The communion of the word
The language of fairy tales

A word on words

Susan Hannon

“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”  - Diane Setterfield (The Thirteeth Tale)

"'Some people say the best stories have no words….It is true that words drop away, and that the important things are left unsaid. The important things are learned in faces, in gestures, not in our locked tongues. The true things are too big or too small, or in any case always the wrong size to fit the template called language. I know that. But I know something else too….Turn down the daily noise and at first there is the relief of silence. And then, very quietly, as quiet as light, meaning returns. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.” – Jeanette Winterson (Lighthousekeeping)

Harriet Popham

"Colorful language threatens some people, who associate it, I think, with a kind of eroticism (playing with language in public = playing with yourself), and with extra expense (having to sense or feel more). I don't share that opinion. Why reduce life to a monotone? Is that truer to the experience of being alive? I don't think so. It robs us of life's many textures. Language provides an abundance of words to keep us company on our travels. But we're losing words at a reckless pace, the national vocabulary is shrinking. Most Americans use only several hundred words or so. Frugality has its place, but not in the larder of language. We rely on words to help us detail how we feel, what we once felt, what we can feel. When the blood drains out of language, one's experience of life weakens and grows pale. It's not simply a dumbing down, but a numbing.” - Diane Ackerman (An Alchemy of the Mind)

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”  - Emily Dickinson (Selected Letters)

Raymond Queneau

"Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain Beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you've spoken or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognise a well-tuned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skilfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language. When you use grammar you peel back the layers, to see how it is all put together, to see it quite naked, in a way.” - Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog)

"I once saw a small child go to an electric light switch as say, 'Mamma, can I open the light?' She was using the age-old language of exploration, the language of art." - Ezra Pound

Victoria Semykina 1

Victoria Semykina 2

"The struggle of literature is in fact a struggle to escape from the confines of language; it stretches out from the utmost limits of what can be said; what stirs literature is the call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary.” - Italo Calvino (The Literature Machine: Essays)

"Everything in writing begins with language. Language begins with listening."  - Jeanette Winterson

15th century book with paw prints

“As I train myself to cast off words, as I learn to erase word-thoughts, I begin to feel a new world rising up around me. The old world of houses, rooms, trees and streets shimmers, wavers and tears away, revealing another universe as startling as fire. We are shut off from the fullness of things. Words hide the world. They blur together elements that exist apart, or they break elements into pieces bind up the world, contract it into hard little pellets of perception. But the unbound world, the world behind the world – how fluid it is, how lovely and dangerous. At rare moments of clarity, I succeed in breaking through. Then I see. I see a place where nothing is known, because nothing is shaped in advance by words. There, nothing is hidden from me. There, every object presents itself entirely, with all its being. It's as if, looking at a house, you were able to see all four sides and both roof slopes. But then, there's no 'house,' no 'object,' no form that stops at a boundary, only a stream of manifold, precise, and nameless sensations, shifting into one another, pullulating, a fullness, a flow. Stripped of words, untamed, the universe pours in on me from every direction. I become what I see. I am earth, I am air. I amall. My eyes are suns. My hair streams among the galaxies.”
  - Stephen Millhauser (Dangerous Laughter)

"There is language going on out there -- the language of the wild. Roars, snorts, trumpets, squeals, whoops, and chirps all have meaning derived over eons of expression. We have yet to become fluent in the language -- and music -- of the wild.”  - Boyd Norton (Serengeti)

Jodi Harvey-Brown

"How monotonous our speaking becomes when we speak only to ourselves! And how insulting to the other beings -- to foraging black bears and twisted old cypresses -- that no longer sense us talking to them, but only about them, as though they were not present in our world….Small wonder that rivers and forests no longer compel our focus or our fierce devotion. For we walk about such entities only behind their backs, as though they were not participant in our lives. Yet if we no longer call out to the moon slipping between the clouds, or whisper to the spider setting the silken struts of her web, well, then the numerous powers of this world will no longer address us -- and if they still try, we will not likely hear them.”   - David Abram (Becoming Animal)

“Perhaps it is the language that chooses the writers it needs, making use of them so that each might express a tiny part of what it is.”  - José Saramago

Emma Taylor

Art above: A detail from a paper sculpture by Susan Hannon (US); "Narrative Dress" by Harriet Popham (UK); One Hundred Million Billion Poems" by Raymond Queneau (France, 1903-1976); "Ships" by Victoria Semykina (Russia & Italy); pawprints on a 15th century book, photographed by medieval historian Erik Kwakkel; "Bambi and His Mother" by Jodi Harvey-Brown (US), and "From With a Book" by Emma Taylor (UK).


There is so much to absorb here I feel the need to return and read each one in snippets. What is lingering with me right now is the discussion on the silences between words. It is the aspect of reading that is the hardest to teach to children. It has to start with the oral telling of a story, where you can leave the silence there and let the body begin to react to the unspoken. Once they have learnt to shiver, anticipate and hold their breath they can begin to put these silences into their reading. If we with hold the spoken story from our children we cut out a part of their heart.

I fully accept that I'm a simple soul, more than a little literal, so am I right in assuming that Stephen Millhauser in 'Dangerous Laughter' is being ironic when he extolls the virtues of a wordless universe with a great tumbling tempest of words? Can the concept of wordlessness only be encapsulated in this rich and roiling stew of vocabulary? Surely he was giggling over his keyboard when he wrote this.

