Poetry in the Mother Tongue

By: Paul Lake

Despite nearly a century’s advances in science, technology, linguistics, and our understanding of human development and cognition, Freud’s Oedipal myth provides the intellectual cornerstone for postmodern literary analysis as well as the chief impetus for avant-garde experimentation in the arts. As adapted and modified by modern psychoanalytic critics like Jacques Lacan and feminists such as Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous, the new Oedipal myth places the male child’s psychic conflicts at the center of analysis and identifies the Phallus as the “universal signifier,” whose presence or absence informs or empties language. Ironically, in reinterpreting Freud’s myth, the various schools of postmodern criticism have produced the very “phallocentrism” their rhetoric aims to overthrow. As they try to excise the almighty phallus from language with words, they exhibit the same Oedipal anxieties as the child in Freud’s sexual drama.

Postmodern critics have tried various methods to liberate the repressed feminine from the strangling coils of phallic convention. Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida have proclaimed the death of the author and employed various strategies for severing texts from their cultural contexts. Similarly, avant-garde writers from Stein to Silliman have hacked at grammar and syntax, chopped logic, and dislocated narrative to achieve their artistic goals. One doesn’t have to be a Freudian to see in all of this hacking of texts and killing of authors the working out of deep Oedipal anxieties.[private]

Jane Gallop has noted the implicit incoherencies of the Freudian model for women. Other feminist critics have tried to adapt and reinterpret the myth in more suitably feminist ways. Julia Kristeva, for instance, in her version of the Oedipal drama, posits that a period of “semiotic” bliss—rooted in the child’s ecstatic identification with the mother’s body during breast-feeding—precedes the child’s fall into the “symbolic” order of phallic discourse and Father Law. To recover that lost Eden of infantile innocence, she advises women to adopt the anarchic language of avant-garde literary texts. Helene Cixous, another feminist critic who attended Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic seminars, advises women to write from their bodies, replacing the “hard” forms of masculine discourse with soft “fluid” feminine forms; while Luce Irigary urges women to model their writing on the “diffuse” structure of female genitalia instead of the rigidly singular male.

Caught in this crossfire of theory, women writers are doubly disarmed. On top of the Oedipal fears supposedly attending all ventures into language, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar posit an additional “anxiety of authorship” for women, who by definition lack the requisite phallus and male authority for writing. These conflicts reach their most extreme manifestation when women attempt to write in traditional poetic forms. After all, if all language is phallocentric and poetic form quintessentially male, a woman writing formal verse is engaged in an act of self-abnegation or betrayal. The introductory essays and prefaces in A Formal Feeling Comes, an anthology of formalist women’s verse, give voice to the poets’ anxieties. Given the critical climate in which they were written, it’s a miracle the poems exist at all.

But why should anxiety attend the creation of poems by women—or men, for that matter? In what sense does the Phallus lie behind all signifying forms? Through what social or psychological mechanisms do Father Law and phallocentrism impose themselves on developing psyches and emerging texts? Postmodern critics have been curiously silent on these vital questions. For a truer and more accurate account of poetic form and language, we might look to another source than postmodern theory.

“Three Silences,” a poem by Rachel Hadas, provides a suitable starting point for an analysis more consonant with both modern science and female experience. Though nominally about silence, the poem describes the complex interplay of minds and motives as mother and child engage in the playful business of transmitting and learning language. Here are the first two of the poem’s three numbered sections:

What do these seemingly simple lines reveal about the nature of language? First, that even in its absence communication takes place. Pathos precedes—and informs—logos as the child takes pleasure and nourishment at the mother’s breast. Language originates not in the Oedipus Complex, with its various conflicts and anxieties, but in the gentle give-and-take of the mother-child bond. Indirectly, Hadas identifies the real universal symbol and signifier, which, like the purloined letter in Poe’s famous tale, has been lying in plain view all along—in the lingua in language. In place of the signifying Phallus, Hadas substitutes the mother tongue.

If we look deeply enough into another favorite term of postmodern analysis, discourse, we discover the same hidden signifier. Its Latin root, meaning “a running back and forth,” may come from that preverbal interplay between mother and child, and it informs our modern English definition: “a verbal exchange” or “conversation.” The Indo-European root of discourse, kers (also present in current and cursive) gives us intercourse and succor, returning us again to the maternal matrix and succoring breast.

