This essay (fragmented into aphoristic micro-chapters to offset its occasionally over-glutted density) examines an odd, enduring trope in global verse: language itself treated as a self-sustaining food and oral fetish. In such a figure, our tongue is sensually impressed by the flavours of its own verbal expression. Poetry, so commonly regarded as language for its own self-savoured sake, is a vehicle well-suited to such troping.
“The tongue is an eye” in Wallace Stevens’ Adagia, and recent neuroscience agrees, referring to “lexical-gustatories” who taste a word as it is spoken, seen, or heard. (Colizoli, Murre, and Rowe 775) Magnetic-resonance imaging shows how certain peoples’ brains have their taste-regions lit up by trigger-words. Some subjects can only taste proper names, while some taste words in rhyme (the word “navy” may evoke a taste of liquid “gravy.”)
A participant in one such study had the taste of tuna evoked by “castanet,” but tellingly broke the word syllabically into “cast-a-net” (the very means of tuna-catching), suggesting a deeply embedded interplay between the sensual and the semantic (Simner and Ward 438). A word’s “flavour” is hence shaped by its acoustic, syllabic and graphic contours in a cross-wiring of vision, speech and taste, in part because our oral and optic apparatuses operate on similar premises. The digestive gustducin on our tongue closely resembles a class of G-protein receptors in our eyes, the enzyme operations of taste-bud and optic cell are chemically similar, and our tongue’s papillae may have a version of dark-seeing rods and color-seeing cones, according to a Columbia research-team (This 92).
Peter Weiss’ 2001 Science News article titled “The Seeing Tongue” suggests that our taste-buds may indeed be our second-best optic receptors, able to detect pressure-patterns ‘translated’ from an eyeglass-mounted camera onto a vibrating tongue-prosthesis shaped like a stick of gum (140-141). Via this apparatus, the tongue can serve as a surrogate image-receiver of pixels, and visual images can be transformed into taste-scapes.
Such neuroscience observes an anatomic overlap between our gustatory and visual intakes and our verbal output. This intersection relies in part on our tongue’s dual services—Marion Halligan (in Eat My Words) refers to our “productive” and “appreciative” oral organs, which break down food and build up speech in not-always-alternating measure. There is no “pure” apparatus of speech because all of our vocal organs perform “supplemental” services and are not exclusively vocal. The tongue (as taster as well as talker) claps inside our skull’s resonating chamber, where syllables ring like Pavlovian bells and tastes travel as chemical “tones” along the cranial nerves branching from the tongue.
Linguistically as well, eating is a close kin to speaking—Jed Rasula has traced out a complex of punning relations growing from the Indo-European root gerere: digest and suggest, ingest and jest (221). As Homo sapiens, humankind is self-named for a pun between “tasting” and “knowing.” In Aristotle’s Parts of Animals, our human tongue is the widest and most pliant because it must taste and speak. The tongue is a convertible implement of communication and consumption, alternately patting compounds into vocal speech and slicing off syllables into aurally digestible segments.
The styloid processes behind our tongue are a battery of bone mallets operating like a small printing press, and so tasting is a miniaturized form of figurative writing as well as a mode of speaking. The tongue is a tone-arm playing amino acids and vitamins’ stored melodies: each taste bud is a gustatory eye, a chemical scanner on which our food’s cross-hatched fibers compose a kind of organically bestowed bar-code.
Eating and reading are intertwined on several symbolic and conceptual levels as well. Poetry as a record of an imagined speaker and a score for an anticipated reader is at once a menu and a recipe. A page of verse is as figuratively edible as it is potentially audible, a dish as much as a canvas and a mode of sound-storage. Our jaws (which engage in sub-vocal micro-tremors even during ‘silent’ reading (Rayner and Pollatsek 385)) are themselves hinged like a book: our maxilla and mandible join and separate during acts of speaking and eating like successive page-turnings.
