After the poetry workshop wound down, I took courage and invited the instructor for a conversation on our next break. He seemed very approachable, and had, in fact, glanced over my way several times from his position at the head of the table. I was gratified when he agreed gladly to join me at the nearby Obfuscations Café.
“Words can be so powerful and evocative,” he explained over tea. “Take undergarments, for example. His glance slid to the brown bra strap that I felt had slipped away from the cover of my T-shirt. “That is clear, explicit. But it is a mere label. One may also use the term ‘lingerie,’ implying a desire to linger, and something exotic or foreign. As for color” (his yes drifted left again) “one could say ‘brown,’ the unadorned, middle-of the road term, or”, his eyebrows lifted, “‘chocolate.’ I do love chocolate.” He looked directly into my eyes as he reached for his spoon and fetched a taste of syrup-covered brownie to his lips.
I thought about this, but it did not make sense. Words may be accurate or inaccurate, as well as more or less precise. Should we not, in attempting to communicate, aim for both accuracy and precision, agreeing on standards for these whenever possible? Allowing for etymological evolution, and cultural diffusion, as well as influences from the physical environment, language is still about statements: past, present, future, declarative, interrogative, imperative, observation, inference, opinion. Even considering context, there are truthful and untruthful statements, and surely the same would be true in poetry.
I told him this.
He carefully placed his spoon on a napkin. An oval dampness spread outward through the microscopic white fibers. He picked the spoon it up again, spooned honey into his tea, and his eyes lost their focus, before returning to mine. “What I mean is, well, for example, which statement do you take to be true: one, you are a new female acquaintance from a writers’ workshop, about my age, widow of one year (as you told me), about 5’6”, brunette, dressed in green and brown. Or, two, you are a fascinating, desirable woman with a heartbeat I sense across the room, reaching out for companionship, pulsing intelligence and feeling that intrigues, and with an aroma of cherries wafting out on the warmth of her breath”?
I considered the two options, then answered, “You are comparing two different types of language there. The empirically observable on the one hand, and on the other, words intended to communicate a desired relational outcome. One, both, or even neither may be considered true—it all depends on one’s criteria and assumptions, which we have not yet established.”
He sat back a little (he’d been learning forward, hands somewhat extended on the table, and his cheeks looked rather warm, his eyes bright). He took several uneven breaths. Perhaps he was understanding my point? But he looked confused. I remembered that men can be on a different wavelength when it comes to communication, sometimes having difficulty with subtle ideas.
I decided to shift to something else, to ask about something he’d mentioned in his workshop. “I would like your thoughts on poetic technique, if you don’t mind, specifically the use of rhythm,” I said.
He adjusted his chair with a sudden scrape against the concrete floor and a sharp intake of breath. “Rhythm?” he repeated, looking surprised, and even more alert. “I…would love to show you what I know about that. In fact, since I’m staying just above (They gave me a fireplace!), why don’t we continue this in my suite?”
“Your room? But I have half a cup of tea still, and most of my muffin, and you haven’t yet given me satisfaction on either subject we’ve broached.”
“Satisfaction?!” he squeaked, then ran his tongue over his lips, and said something under his breath. “Can’t get…”?. Then, aloud, “I really would like to… discuss this further, so, shall I say, my place in fifteen?” He gulped the last of his passionfruit tea, nodded at me, somewhat distractedly, set his card with a room number scrawled on the back, looked at me dazedly, and walked quickly back to the lodge.
I was confused, to say the least. Celebrated man of words that he was, he obviously hadn’t understood a thing I’d said, nor expressed himself clearly at all. Poetry really was not my thing, I decided. Non-overlapping spheres of understanding and all. I pondered the complexities of verbal communication as I finished my English Afternoon tea.