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Breaking and Building: Using Language


An interesting thought pervades George Steiner’s The Poetry of Thought: certain forms of writing, like poetry, break down language, while others, like philosophy, aim to build on language. Unlike the writer of non-fiction, whose sentences work to build to an argument or convincing presentation, the poet positions words that may or may not add meaning and may, in some cases, actually work to contradict each other.

The poet uses language in radical ways. In poetry, the variety of language use is endless. From the physical appearance of the words (line breaks, word positioning) to sound (rhyme, rhythm) to even meaning (metaphor and paradox), language has no set foundation. Words are bent and broken in poetry and, unlike other forms of writing, exist as nuggets of mystery where meaning isn’t certain and function within the sentence or work as a whole may or may not exist to assist the reader.

Poetry is unique in this use of language. The journalist must use language to add clarity: a piece of writing with contradictions or paradox does not function to assist the writer in his or her goal. Herein likes the key issue: what is the writer’s goal? This cannot be simplified but in relation to the reader, a poet has the option to toy with a reader’s understanding. Abstraction can play in poetry.

 

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