The poet Tomas Tranströmer died in March 2015. Six months before his death, I happened to buy New Collected Poems, translated by Robin Fulton and published by Bloodaxe. I immediately loved his writing. Here is a poem from that book which succinctly expresses something I have tried to define for years.
From March 1979
Weary of all those who come with words, words but no language
I make my way to the snow-covered island.
The untamed has no words.
The unwritten pages spread out on every side!
I came upon tracks of deer in the snow.
Language but no words.
Tranströmer encapsulates what I find most attractive about poetry: the possibility that the poet can venture into the white of unwritten pages and there annex new territory from silence. The discovery of a language to convey what has not previously been spoken keeps me reading poetry and trying to write it.
The poem also helps me point to what I find less interesting in poetry. I dislike poems that are constructed to be some kind of language game, like a superior crossword, such as acrostic poems. Of course, noticing how certain words catch fire when placed next to another is one of the chief joys of writing. But poetry that describes nothing other than itself, that is “all words and no language” as Tranströmer might put it, leaves me cold. I like language that reaches out into the world and tries to describe it because there are still infinite things that have never been described.
‘Silence’ is my mental shorthand for these snowy fields, thanks to an early encounter with W.B.Yeats’s poem The long-legged fly whose refrain “Like a long-legged fly upon the stream/His mind moves upon silence.” has haunted me ever since.