For me Italo Calvino is much clearer in his intent when he states that literature attempts to break beyond the limits of language. In a sense it creates language anew to escape its constraints.

But by far the clearest comments for me are the paw prints on the medieval manuscript. What does the cat care for the turgid twitterings of humanity? "Clear the way, I'm coming through and I'll leave behind the punctuation of contempt!"

Yes, there's always something rather ironic in the use of words to explore or evoke a wordless state. Nature writers run into this all the time. David Abram, for example, in his brilliant book The Spell of the Sensuous, uses the medium of a printed book to discuss that which is lost when we move from an oral storytelling culture to literacy. And yes, I think both Abram and Millhauser are very aware of what they're doing as they write, bless them.

Here's a poem that tackles this from a different angle...somewhat mysteriously (as poetry does best):

Song of Seeing
by Brazilian poet Manoel de Barros

Having lived many years in the scrub grass in the way of birds
The boy took on a bird's kind of stare—
He obtained a fountainesque vision.
He observed things the way birds observed them.
All the unnamed things.
Water wasn't the word water yet.
Rock not the word rock.
They just were.
Words were free of grammar and could inhabit any position.
So it was the boy could inaugurate them as he pleased.
He could give rocks the costumes of the sun.
He could give song the sun's format.
And, if he wanted to end up a bee, it was only a matter
of opening the word bee
and stepping inside it.
As if it were the infancy of language.

(c 2007 by Manoel de Barros; translation from the Portuguese by Idra Novey and Flavia Rocha)

I just found the passage in Dave Abram's book that I was thinking of:

"Human language arose not only as a means of attunement between persons, but also between ourselves and the animate landscape. The belief that speech is a purely human property was entirely alien to those oral communities that first evolved our various ways of speaking, and by holding to such a belief today we may well be inhibiting the spontaneous activity of language. By denying that birds and other animals have their own styles of speech, by insisting that the river has no real voice and that the ground itself is mute, we stifle our direct experience. We cut ourselves off from the deep meanings in many of our words, severing our language from that which supports and sustains it. We then wonder why we are often unable to communicate even among ourselves.

"But what then of writing?...For those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines, a world of textures, tastes, and sounds other than those that we have engineered, there can be no question of simply abandoning literacy, of turning away from all writing. Our task, rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land. Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of things themselves--the the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have a rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit the coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valley and swamps. Finding phrases that place us in contact with the trembling neck-muscles of a deer holding its antlers high as it swims toward the mainland, or with the ant dragging a scavanged rice-grain through the grasses. Planting words, like seeds, under rocks and fallen logs--letting language take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf."

And amen to that.

Now I must get back to my own work and words this morning. Good luck with yours, Stuart!

I love the surrealistical beauty of this. Makes me shiver (the E. DIckinson way) so I know it is true poetry. And True.


Stepping Inside the Bee

His little furry body opens
and I step in,
learn the words for hive
and honey,
for sun and beeline.

Take a sounding
from his buzz.

The facets of his eyes
show me universes,
poems without words.

Light dazzles.
I touch the air
memorize its song.

Unfurling wings,
saluting sky,
I leap, I lift,
teach myself
to fly.

©2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Thank you for these pieces, Terri. The poem in approaching the subject obliquely by talking of the infancy of language explains the concept with perfect clarity. Beautiful. And Dave Abrams is quite compelling.

I love, love, love this!

Everyone: I'm currently having a problem with Typepad randomly shunting some comments to the spam filter. If you've tried to post and your comment disappeared, that's probably where it went. I'm going to be checking the spam box every day now, and if I find any of your comments there, I'll restore them.

Jane, this is such a beautiful response to the beautiful Brazilian poem. Beauty, beauty, beauty all around. I too want to open words and step inside them. Bee. Water. Oak tree. Wild pony. Crow. (So long as I can come back out again!)

I'm reminded of this Netsilik Eskimo song on artist Charles Vess' site:
( )


In the earliest time,
when both people and animals lived on the earth,
a person could become an animal if he wanted to
and an animal could become a human being.
Sometimes they were people
and sometimes animals
and there was no difference.
All spoke the same language.
That was the time when words were like magic.
The human mind had mysterious powers.
A word spoken by chance
might have strange consequences.
It would suddenly come alive
and what people wanted to happen could happen--
all you had to do was to say it.
Nobody can explain this:
That's the way it was.

- after Nalugiaq

(Edward Field, 'Songs and Stories of the Netsilik Eskimos')

Terri, I'm incredibly stirred by the paper and fabric art this week. It touches me in a mysterious and profound way.

I love the David Abram quote. How disconnected we are! When I think of the story of Adam and Eve, it always strikes me that Eve wasn't the least bit surprised when the serpent spoke to her. Who knows how much more "awake" our world was "in the beginning?" How much has changed! How much of it is a natural devolution, and how much is our increasing deafness and blindness to the natural world? It also makes me think of Narnia, when the dryads refuse to dance and the animals largely go wild. What a loss. If heaven is anything like the garden of Eden, how "awake" will everything be? How "in tune" will we be with all that surrounds us? That's such an exciting concept to me. I feel homesick for it already.

oh that wing & this whole post and all the responses soar so wild and high & free on the wonder of words

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