In The Production of Speech, Peter F. MacNeilage proposes that the open-shut-open-shut cadence of chewing eventually created speech’s syllabic divisions (230). One formative source of poetry was food-reaping work-song: George Thomson refers to a “simple disyllabic labour cry” (harvesting’s “heave” and “ho”) creating Western verse’s most basic and primary cadence (18). The opening and shutting of our speaking jaws can be likened to a fluttering of wings or pages, and speech is indeed a self-impelling gust of wind and gusto of self-tasting at once.
“Monongahela, it rolls with venison richness on the palate,” Walt Whitman intones in his American Primer (30). To enunciate is to savour the ambrosial: Mo-non-ga-he-la, in its slanted vowel-rhyming, sings like a self-contained poem and an overlaid chord of a name (a tribe, a soil, a river and a town all at once) composed of (and contributing to) the word’s associative flavour. Whitman tweaks a Renaissance trope here, associating verbal endearment and edible deer-meat, cadenced heart and hunted hart. This notion of a word rolling along a palate suggests an unfurling of phonemes in savoury sequence, like a micro-detected chain of flavour-molecules. Wine tasters refer to just such a sequence, from a wine’s “front” to its “finish,” from its beckoning “nose” down to its sustaining “legs.”
This everyday hedonism afforded by our taste, vision and speech’s overlap is a telling part of being human. The brain’s fusiform gyrus engages in (and blends together) word-processing and color-processing and so our verbal intake is always “tinted” (Pulvermüller and Hauk). Such a tint, in turn, is always flavoured, as between-modality leakages cause our senses to rhyme and resound. These phenomena are quite underreported because we are under-trained in how to verbally portray our inmost neural lives, particularly on flavour’s frontier. Verse has never particularly trafficked in notions of Realism nor Naturalism in the ways that prose has, but much of the poetry cited here does engage in a kind of phenomenological embodiment (if not “report”) of our marbled and mingled sensations. The old notion of a “tongue-map” divided into sectors has largely been debunked, and much current science suggests that we possess “additional” senses and recommends that our sensing anatomy is heterodox beyond our current compass (Henshaw 6). Poetry, with its non-linear, non-narrative tendencies and its over-spilling enjambments, seems a prime vehicle for portraying this mélange of sensory intake. Richard Cytowic’s The Man Who Tasted Shapes refers to “joined sensations” in which “common sensibles” signal across modalities (89), a phenomenon used as literal “fodder” in much of postmodern poetics. In E.C. Zeeman’s account, “tolerance spaces” on our brain-map allow sense-impressions to collect and “pool” (Hampden-Turner 37) – poetic metaphor expands such spaces by extending our collective notions of resemblance and analogy.
In Robert Bly’s phrase, we all engage in an “eating [of] the honey of words.” To eat one’s words is generally a simple idiom for regret (just as biting one’s tongue is verbal self-arrest and mincing one’s words is verbal evasion), but clearly such an idiom can be expanded in new and telling directions. From our suckling on formative syllables as infants, we are verbivores and logophages. We speak equally of an eater’s and a reader’s “voracity,” and “fare” can refer to reading materials as well as to food. The word “book” derives from the same Proto-Germanic root as the word “beech,” which itself refers to a nut-bearing tree possessing legendary dream-powers.
Our tongue (as our most primal metaphor for language) is a literally pivotal locale. The sonic and visual contours of a word impinging on our tongue are at once a surrealistic figure and a bio-chemical event. Poems made of words grind on our molars, spelunk our oral cavern via glottals and gutturals, and form protein-like letter-lattices into stanzaic cuds, cross-sensual rhymes, and phrasal chaws.
As we mature from our initial babble, we chew the figurative “fat” when we converse. An especially heated argument is a rhubarb while a beef (from the Sanskrit bukk or “sound”) is an ongoing dispute. To waffle is to oscillate verbally, and a raspberry is a trilled, bilabial jeer. A capsule-comment is a nutshell and a cliché is a chestnut—Michael Riffaterre writes of the process of a poem growing out of a “word-kernel” (mot-nayou).
