After a long semester of biblical translation and wrestling, a professor of mine once shared this beautiful poem, which seemed to capture so well the joy — and agony — of human language.
“What we feel most has no name,” Gilbert says. Love, grief, ecstasy, sorrow. Or, one could just say, “God.”
Hear the poet recite his work here:
The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart by Jack Gilbert
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient tongue
has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not a language but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses and birds.
From: The Great Fires, Poems 1982-1992, Knopf, 2005
Jack Gilbert was born in Pittsburgh in 1925. He was educated there and in San Francisco. He is also the author of Transgressions: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2006), Refusing Heaven (2005), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 (1996). He lives in Massachusetts.