25 February, 2021

A Poem on Language, Perfectly Encapsulating What Language Means to Me

There Is No Word
By Tony Hoagland

There isn't a word for walking out of the grocery store
with a gallon jug of milk in a plastic sack
that should have been bagged in double layers

– so that before you are even out the door
you feel the weight of the jug dragging
the bag down, stretching thin

plastic handles longer and longer
and you know it's only a matter of time until
bottom suddenly splits.

There is no single, unimpeachable word
for that vague sensation of something
moving away from you

as it exceeds its elastic capacity
– which is too bad, because that is the word
I would like to use to describe standing on the street

chatting with an old friend
as the awareness grows in me that he is
no longer a friend, but only an acquaintance,

a person with whom I never made the effort –
until this moment, when as we say goodbye
I think we share a feeling of relief,

a recognition that we have reached
the end of a pretense,
though to tell the truth

what I already am thinking about
is my gratitude for language –
how it will stretch just so much and no farther;

how there are some holes it will not cover up;
how it will move, if not inside, then
around the circumference of almost anything –

how, over the years, it has given me
back all the hours and days, all the
plodding love and faith, all the

misunderstandings and secrets
I have willingly poured into it.

* * * * *

The aim of a lot of poems, especially in contemporary poetry, is to point out a universal truth by providing the reader with very specific details. The poet Tony Hoagland puts his love of language on explicit display in the above piece, "There Is No Word," and the poem succeeds, on multiple levels, in bringing his point across.

I posted my own poem about vocabulary options in various languages several years ago, but Hoagland gets at something more. His warts-and-all love of language, what it can and can't do, is evident, brought to the fore by those concluding pairings: "hours and days," "plodding love and faith," "misunderstandings and secrets." How could we not see Hoagland's tenderness and be moved?

"There Is No Word" is one of the poems I keep a copy of, for rereading whenever the mood strikes. This past weekend was just such an occasion. I had my "Favorite Poems" folder out and was reading, on the bed, more or less at random – poems by Timothy Donnelly, Yusef Komunyakaa, Lucia Perillo, Vijay Seshadri, Dean Young, and, of course, Tony Hoagland. By the time I looked up at the clock, a whole hour had passed and it was time for work. I could've spent all morning there, doing only that, which is testament enough to the love I'm talking about here.

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