The Greek word for “tongue”—glossa—has become a literary as well as a digestive term. We are primally wired to recognize a signature gloss on fresh and edible fruits and learn to mentally gloss complex data. A literary “tract” is a horizontally lined tome while our oral/digestive tract is a vertical drop: in a trope like words-as-food, such tracts form a figurative crossroads.
This neural intersection is a pivotal site for scientific and poetic futures. Our brain is plastic and ever-ready to be rewired because it is nourished on a “polysensory” diet: our brain sees, not our eyes, and so our visual cortex can be trained to interpret data coming from an entirely different sense, like taste or touch, forging correspondences that the synaesthetic likes of Baudelaire and Rimbaud only vaguely predicted. The brain is not compartmentalized in any firm way (in a fruit-tree metaphor, its synapses can be “pruned”)—poetry as well is anti-locationist in its forging of “novel” neural routes.
Literature, with its emphasis on several kinds of ambiguity, benefits from gluon and neuron cells not possessing exclusive signatures, and so being able to serve as “plastic processors” and “sensory surrogates.” The tongue (a synonym for “language” in many languages) is a probe from out of and a portal back into our seeing brain, a kind of convertible transom. This productive duplicity mirrors the way in which metaphor is both an expressionistic reaching-toward and an impressionistic response-to our host environment.
Our earliest “reading” was our hunting and tracking of prey, while our earliest writings included knotted cords and notched tally-branches used to record grain-exchanges. Even earlier, tools (and fire) made food easier to chew, reduced our jaw-size and allowed the hominid, linguistic brain the cranial room it needed to enlarge. Developmentally, speech begins as suckling ends: our oral dependence on maternal food pivots into our verbal expression of Self.
Our “I” (that “perpendicular pronoun” in Henry Adams and “columnar Self” in Emily Dickinson) is formed and sustained by our nutrition. Charles Olson’s open challenge to a poetics of living in a complex body claims that “The poetics of such a situation/are yet to be found out” (155), and much of recent verse (and research) is a search for just such a poetics, foregrounding writing-and-reading-and-tasting as a consuming spiral. We undergo “echo-effects” between our senses, and so every act of writing (and reading) poetry is a fractal hologram of modalities, each “utterance” a byproduct of bottomless interplays. Our visual intake cartwheels its images on a retina in a kind of neural spiraling of its objects, just as speaking inverts and spirals eating’s kinetic melody. Our visual and visceral voracities are hence a pair of vortexes, twined (if not fully “twinned”) spirals. Poetry has long reveled in the interrelation between “orality” as a blend of (visceral) intake and (verbal) output, propelled by the rich irony inherent in our appetite’s proximity to our organs of vocal expression.
Poetry’s history can itself be comically refigured as a masticating, digesting relay-chain. Auden, commemorating Yeats, states that “The words of the dead man are modified in the guts of the living” (247), and J. Hillis Miller concurs by claiming that each poem is a “cannibal consumer of earlier poems” (225). Viewing Western poetic history as a series of cannibalisms (from Homer swallowed by Virgil swallowed by Dante onward and outward) reveals several telling tendencies. This figure of words-as-food moves more recently from Whitman’s tongue-like leaf of grass to Emily Dickinson’s Word-Made-Flesh recipes to William Carlos Williams’ “grubbing” of a page-as-field. Words-as-food is a shared motif; Whitman’s leaf of grass is a crucial link on our mammalian food-chain, just as Ezra Pound’s continental fusion-cuisine is underwritten by tribal vegetable rites and cereal lore. This axis of verse accentuates poetry’s archaic services over its more urbane, discursive ones. Such verse is alert to poetry’s status as atavistic residue, rooted in primal charms and riddles. If poet-as-auteur suffered a definite glamour-loss during recent, postmodern crises, an urge to shamanize (to sing in a collective and tribally feeding voice) grew more attractive and more improbable at once.
