For my last semester in college, in an effort to be practical, I signed up for a graduate humanities course called “How to Live.” On the first day, the professor discussed the syllabus at length, then asked us to introduce ourselves. The air had drained from the room, and as I waited for my turn I could already tell there was a problem.
I was right: when I opened my mouth, nothing came out. Blushing, rocking slightly back and forth, I tried to say my name, or anything. I tapped my hand on the table, measuring out the syllables I needed, and even glanced nakedly at an acquaintance, hoping he would jump in — as people often do in conversation, finishing my sentences with thoughtless sympathy, eager for a resolution of meaning. But he did not speak, and after several infinite moments I shook my head, mute and humiliated. I dropped the course; “How to Live” I would have to learn elsewhere.
To that end, I’ve been re-reading Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, a story she spun out of fragments from the ancient Greek lyric poet Stesichorus. This book shows us what to do with a certain kind of silence, in this case an interrupted song, a shattered narrative. Of the masterpiece Geryoneis only a few pieces of papyrus remain, none longer than thirty lines, their correct order unknown. Carson says they “withhold as much as they tell,” and from this mysterious skeleton she fleshes out a reimagined myth, proving what brilliance can emerge from a certain measure of constraint.
But of course she might have left the silence intact instead, as she does with her translation of Sappho’s If Not, Winter. In that text she highlights the missing lines with brackets, in contrast to a tradition of poets who have, perhaps, taken too much liberty in filling out the sparse fragments. “The more I stand out of the way, the more Sappho shows through,” writes Carson. In this she perhaps gives the reader room to imagine. As she notes in the text:
I emphasize the distinction between brackets and no brackets because it will affect your reading experience, if you allow it. Brackets are exciting. Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp — brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.
We could say time and ruin has granted the ancient poets a kind of stutter, with many free spaces opened up by what is missing, what will never be heard. To imagine language in response to these gaps reminds me of a somewhat common verbal practice that I myself use, known as “covert” stuttering, in which the speaker attempts to and often can hide a vocal hitch by avoiding problem words. The speaker draws on their vocabulary to sail around the trouble, choosing alternatives even if they are unusual or inexact. Of course this compelled circumlocution, this way of communicating at a slant rather than straight on, resembles poetic practice. And isn’t imaginative writing always a way to respond to what is lacking, what has not been expressed? As George Eliot proposes in Middlemarch, “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” Writing itself is this ‘vision and feeling,’ the surreal and dangerous act that exists to render silence — as of a missing scrap, some unvoiceable word, an ordinary life — into a roar.
But I have been speaking of stutters in only one way, while really they are many things at once, real and metaphorical: a silence, yes, but also a blank, an obstacle, an interruption, a surprise, a failure, a breakdown, a loss of control. As poet Craig Dworkin points out in “Stutter of Form,” a stammer is the grinding gears of a machine that one assumes will run smoothly. He suggests that all vocality struggles through the material of the throat, tongue, and lips, and a stutter is only when we perceive that struggle. It is a material thing, and this matters for its relationship to writing.
My own stutter is usually slight, and I have the advantage of not being an ancient Greek poet, in that I do know what I’m thinking even if I lose scraps of my voice. To my relief I have some control in writing, can expand on my own silence, and do not need Anne Carson to speak for me (although I wouldn’t mind). It’s true that a stammer often vanishes when the speaker is talking to herself, which reminds me of how John Stuart Mill said poetry is supposedly “feeling confessing itself to itself in moments in solitude.” He argued poetry was not outward eloquence, although in a practical sense, it is — at least, I worry about being able to speak my poems out loud for others, and because I know my tongue’s failures, I edge my poems toward song.
In the 1970s, the poet Donald Hall wrote about sound in terms of what he called ‘milktongue,’ saying that “whatever else we may say of a poem we admire, it exists as a sensual body … [that] reaches us through our mouths, which are warm in the love of vowels held together.” He was effusive in explaining that poetry is “the deep and primitive pleasure of vowels in the mouth, of assonance and of holds on adjacent long vowels; of consonance, mmmm, and alliteration.” Although there is something both too Freudian and ‘far out’ in Hall’s descriptions, I have a somatic interest in poetry too, as I use assonance and meter to create lines that are possible for me to speak easily and even joyfully, forced to conclude that poetry must refer back to lips, tongue, throat.
If the stutter is a psychosomatic condition to which writing responds, it is also a useful poetic metaphor in more ways than can be accounted for here. (I have not even provided enlightening examples of caesura, dashes, fragmentation, and so on.) For instance: to stutter is to have difficulty expressing a thought. Writing may be more comfortable than speaking for those who lack vocal ease but it has its own stoppages, most obviously writer’s block. At the other end lie the very limits of language, a concern of poets and philosophers alike.
Although somewhat out of context here, Wittgenstein’s famous quote, “that whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent,” gestures toward these limits. He himself was a stammerer, which likely has little to do with his philosophic thinking on language, although it makes striking echoes. Even Wittgenstein, or perhaps especially Wittgenstein, found it difficult to write: “I never more than half succeed in expressing what I want to express. Actually not as much as that, but by no more than a tenth. That is still worth something. Often my writing is nothing but ‘stuttering.’” And yet he went on with it. It seems one ought anyway to try.