of Israel, because I have chosen you, named you; you belong to me. To name with a creator’s authority is to redeem, and to redeem is to possess. I used to believe the poet’s role was comparable to Yahweh’s, that poets must assign names properly, thereby redeeming whatever we choose to write about — places, experiences, individuals.
This is how I initially interpreted Lu Chi’s words. I believed that he, too, writing in third-century China, saw poets as benevolent gods, naming and possessing through virtue of craft. Those three lines, in fact, are reminiscent of the first chapter of Genesis: “Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, and God’s spirit hovered over the water.” There are the same symbols of darkness and water and the same underlying potential for creation. It took me years to realize the profound difference between assigning the proper names — and collecting them. Nestled like a seed in that second word, “collecting,” is the faith that the names already exist. The poet doesn’t invent names; rather, through descending into her own mysterious and sometimes terrifying “heart’s waters,” she learns them.
If one is raised in a Judeo-Christian culture, as I was, this idea of all things innately possessing equally important names is suggested all too rarely. Instead, we are given the rubric of Adam naming the animals: “each was to bear the name the man would give it.” Adam is master over beasts as the poet is master over experience, shaping and perfecting it into her own creation.
There is a better rubric. Some months ago, at a friend’s urging, I read The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram. In his book Abram discusses the beliefs of various indigenous peoples, including the Carrier Indians. This Native American tribe believed that, long ago, humans and animals intermarried. What knowledge the tribe possessed about beaver, bear, and salmon was acquired through animal wives who taught their human husbands their needs and habits. The relationship between animals and humans is an equitable one. Carrier Indians do not assign names to animals, they are taught them by the animals themselves.
This story feels true to me in a mysterious way that is not metaphorical. It speaks of a sacred relationship severed so long ago we don’t even know to mourn for its loss. “Ere God made us, he loved us,” wrote Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century Christian mystic, in A Book of Showings. A passage in this remarkable text that moves me each time I read it is when God places a hazelnut in Julian’s palm and tells her it represents all of creation. “I marvelled how it might last, for me thought it might suddenly have fallen to nought for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth and ever shall, for God loveth it [ . . .].”
It lasteth and ever shall, for God loveth it.
Not just human beings, but earth worms, and coral reefs, and hills.
We are part of creation, not the crown of it. Even the best poems from the best poets will never name things “properly”; the names that burn inside all things can be pronounced accurately by God alone. But when a poet is writing as honestly and bravely as she can, when she is willing to dive deep into her own black waters, she sometimes brings back words that sound exactly right to the rest of us: words that we listen to and recite again and again, until language enters our bodies and becomes part of them.