Miller’s Poets of Reality once assured us that a poem and a (referred-to) piece of parsley are always separate objects, but several movements in postmodern verse suggest a writing impatient to outdo its ancestors by producing a more sensually impressive object. When Jack Spicer expressed a desire to compose a poem as real as a grapefruit, he was prefiguring several trends in transgenic bio-art in which poetic phrases can be inserted as genetic code and “live” as organic configurations (Kac 249-263).
Bob Brown suggests that “Writing has been bottled up in books” for far too long and calls for new schools of poets prepared to pull out poetry’s “stopper.” Poets tend to read as omnivores, ordering from every floor of a research library, and one poetic frontier is being extended by a wide range of poets pursuing how language is consumed and emitted as neural phenomena. In one of David Antin’s talk-poems “writing is form of fossilized talking/ which gets put inside of a can/ called a book,” suggesting print as a kind of preserve made from jellied speech. Harryette Mullen’s supermarket converges soup-lines and poetic “lines” in a place where such lines and bar-coded items are equally “scanned.” Robert Grenier’s Sentences was printed on index cards and placed in a fold-up box resembling a recipe file—Grenier (alluding to Whitman) advises upcoming poets to “make briars and blackberries” out of words and letters. Postmodern bricolage is a fusion cuisine—pastiche can refer to food as well as verse, “medley” to a poetic montage or to a fruit-platter. Poetry is a “fishnet” in Robert Lowell’s figure, its signature lyre a food-catching mesh as well as a sounding harp.
To “imbibe” calls up biblio (itself a Greek prefix for “book”), even as the word’s doubled, bilabial b’s smack our lips and remind us of reading’s oral roots. Verse, formed in rows and named for a turning pivot performed while planting or harvesting (versus), is a figurative act of farming on a page-sized pasture (or a story-sized “plot” of linguistic land). The metaphor of pen-as-plow treats a page as a field of growing, maturing food, a loam of verbal nutriment. Saxon hall and Homeric feast, Roman banquet and plow-man’s picnic: all are poetic ur-sites. Poets nurse on the milk of the Muses—in Latin, nutrire can mean “to edify” as well as “to feed.” “Speech” is from the Latin spargere (“to scatter”) and refers to a tossing of semantic seeds, just as sermo (forming “sermon”) means to sow fruitfully out of the fertility of one’s mind.
In an Anglo-Saxon riddle song, an inkwell boasts of holding its ink in its churning, digesting “belly.” Our varied forms of ink (derived from resins, gums and soot-residues) have long been metaphorically linked to acts of food-storage and cookery.
Suitably, a traditional Old English “Bookworm” enigma-song features several puns on words like (for)swelgan (“understand” and “consume”) and cwide (“what is chewed” and “sentence or statement” at once).
The Middle Welsh Book of Taliesin portrays its hero Gwion as an imbiber, drinking from a cauldron and converting said sips into verbal speech. In Irish legend, Finn obtains his eicse (divine awareness) by burning his finger on a cooked fish and licking it: Sarah Lynn Higley refers to “alimentary metaphors” for obtaining poetic power via a primeval ur-figure “imbibing or ingesting” iconic bits of language (271-272).
Michel Jeanneret’s A Feast of Words similarly observes a long classical tradition accentuating an “interaction between verbal and alimentary pleasure” (179). Speech is a convivial spice or a well-rendered sauce for a meal in the early Humanist model: comradely discourse during a meal and “a most truly god-like seasoning” in Plutarch (5). “Digest” serves a literary and alimental term at once—for Cicero and Quintilian digestio is a rhetorical figure in which an idea is sub-divided into points. A word referring to food appeals to our ear as its corresponding object appeals to our tasting tongue in Lucretius’ account, casting our aural ear as a quasi-oral organ.