By excising the mother tongue from the center of language and replacing it with the phallus, postmodern critics have enacted a curious sort of Oedipal drama—not of castration, but of effacement. In addition, in denying origin and originality to literary texts, postmodern critics have tried to usurp the creative female role of author and creator. Derrida, for instance, claims to subvert phallocentric discourse by writing with a feminine hand. Jane Gallop observes that Jacques Lacan employs a “coquettish” style to promote a “feminist” anti-logocentric discourse. The overwrought, pseudo-scientific jargon used by so many postmodern critics might likewise be seen as an attempt to replace the plain-speaking mother tongue of poetry and fiction with the hyper-masculine language of critical analysis.

In denying authorship to poets and novelists, critics such as Barthes arrogate the feminine powers of creation to themselves. But the jouissance Barthes promotes as the end of reading is a pale shadow of both sexual generation and literary authorship. Indeed, by falsely equating authorship with social authority, postmodern theory subjects women to the disabling illusion that they must don the mantle of male authority to write—or abandon all logic and reason. But a look at the word shows that neither a phallus nor social authority is pre-requisite to being an author, a word that derives from the Latin auctor, which in turn comes from augere, to create, increase—concepts associated with feminine natural fertility.

Though not directly engaged in refuting Post-structuralist theories, in her poem Rachel Hadas offers an alternative view of language and authorship:

Noting that words often change meaning as they change contexts, Post-structuralist critics argue that “slippage” occurs between verbal signs and the things they signify. As Hadas observes in the lines above, the word water signifies both ocean and brook. Since a change of context alters words’ definitions, postmodern critics charge that words are therefore unstable and ultimately refer to nothing but themselves, in a self-contained system of difference. The very act of contemplating this curious fact is said to induce aporia, a vertiginous sense that one is trapped in a linguistic hall of mirrors. In Hadas’s poem, however, language has quite another effect. It “casts its spell” of enchantment on the growing child as he discovers that everything he encounters “has a tale to tell.” Instead of inducing mental paralysis, language opens the world to understanding, giving the child an increasing sense of mastery over himself and the things he names. Words enable both child, and poet, to bind “The world’s loose leaves” up “into a book.” With her punning language and evocative metaphors, Hadas suggests that the natural world and human language are alive and inter-tangled. The branching tree of syntax mirrors the tree of life. The poet exploits the multiple meanings of the word “leaves,” for instance, to reveal hidden likeness, slyly weaving her poem (on its printed “leaf”) into the process of naming.

Hadas’s poem also addresses other aspects of postmodern theory, albeit indirectly. Derrida, for instance, claims that written language exists prior to speech (in a philosophic sense, not an historical one); and further, that since writing is built on a system of differences, meaning is perpetually deferred, making it impossible for language to communicate “presence.” In her poem, by contrast, Hadas suggests that communication originates in human thought and intention, uninfluenced by language’s systematized written form. She describes the preverbal modes of communication in which writing and speech are grounded as she observes how a child first learns to read the “eloquence” in a “glance,” and later, to “construct” a “whole romance” from “hint and gesture.” Even “an averted gaze,” in the intimate context of the mother-child bond, “speaks of love.” To put it simply, Hadas shows that silence speaks volumes and meaningful gestures convey living “presence” more effectively than current theory allows.

Philip Lieberman, a professor of cognitive and linguistic science at Brown, lends scientific support to Hadas’s observations, describing the process by which written and spoken language arise from preverbal modes of communication. In Eve Spoke, he argues that human language originated in a kind of proto-language composed of “manual gestures, facial expressions (grins, lip protrusion, etc.), and posture—a sort of body language.” Citing recent studies of the human brain, he suggests that the neural mechanisms implicated in speech production are rooted in “brain mechanisms that control precise manual motor control in human beings.” Consequently, he regards the evolution of human speech “as a biological extension of upright posture’s freeing hominid hands for work.” Other anthropologists have suggested that upright posture also freed the female hands for tending and carrying infants. Interestingly, the word gesture has the same root as gestation, both words deriving from gerere, a Latin verb of unknown origin. Lieberman finds additional support for what we might call the “gestural” origins of language in studies of deaf children, who, “raised without any exposure to formal sign language spontaneously develop, at about the age of three, gestural communication based on pantomime.”

