earthweal weekly challenge: AN EAR FOR WILD LANGUAGE


It’s taken a couple of years, but in my morning walks my ear is slowly tuning to sound of what’s there. And I swear I’m learning to hear the world think.

But I first have to dial back all that septic me-speak—you know, that incessant whine of I Me Mine. If I can shut that yammering down, I become a creature walking in the fullness of creation: My ears and eyes have wings for the crows and hawks flying overhead, I nourish in nests woven in the arms of sycamore and cypress trees, I reflect the still morning sky in lake waters crested by flies, leaping bass and cruising gators.

Slowly, the poetry of the world emerges. All it takes is a languid ear and the time it takes to notate it right.

A master of the world’s song is Seamus Heaney. Take, for example, this fifth sonnet from his Glanmore series, published in Field Work (1976).

Soft corrugations in the boortree’s trunk,
Its green young shoots, its rods like freckled solder:
It was our bower as children, a greenish, dank
And snapping memory as I get older.
And elderberry I have learned to call it.
I love its blooms like saucers brimmed with meal,
Its berries a swart caviar of shot,
A buoyant spawn, a light bruised out of purple.
Elderberry? It is shires dreaming wine.
Boortree is bower tree, where I played ‘touching tongues’
And felt another’s texture quick on mine.
So, etymologist of roots and graftings,
I fall back to my tree-house and would crouch
Where small buds shoot and flourish in the hush.

(from Field Work, 1976)

What I love most about Heaney is his delicate craft getting the music right — something visceral, ancient and ever-present. It rises from “opened ground” in a poetry writ for the ear.

As David Abram writes in The Spell of the Sensuous (1996), such worldly language is available to anyone who’s listening to the living landscape:

We regularly talk of howling winds, and of chattering brooks. Yet these are more than metaphors. Our own languages are continually nourished by these other voices — by the roar of waterfalls and the thrumming of crickets. It is not by chance that, when hiking in the mountains, the English terms we spontaneously use to describe the surging waters of the nearby river are words like “rush,” “splash,” “gush,” “wash.” For the sound that unites all these words is that which the water itself chants as it flows between the banks. If language is not a purely mental phenomenon but a sensuous, bodily activity born of carnal reciprocity and participation, then our discourse has surely been influenced by many gestures, sounds, and rhythms besides those of our single species. Indeed, if human language arises from the perceptual interplay between the body and the world, then this language “belongs” to the animate landscape as much as it “belongs” to ourselves.  (82)

Is our human language really special? We have a much larger vocabulary than other species, but most of that is for abstract thought — words thinking about words. It is the patter of a society lost behind the walls it erected. That abstracted world has lost most of its natural connotations; it is sterile, dry, and easily wanders off through a maze of meanings lost.

Our living language, on the other hand, is a constant response to its environment. It carries gut meaning and is instantly recognized. Abram, again:

… All truly meaningful speech is inherently creative, using established words in ways that have never been used before, and thus altering, ever so slightly, the whole webwork of the language. Wild, living speech takes up from within, the interconnected matrix of a language and gestures with it, subjecting the whole structure to a “coherent deformation.”

At the heart of any language, then, is the poetic productivity of expressive speech. A living language is continually being made and remade, woven out of the silence by those who speak … And this silence is that of our wordless participations, of our perceptual immersion in the depths of an animate, expressive world. (84)

If you have been writing poems for any length of time, you may have noticed that something deep within is constantly calibrating its response to the world. The well of poetry is deep: there we discover the ten thousand things, each with its own plumage and song. I listen to the outside within and open my mouth: out comes wind round the stones at Carnac, the mewing of an eagle chick in its nest high over a landscape, the slick leap of a salmon in a rising edifice of gushing river-water.


Ultimately, then, it is not the human body alone but rather the whole of the sensuous world that provides the deep structure of language. As we ourselves dwell and move withing language, so, ultimately, do the other animals and animate things of the world; if we do not notice them there, it is only because language has forgotten its expressive depths. “Language is a life, is our life and the life of things …” (writes Richard Nelson in Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest, 1983). It is no more true that we speak than that the things, and the animate world itself, speak within us. (85)

What is this wild language in the deep forest back of our mouths? Let’s take a walk there and sing what we find!

— Brendan

(Note: The challenge is open until 4 PM EST Friday, July 15, when earthweal rolls out it open link weekend forum.)