Erasmus, in his Lingua, depicts verbal speech in terms of tasting, chewing and swallowing. Erasmus’ rallying phrase—“O Ambivalent Tongue”—addresses our eating/orating organ’s ambivalence not as “indifferent” but literally, chemically ambi-valent or “all-connecting.” In Florence Dupont’s “The Grammar of Roman Dining,” we are all “symbol eaters” implicated in an “alimentary economy” (115), and the very etymology of the word “symbol” (like that of its homophonic kin “cymbal”) suggests the clash and scission of two jaws coming together in speech and in eating.
The Christian Bible also hinges on several Word-as-food tropes. The eating of forbidden fruit discontinued Adam’s naming, and so in the early moments of the Old Testament the output of speech is compromised by an illicit dietary intake. Later, Ezekiel swallows a page providing honey to his speech, despite its containing bitter laments and words of woe. Eventually, the Revelator is handed a document to eat in Revelation 10, and so his vision of a globe-rending Armageddon is a vomited by-product of a swallowed Word. Since Christianity centers on a sacramental meal, it illuminates a deep human desire to find meaning (and not mere sustenance) in ingestion.
Much of modern verse puts a radical spin on St. Augustine’s Crede, et manducasti (“Believe, and you have eaten”) by turning the acts of reading and eating into a manifold blend. In Emily Dickinson’s phrase, “A Word made Flesh is seldom/And tremblingly partook”—such trembling is frequently caused by the dualistic oscillation of metaphor itself, in which vehicle and tenor swap places and trade sustenance. Dickinson here enacts her own version of the Capernaist heresy in which the actual chewing and digesting of Christ-as-Word is made uncomfortably literal and sensual. Christ is born in a “manger” (from the French infinitive “to eat”), foreshadowing his appointed fate as Eucharistic meal, a fate opening up whole vistas of metaphoric association.
As portrayed in Eugene H. Patterson’s Eat This Book, Ezekiel and Jeremiah needed to consume a “tensile,” edible book in order to issue back “metaphors of blazing clarity” (21). In Ann W. Astell’s assessment, reading Bible passages has been “traditionally imaged as a chewing and savoring of text” (14): Bible pages are communion wafers in St. Bernard’s account, and Augustine refers to the five “loaves” of the Pentateuch. Moses bearing tongue-shaped “tablets” engraved in laws suggests imperative language contained on an outsized pair of pills, while in Dante’s Hell, a word becomes food so it can be punitively swallowed, hence relating alimental giusto to moral justesse.
As depicted in Kabbalistic studies, Hebrew letters are sources of nutriment and tactically shaped vessels drawing from God’s primal waters. The Torah’s books are said to be a form of honey-cake manna ground from a primal Tree of Life, and Seder can mean book or meal. According to Blake Eskin’s “Books to Chew On,” Hassidic boys are initiated into manhood by licking honey off a slate marked in Hebrew letters and by eating cakes featuring passages from Isaiah and hard-boiled eggs bearing quotations from Ezekiel (Diner 154). Matzoh is stamped in Braille in a particular Jewish joke, suggesting unleavened bread as a source of verbal levity.
Likewise, in particular schools of Islam the chanting of ambrosial syllables irrigates the desert of a once-infidel tongue and so turns a speaking glottis into a self-watered oasis; Higley refers to a long-standing “relationship of eating and utterance in Middle Eastern tradition” (271-272). In a related tradition of “banquet-poems,” the Arabic word for joking, fukāha, is related to the word for fruit, fākiha, and so well-turned wit is a sweetening of one’s discourse.