If human beings can communicate emotions, intentions, and ideas through pantomime and gesture, what happens to Derrida’s system of “differance,” the absence of “presence,” and the priority of writing over speech? Does Lacan’s ultimate signifier, the Phallus, insert itself into all communication systems—even the self-generated gesticulations of untutored deaf children—and if so, how and when? Are users of American Sign Language immune from the scourge of phallogocentrism, living forever in Lacan’s prelapsarian “Mirror Stage” of satisfied desire? Or does their first use of manual signs plunge them into the field of the Symbolic, subjecting them to the awful “le Nom-du-Pere?”

Considered in the context of lived human experience, language can be seen to originate not in a phallus, either actual or symbolic, but in the signifying glances and gestures, the babble and baby talk, of mother and child. As Hadas’s poem attests, mother and child signal and read each other’s presence in every gesture and glance. The poet also notes how language functions as a kind of collective memory, linking the generations. As the child’s shaping mind carves meaning from chance, sonnets ultimately “succumb” to “remembrances”—that is, to memory, the source from which they spring. A classicist, Hadas knows that Mnemosyne, goddess of memory, is mother of the muses. The ancient Greek poets invoked not Patriarchal Zeus or phallic Apollo to inspire their tongues, but the sister muses of epic, tragedy, or comedy.

Given the history of Western philosophic thought, women are justified in their caution concerning language and literary forms, but the association between phallic language, Father Law, and poetic form—particularly poetic meter—can be dismissed out of hand. Our current misunderstanding of poetic form derives from two sources. The first is our habit of restricting form to the sixth of its American Heritage Dictionary definitions: “Manners as governed by etiquette, decorum, or custom”; and formal to “following or adhering to accepted forms, conventions, or regulations.” Tracing the word beyond its Latin roots in forma (“form, contour, shape”), we reenter the female realm of creation. The O-grade form of its Indo-European root, mer-bh, gives us the Greek morphe (“form, beauty”), as well as, ultimately, morph, morpheme, morpho, morphosis. Morphosis (from Greek morphoun, to form) is defined as, “The manner in which an organism or one of its parts changes form or the manner or order of its development.”

The second, and perhaps deeper, cause of our misunderstanding of poetic form lies in the philosophical tradition extending from Aristotle to Aquinas and the scholastics, which equates matter with the feminine and form with the masculine. Much postmodern theory—particularly feminist theory—accepts this binary division, which devalues the feminine by identifying it with inert matter, but inverts its implicit hierarchy. Rejecting the logic and coherence of an informing logos, which they equate with phallocentrism and Father Law, postmodern critics have instead sought to make a literary virtue of incoherence and formlessness.

Julia Kristeva has developed the most thoroughgoing feminist version of this line of thought. In her view, woman, through the body of the mother, represents the silence of the unconscious and the satisfaction of desire. Writing of the poetry of Mallarme, she argues that by violating the laws of syntax and poetic form, the poet resists phallocentrism and Father Law, allying himself instead with the mother’s body and the ungoverned desires of the pre-Oedipal child. She further asserts that avant-garde poetry, in its free-flowing formlessness, is the literary equivalent of the pre-linguistic flux of sensations and desires in the developing child.

Deriving its essentials from the masculine psychology of Freud and Lacan, Kristeva’s thought again effaces the mother, placing the (presumably male) child and paternal phallus at the center of her analysis. Rachel Hadas, by contrast, places the mother at the center of her poem, depicting her as far more than a faceless breast and womb, the nexus of childish desires and fantasy. Hadas’s mother has a mind as well as a body. Even her silences are permeated by an acute and articulate consciousness.

Informed by the rigid categories of Structuralist linguistics, Kristeva’s Post-structuralist ideas take little account of more modern theories of the generative nature of language. In advocating the destruction of syntax and narrative in poetry and fiction, she is substituting a static—or randomly chaotic—model of poetic creation for a genuinely generative and dynamic one. Her advocacy of a return to the pre-symbolic babble of childhood is not even original, since it echoes earlier Dadaist manifestoes, which advocated a similar demolition of order and reason in favor of the surreal logic of dreams. The word Dada, French baby talk for “hobbyhorse,” is literally nursery room babble, the type of language to which Kristeva would have avant-garde poetry return. Interestingly, in the most widely credited account of the origin of the movement’s name, Dada is said to have been chosen by randomly sticking a knife into a dictionary—a symbolically rich gesture suggestive of modernism’s Oedipal origins. The movement’s cut-and-paste poetry embodied the very worst of modern art’s tendencies, combining asyntactic stasis, aleatory randomness and illogic, and Oedipal anxiety.

