Sometimes A Word Simply Seems – The Language of the Birds – Expressing That Which Is Beyond the Realm of Words


If you think about it for a moment, you will probably realize that the words that humans have codified to convey meaning are clumsy, at best.  Yet, that is the construct of writing. We writers form letters together, and we expect our readers to take a leap of faith and to connect those letters to some greater understanding. For instance, we might expect the letters “a-p-p-l-e” to make us feel a bit tart, crunchy, juicy, and red inside. Yet, by merely spelling the word “apple,” a writer is telling his readers very little about the fruit that Johnny Appleseed is said to have spread across the Northeastern USA. To convey meaning, a writer must add a bit of polish to the letters “a-p-p-l-e” or perhaps he must subtract a bit of fluff that is camouflaging the fruit’s true essence. Hopefully, after the writer has worked a bit of magic, the letters can begin to mean in a way that music often means.

Anyone who has gathered around a campfire and who has joined in the singing of campfire songs and.or who has heard the pining that is issuing forth from a Native American flute knows that music can seem or mean.

Music is the shorthand of emotion.
– Leo Tolstoy –

I believe that music, for humans, can be like the language of the birds.
And I further believe that when our writings can achieve a similar mystical musicality, it can also be more like the language of the birds.

The Tao says that feeling cannot be conveyed verbally and that as soon as we begin to verbalize a feeling, the emotion vanishes. In other words, the ancient Asians recognized that there is a vein of emotion within us that defies being conveyed through words.  In Ancient Greece, music was believed to have an almost magical power of communication.

Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe,
wings to the mind,
flight to the imagination,
and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.
– Plato –

The odd thing is that while our words and our sentences and even our paragraphs are often impotent in trying to express, nonsensical words juxtaposed together can be very effective. In some instances, sounds made by strings of words can become a kind of music that, in an almost indescribable way, speaks to the soul. In the movie Tolkien, we may experience that kind of mystical musicality, as Tolkien plays with the words “cellar door.”

“A bouquet of clumsy words: you know that place between sleep and awake where you’re still dreaming but it’s slowly slipping? I wish we could feel like that more often. I also wish I could click my fingers three times and be transported to anywhere I like. I wish that people didn’t always say ‘just wondering’ when you both know there was a real reason behind them asking. And I wish I could get lost in the stars.

Listen, there’s a hell of a good universe next door, let’s go.” ― E.E. Cummings

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
– Victor Hugo –

Wallace Stevens wrote a poem that should be ridiculous to the reader, but somehow it isn’t:

Bantams in Pine Woods
by Wallace Stevens

Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!
Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackamoor to bear your blazing tail.
Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am my world.
You ten-foot poet among inchlings. Fat!
Begone! An inchling bristles in these pines,
Bristles, and points their Appalachian tangs,
And fears not portly Azcan nor his hoos.

From the first time that I read the above poem, I liked it–I even felt that I understood it, but my understanding was not something literal. Rather, the sounds in Stevens’ poem are notched together like pearls on a string  and somehow together they mean. In a subliminal way, the words of Bantam in the Woods mean.

In the movie referenced above Tolkien continues  by adding that the purpose of language is more than that of naming things:

Edith Bratt: A word isn’t beautiful just because of its sound.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Cellar door.
Edith Bratt: It’s the marriage of sound and meaning. The door to the cellar, a place where something magical and mysterious might happen.
He continued by adding the essences that might be conjured by his use of the actually unmagical words: “cellar door.”

J.R.R. Tolkien: Cellardoor is a place. It’s a place. An ancient place. Impossible to reach, except by the most treacherous climb. It hangs, no.
Edith Bratt: No?
J.R.R. Tolkien: It’s not a climb. It’s not a climb. It’s not a… Door. Road. Path. It’s a path. A path through a dense, dark forest.
Edith Bratt: Oh, is it, now?
J.R.R. Tolkien: And at the heart of Cellardoor, which is actually a shrine, there stands an extraordinary sight.
Edith Bratt: Is it a proud and opinionated princess?
J.R.R. Tolkien: It is a place which is revered by all who know of it. A sacred place, marked at its center by…
Edith Bratt: By?
J.R.R. Tolkien: By trees.
Edith Bratt: Trees?
J.R.R. Tolkien: One is the purest black, like ebony, the other white as bone. They each contain a deadly poison in their sap. But they have grown together over thousands of years. Leaning into each other, like they were fighting, or the roots. The branches of two trees reaching, twisting, gnarling around each other, have finally become a single knotted trunk. Their poisoned saps commingled to create a powerful, life-giving potion. The water of Cellardoor.
Edith Bratt: What does it do?
J.R.R. Tolkien: What does it do?
Edith Bratt: Yes. What does it do?
J.R.R. Tolkien: To drink it.
Edith Bratt: Yes?
J.R.R. Tolkien: The water of Cellardoor, to taste it, is to possess the power of sight. Sight beyond sight. Sight into the deepest, darkest parts of the human heart. It’s a hungry, potent magic. A magic beyond anything anyone has ever felt before.

At the end of the movie, Tolkien describes the power of stories:

J.R.R. Tolkien: It’s about journeys. Adventures. Magic, of course. Treasure. And love. It’s about all kinds of things really. It’s hard to say. I suppose it’s about quests, to a certain extent. The journeys we take to prove ourselves. About courage. Fellowship. It’s about fellowship. Friendship. Little people just like you.
Michael Tolkien: I’m not little!
J.R.R. Tolkien: No. Little in stature. Not little in spirit. It’s about wizards, too.
Michael Tolkien: Wizards?
J.R.R. Tolkien: Wizards, yes. And mountains, and dragons, and journeys…

The above passage says something about why I continue to try to weave words together and to write picture books. A hope for money is not enough. A hope for fame is also not enough. There is very little money or fame in the writing industry. Both writing and Illustrating are very difficult tasks, and there must be some reason that a person continually subjects himself to arduous and often thankless work. As for me, I write for the journey, for the magic, and I write for the hope that I will somehow mean.