Galway Kinnell

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

From Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980)



May Swenson

Part otter, part snake, part bird the bird Ahinga,
jalousie wings, draped open, dry. When slack-
hinged, the wind flips them shut. Her cry,
a slatted clatter, inflates her chin-
pouch; it’s like a fish’s swim-
bladder. Ahinga’s body, otter-
furry, floats, under water-
mosses, neck a snake with white-
rimmed blue round roving eyes. Those long feet stilt-
paddle the only bird of the marsh that flies
submerged. Otter-
quick over bream that hover in water-
shade, she feeds, finds fillets among the water-
weeds. Her beak, ferrule of a folded black
umbrella, with neat thrust impales her prey.
She flaps up to dry on the crooked, look-
dead-limb of the Gumbo Limbo, her tan-
tipped wing fans spread, tail a shut fan dangled.

from Nature, 1990



George Bradley

It makes one all right, though you hadn’t thought of it,
A sound like the sound of the sky on fire, like Armageddon,
Whistling and crackling, the explosions of sunlight booming
As the huge mass of gas rages into the emptiness around it.
It isn’t a sound you are often aware of, though the light speeds
To us in seconds, each dawn leaping easily across a chasm
Of space that swallows the sound of that sphere, but
If you listen closely some morning, when the sun swells
Over the horizon and the world is still and still asleep,
You might hear it, a faint noise so far inside your mind
That it must come from somewhere, from light rushing to darkness,
Energy burning towards entropy, towards a peaceful solution,
Burning brilliantly, spontaneously, in the middle of nowhere,
And you, too, must make a sound that is somewhat like it,
Though that, of course, you have no way of hearing at all.

— from Terms to Be Met, 1986



Theodore Roethke


Over the low, barnacled, elephant-colored rocks
Come the first tide ripples, moving, almost without sound, toward me,
Running along the narrow furrows of the shore, the rows of dead clamshells;
Then a runnel behind me, creeping closer,
Alive with tiny striped fish, and young crabs climbing in and out of the water.

No sound from the bay. No violence.
Even the gulls quiet on the far rocks,
Silent, in the deepening light,
Their cat-mewing over,
Their child-whimpering.

At last one long undulant ripple,
Blue black from where I am sitting,
Makes almost a wave over a barrier of small stones,
Slapping lightly against a sunken log.
I dabble my toes in the brackish foam sliding forward,
Then retire to a rock higher up on the cliffside.

The wind slackens, light as a moth fanning a stone —
A twilight wind, light as a child’s breath,
Turning not a leaf, not a ripple.

The dew revives on the beach grass;
The salt-soaked wood of a fire crackles;
A fish raven turns on its perch (a dead tree in the river mouth),
Its wings catching a last glint of the reflected sunlight.


The self persists like a dying star,
In sleep, afraid. Death’s face rises afresh,
Among the shy beasts — the deer at the salt lick,
The doe, with its sloped shoulders, loping across the highway,
The young snake, poised in green leaves, waiting for its fly,
The hummingbird, whirring from quince blossom to morning-glory —
With these I would be.

And with water: the waves coming forward without cessation,
The waves, altered by sandbars, beds of kelp, miscellaneous driftwood,
Topped by cross-winds, tugged at by sinuous undercurrents,
The tide rustling in, sliding between the ridges of stone,
The tongues of water creeping in quietly.


In this hour,
In this first heaven of knowing,
The flesh takes on the pure poise of the spirit,
Acquires, for a time, the sandpiper’s insouciance,
The hummingbird’s surety, the kingfisher’s cunning.

I shift on my rock, and I think:
Of the first trembling of a Michigan brook in April.
Over a lip of stone, the tiny rivulet;
And the wrist-thick cascade tumbling from a cleft rock,
Its spray holding a double rainbow in the early morning,
Small enough to be taken in, embraced, by two arms;
Or the Tittabawasee, in the time between winter and spring,
When the ice melts along the edges in early afternoon
And the mid-channel begins cracking and heaving from the pressure beneath,
The ice piling high against the ironbound spiles,
Gleaming, freezing hard again, creaking at midnight,
And I long for the blast of dynamite,
The sudden sucking roar as the culvert loosens its debris of branches and sticks —
Welter of tin cans, pails, old birds’ nests, a child’s shoe riding a log—
As the piled ice breaks away from the battered spiles
And the whole river begins to move forward, its bridges shaking.


Now, in this waning of light,
I rock with the motion of morning;
In the cradle of all that is,
I’m lulled into half sleep
By the lapping of waves,
The cries of the sandpiper.

Water’s my will and my way,
And the spirit runs, intermittently,
In and out of the small waves,
Runs with the intrepid shore birds —
How graceful the small before danger!

In the first of the moon,
All’s a scattering,
A shining.

first published in The New Yorker, Nov. 19, 1960


6 thoughts on “earthweal weekly challenge: AN EAR FOR WILD LANGUAGE

  1. Ah, I LOVE this prompt!!!!! “Learning to hear the world think” – how wonderful. And “I become a creature walking in the fullness of creation.” Yay! Here, I am surrounded by the cries of so many creatures. I will try to corral a few of them into a poem. Smiles. My friend is luckier – she lives in a floathouse a 40 minute boat ride out of Tofino – she hears wolves, and bears, and all manner of birds, and otters crunch on crabs on her deck…………..I may steal a few of those sounds!


  2. I couldn’t turn away from this one, B., and the amazing poetry you included, so finally I have managed to rough out a few phrases. We live in a flaming antechamber of hell here atm, so excuse the theme. “The self persists like a dying star…” and even has a little remaining warmth of its own, perhaps.


  3. Rall, your site still asks me again and again fro my google identity without giving me a way to answer it. I LOVED this poem : “this constant caterwauling,” as a force in identity! Yet I played all the bird sounds at once and heard only divine song!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.