Long before Aristotle equated it with the feminine, the word matter was associated with the mother, but in far more positive ways. It originated not in the phallic domain of Western Philosophy, but like Dada, in baby talk, between mother and child. Matter’s Indo-European root, ma, is also the root of Latin mater and matrix, mother and womb respectively. As many a punster has noted, Dada and Moma are linked. Like the English Mom and Mama, and mammal and mammary, ma’s initial nasal, m, originates in the vibrating lips, the source of oral pleasure.

Jacques Lacan has argued that as the child enters the phallic domain of language he enters a realm of unsatisfied longings and repressed desires because words summon up longings they can’t fulfill. The origin of mother and matter, however, suggest that words are born instead of desire’s delightful satisfaction. Furthermore, as the child learns and masters his mother tongue, language increasingly brings not deferral of meaning and postponement of desire, but gratified longing and understanding. In its most complex form, in the verbal arts of poetry and fiction, words enable us to reenter an “Imaginary” realm analogous to Lacan’s “Mirror Stage,” satisfying desires we didn’t even know we had until words embodied them.

Further evidence that language is rooted in the mouth and oral pleasure, rather than in an absent phallus and frustrated longing, is found in the origin of the word milk, whose initial m suggests an origin similar to that of ma, root of mater and matter. In addition to the Indo-European languages, the initial sounds of milk appear in various other language groups across several continents, suggesting a common origin. So ancient and mysterious is the origin of our word milk that linguists can’t explain the fact that no common noun for milk has yet been reconstructed. In addition to its Indo-European root melg, milk can also be traced to g(a)lag-, a root found only in Greek, in gala, which forms the root of galaxy and galactic; and in Latin in lac (stem lact-), the root of lactate.

With lactate and galaxy joined in the name of our own mother galaxy, the Milky Way, we might reconsider Aristotle’s definition of matter, which the new cosmology of modern science reveals to be neither inert nor formless, but a swirling cauldron of forces and quantum effects. Einstein’s famous equation of matter-energy equivalence, so graphically illustrated by the explosion of atomic bombs, shows matter to be a tightly wound knot of world-shattering forces. The new cosmology also shows that form and matter are not separate but equal categories, nor eternal principles representing male and female. According to the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, in the superheated plasma that formed its embryo, neither matter nor form existed. Time and space, along with the laws of physics and chemistry and the basic components of matter, coevolved as the inflationary universe expanded and cooled. The first generation of stars created the heavy elements from which our bodies eventually formed. Evolving in the ecosphere of planet earth, early humans learned to map the world’s shifting patterns and exchange information through an evolving system of gestures and sounds called language.

Before we cut texts from the social and natural worlds in which language evolved, we had best remember that the matter of books is their meaning; the deconstruction of their meaningful matter, is an assault on our own evolving bodies and consciousness as well as our information-streaming milky galactic mater.

Even a feminist critic such as Julia Kristeva, who advocates avant-garde disruption and linguistic anarchy in literary texts, has argued that the rhythms and rhymes of poetry return consciousness to the pre-symbolic experiences of the pre-Oedipal child. But curiously, metrical poetry is currently held to be phallocentric and politically retrograde. Perhaps because of their association with the male-dominated literary canon, measured lines and poetic meter fall under suspicion of being a product of the sinister male logos.

The Indo-European root of measure, me, however, brings us by a circuitous route back to the realm of lactating mothers and milky galaxies. An English derivative of me-gives us meal; from its Latin, we get commensurate and dimension. Its extended and suffixed form, men, gives us moon and month, which, explains the American Heritage Dictionary, is “an ancient and universal measure of time, with the celestial body that measures it.” Me is also thought to be the root of Greek metron” and thus meter. (The other possible root of meter, med, includes among its Indo-European derivatives, the Latin modus: “mode, harmony; melody”.)

Rachel Hadas, in the final section of her poem, braids several of these related themes together in illuminating ways.

