Sunday, February 28, 2010
Fountain of Words
When did a cry of pain become the word,
or shout of joy proclaim a hunter's name?
To mimic bird or animal with dance
and song, came long before those constant signs
were formed with breath and tongue as human speech.
But who decreed which grunt or scream should mean
hunger, thirst or water and mouth that feasts
on grubbed root, berry or fresh slaughtered beasts?
Pointing, touching and vocalising formed
a little stock of sounds for the leader
to impose a lexicon on his band:
the wind, the rain, the sun and moon became
magical sounds and gestures of the hand,
signs that could conjure up what was not there,
and so bestow the wisdom to deceive,
that devious basis of shamanic power.
And those who could not learn remained dumb beasts
to be shuffled off to low servitude.
Mayhap some babbling child became a fool
until grown savant, broke a tribal rule
of silence and became a talking clown,
tolerated by his small mob as mad
but good to laugh at for a half chewed bone,
but then cast out to wander off alone.
In some chilly cave, gorged on mushroom tart,
our sage may have beheld some shining god,
bearing the gifts of poesy and song
and, inspired, rushed back to the little throng
to share with them his new found powers of speech.
risking all on performance of his art,
there to be driven out by shaking spears
or to be welcomed home with grateful tears.
When the world had grown rich with spoken words,
and wise shamans had moved from songs to signs
those queer lines pressed on clay or carved on bones
appeared as sacred writ on standing stones:
secret language known only to a few,
preserved the power of scribes and priest who knew
that meaning carved on obelisks or tombs
would outlast mortal flesh from royal wombs.
Writing became the new game of power:
drawing contracts for pots of oil and grain
was all the same to the assiduous scribe,
but laws and speeches of great princes called
for subtler minds who weighed the loss or gain
that might hang upon the right turn of phrase
to calm an angry mob that could erase
a century of plutocratic ease.
Then libraries and scriptoria came,
where silence ruled and masters of the scrolls
accumulated works by men of fame,
and preserved the ruler's laws and decrees.
Knowledge, stored up like sacks of grain, became
the aim, attracting wandering scholars who,
by degrees, established their own schools too,
each with its rites and most peculiar rules.
The heaped up mountains of subtle doctrine
caused an avalanche of violent strife,
when youth, intelligence and beauty clashed
with desert troglodytes who'd tired of life.
The monotheists could not tolerate
so many contradictory points of view,
they sliced the font of learning to the bone
and set alight her seat of learning too.
Now safely in the care of monks and priests
the words basked in bold illumination,
scripted on white calf skin by fish stained hands
amid arabesques of red, green and gold,
God's glory was revealed to western lands,
until German monks and printers unleashed,
on rag paper, a leaden storm of words
set to be read by draper or great lords.
Once set free, to roam university
or private hall, the political tract
or scientific fact, laid plain and bare
the corruption or scandalous affair
of corpulent king or venal patrician,
seemed to pave the way to freedom for all,
but soon led to the gibbet or the noose,
once the dogs of law and order were let loose.
The need for lexicography was seen,
by Dr Johnson, then Noah Webster too,
who sensed the time had come ponder on
all the English words that had ever been.
Imprisoned at last in leather binding,
the word-hoard was finally brought to book,
so to find a word's accepted meaning
the curious scholar had not far to look.
The wordsmith jerks the strings of memory,
a clumsy puppeteer who mimics life,
but poets know that words must represent
the world of sensual play before the sign
can intervene and kill each pleasant state,
dreams or sublime feelings of joy or strife.
The art commands each desiccated word
to bathe in life's fountain and re-hydrate.