These recurring word-as-food motifs across religions suggest a human obsession. The human form itself is a cabinet of reminders that our seeing and supping overlap, and our organs have allegoric, totemic shapes demonstrating that same intersection. The tongue is a “tabula rosa” in Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ coinage, a red (and read) index of events and aptitudes. Our brain is shaped like a cauliflower; an “appendix” is a digestive organ and editor’s term at once. The inner ears’ hairs lap like small tongues at sound-waves inside a coiled chamber whorled like an aural seashell. The eyeball’s convex out-curving resembles a hunter’s bow, as do our lips. Our very vision is itself an eating, as micrographs show us that a retina resembles a swallowing gullet. The tongue’s basal cells are rounded like small pupils, our nerve “terminals” share a name with the check-out counters at a supermarket.
This trope of lore-as-victual spans across several Asian traditions as well. Theravada Buddhists eat powdered pages from amulets and vials, Chinese funeral attendants fold “spirit money” into food-shapes, and Tibetans eat written mantras to counteract epileptic fits. The Filipino anting-anting is frequently an amulet bearing a carved chant, swallowed to ward off unwanted forces, as if ingested words could form into a gut’s visceral guardian.
Japanese haiku are occasionally served on green rice cakes, and our tongue coincidentally contains seventeen muscles mirroring a haiku’s syllable-count. The tongue’s “array” is itself a text, as tongue-reading is an age-old practice of Chinese medicine. In Mandarin, yao wen jiao zi literally means “chewing on words,” and many verbs for mental accomplishment are drawn from the culinary domain, according to Lily I-Wen Su (395).
Gary Snyder (probably American poetry’s most-qualified Far-West conduit to the Far ‘East’) refers to mantric “seed syllables” in Asian lore. In classical Hinduism, chanting the gods’ names is frequently compared to a dropping of honey-beads on the chanter’s tongue: R.S. Khare refers to a Hindu “gastrosemantics” and to ways in which food is a “polyvocal interlocutor between matter and spirit” (156).
According to Vedic accounts, our speech assists our dietary intake in heating our human form like a nourishing bellows. Suitably, the Sanskrit, kava or “poet” is contained inside kavala or “morsel.” In a book on India’s comic traditions, Lee Siegel discuss “rhetorical spices, verbal herbs, and tropological condiments” (8), calling attention to the word rasa’ s double meaning as dramatic/poetic “tone” and as culinary “flavour.”
The examples above suggest that alongside Eastern religions’ nirvanic (literally “flame-extinguishing”) tendencies there is a fascination (particularly in Ayurvedic medicine and Taoist alchemy) with how the human furnace maintains its crackle and heat, and with correlations between the voice’s timbre and food’s fueling tinder. Imagism, as a pioneering Modern movement, owes much of its emphasis on sensory immediacy to Zen haiku and Taoist aphorism, but is also alert to our senses’ innate slipperiness (in Pound’s references to “darting” sensory moments, etc.) and the way that our seeing, speaking, and supping blend in a heady, overheated boil. The Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist scriptures all emphasize holism, and regard enlightenment as prevented primarily by delusions of separation. Said separation violates not only human community and quantum reality but also how our sensing bodies operate: our brain’s so-called “lobes” are only approximate and far from “windowless,” and as the word “ganglia” suggests, our nerve-cells are always in the process of forming loose confederacies.
The most basic components of written language themselves evoke nutriment, and our very letters are pictograms of food-concerns. Patricia Crain refers to “swallow alphabets” (in early American hornbook primers) featuring letters depicted as food or as lip-shapes. The upper-case A is an inverted ox-head (ur-beast of sacrifice) and an inseminating plow, B is a drawn-back hunter’s bow or a pair of feeding breasts. C is camel-hump (a place of self-nurturance) and also resembles a bitten-into slice of crescent fruit; D mimics a food-swollen belly or a door to a meat-locker. In early English abcedaria, A is an apple bitten by B (itself a butcher) but also an archer aiming at its own prey. The lower-case l is a “limp noodle” in Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (16), and in fact said liquid consonant causes the tongue to retroflex in a contorted act of self-tasting.