Employing narrative in this final and longest section of her poem, the poet weaves her syntax skillfully across line and stanza, repudiating by example calls to abolish syntax and narrative from poetry. In another interesting move, the poet replaces the impersonal third person pronoun of the previous sections with you, as the speaker, presumably the poet herself, addresses her son as if in dialogue. Michail Bakhtin has argued that the dialogic nature of literature, unlike other types of discourse, allows more voices and characters than the poet’s into the text. One of the least noted aspects of postmodern criticism is the way it replaces the polyphony of voices in poems and novels with the critic’s own discursive monologue. By addressing her son as you, in her own person as author, the poet resists this drift toward critical reductionism and authorial monologue, drawing into her poem the rich complexity of relationship.

Bakhtin has also added the term carnivalesque to our literary vocabulary, defining it, after the medieval carnival from which its name derives, as a type of literature in which the normal hierarchy of social values is suspended in favor of a celebration of the flesh. Perhaps Hadas alludes to this Bakhtinian definition in her final scene, which is literally set in a carnival, and from which—like the unmentioned father of the poem—all forms of social authority are notably absent. The Medieval origin of the word carousel might also help invoke the Bakhtinian sense of carnival to which the poet alludes. While describing their shared feelings as the carousel winds down, the poet-speaker steps outside her normal maternal role, swallowing even her motherly “admonition” to allow her child to experience the moment in his own flesh, as she is experiencing it in hers—far beyond the ghostly rule of “phallogocentrism.”

As they ride the merry-go-round together, mother and child are awash in a sea of sensations, like Lacan’s pre-Oedipal child. Seeing herself in its central mirror as they “go round beneath a cloudy sky,” the mother is carried out of her normal identity into something like the “mirror stage” of the pre-linguistic infant. The poem’s insistently rhyming metrical lines echo the whirling repetitions of the carousel and the hurly-burly measures of its tune. The “rigid” horse of the carousel is a metonym for all animal life, linking mother and child, in their vulnerable mammalian bodies, to the overriding cyclic patterns of terrestrial life. Derived from the Old Italian word carnelevare—meaning, literally, “the putting away of flesh”—the word carnival in the final line also evokes the poet’s aging and death. Bound to the cyclical measures of the turning planet and its seasonal changes, the poet becomes aware of a third state beyond childhood and adulthood, toward which time is inexorably carrying her. Her middle-aged body is, like the music, slowly “cranking down” and like the carnival, “preparing to leave town.”

Alone in the crowd and utterly “wordless” now, the mother presses her child’s body “close” against her own. Bound by flesh and the unmediated sensations of touch, mother and child commune in this third and final type of silence, beyond the reach of language. Yet, paradoxically, the poet makes this silence felt, bringing the unconscious to consciousness, the unspoken into speech, in her poem. Only in verse, from Latin versus, “a turning of the plow,” can a poet so brilliantly evoke the twin sensations of turning carousel and turning seasons. Only in triple-rhyming tercets, in lines so insistently musical they assert meaning at a level deeper than consciousness, can a poet so brilliantly embody the eternal human triad of mother, father, child. Only in measured lines, in meter, can a poet mirror the deep cyclical rhythms of nature—of moon, earth, and spinning galaxy; of birth, aging, and death. Me, the Indo-European root that gives us meter and measure, in its n-suffixed form gives us menses, menstrual, menopause—binding meter and menses in way that should allay women’s anxieties about writing formal verse.

Meter and menses, form and morphosis being commensurate, a poet has only to loose the rhythms and forms of her mother tongue to speak her authentic self. Writers who, on the other hand, try to excise that phallic-seeming organ from their compositions, or efface human authors, will find a whiff of the post-mortem clinging to the post-modern in their deconstructed and decomposing texts.[/private]

About Paul Lake

Paul Lake is a professor of English and creative writing at Arkansas Tech University. He graduated from Stanford University with an MA in Creative Writing and English. He has published two volumes of poetry, Another Kind of Travel (Chicago), and Walking Backward (Story Line), along with a novel, Among the Immortals (Story Line), a satirical thriller about poets and vampires. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Poetry, The New Republic, The American Scholar, Yale Review, Southern Review, Paris Review, Partisan Review, and Sewanee Review.
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