Our modern terms for many of our literary genres are also edibly derived. A satire is a pot-pourri of blended ingredients, and may derive from Latin’s lanx satura, a dish of fruits offered to a cereal goddess. The word “farce” once referred to a forcemeat stuffed into a larger (and more entrée-like) work, certain suspense novels are “potboilers,” a “toast” is a piece of food and a verbal performance. The word “comedy” derives from the Greek phrase “to revel in singing,” but cross-linguistically (if coincidentally) verges quite close to the Spanish comida, or “food.” “Boilerplate” is a standardized piece of “recipe” prose, and spoonerisms are errors in speech, as if our slips of tongue were matters of improper ladling.
Anatomically, an eye’s reflecting pool and a tongue’s rippling paddle are never far apart in our mental “inscape.” Our seemingly steady gaze is actually a series of lunging “saccades” that resemble optical bites. In current “wave” (as opposed to “ray”) optics, our vision is a kind of lapping, licking force that nibbles and tastes more than it pictures or records.
“The eye and tongue are a field” according to Michael McClure—the “focal” and “vocal” entwine on a magnetic field of neural crosstalk. The sun’s power, via plants’ chloroplast molecules, form the fleeting foods that we (as carbon-based eaters) break back down to fuel our verbal messaging. The binder-sites on our tongue sort food-molecules and “compose” food’s quantum code into links of flavour. Language is hence a figurative ricochet of food, an output dependent on caloric intake. Food is chemically encoded into chain-link “phrases” of nutriment by a tongue transmitting its receptor chemicals and reading ingested food’s chemical contours.
Across several traditions and tropes, figuratively and anatomically, eating and utterance are of a tangible piece. A taste-bud is hence a two-way transponder (and “bud” is a mirror-palindrome, just as “bud” turned inside out is “dub,” to name). Our retina’s surface is pitted in fovea like inverted taste buds, and our cornea, lens and pupil change shape to aid in refracting, in a process that resembles optical chewing. In “Words Rising,” Robert Bly claims “we are bees” because “our honey is language,” a food trove “stored in caves” to carry “what we have forgotten” (SSFTC 145). The very word “read” derives from riddle, a word that can itself refer to a series of bite-marks. Our eye’s doubly convex lens is named for its resemblance to a lentil bean, a foodstuff widely associated with resurrected spirits from the Roman festival of Lemuria onward.
These overlaps hold bold prospects for a more scientifically and sensually engaged literary future and comment forcefully backward on our poetic past. Modernist art and latter-day science seem equally intrigued by sensory swapping. The Modernist emphasis on collage accentuates our body’s collage-like sensory intake. “Language” poetry’s refusal to discursively signify puts added emphasis on language’s material surfaces. The old figure of a hidden meaning behind language is undone here, replaced by a model in which language’s very “front” contains its own enigmas. All poetry is always already an act of neural rewiring, especially when metaphor tests our sense of likely bodily events or configurations. Each writerly act of metaphoric coinage requires a reader’s neural schematic to adjust, to branch out.
Such attentiveness to language’s incarnate status is part of a much longer and archaic lineage; Guy Davenport suggests a large part of poetry’s momentum still draws from a “drama nourished by grain-producing” (232), an entwining of verbal behaviors in vernal and vegetal rites. For Robert Graves, all poetry’s grand, underlying topic has always been a petitioning of our food-supply’s vernal replenishment, a topic given a new twist in postmodern verse.
A certain portion of contemporary poetry is driven by a kind of atavism, betraying an impatient wish to qualify as lore, to somehow accelerate its decay into archaic “source” and serve as a kind of primeval sustenance. This atavism, ironically, opens up new frontiers for more scientifically literate and kinetically concerned modes of interpretation, attending to the manners in which a word’s sensual surface intertwines with its semantic content. The contours of our written language’s letters form a lattice of rooted, branching history, and so a written page is at once a menu and a recipe for neural microdrama, a site where our seeing tongue and tasting eye overlap.
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