The Poverty of Language

Another exercise. This one an exercise in seeing deeply, visualization, sketching from memory, and composing a written sketch of a photograph held in memory.

The photograph: Robert Frank’s “Navy Recruiting Station, Post Office, Butte, Montana,” published in his groundbreaking book The Americans.

Here’s what I asked students in my “Contemplation and Imagination” class to do:

1. Look at the photo projected on the screen.
2. Close your eyes and visualize, in as much detail as you can, the photo.
3. Look at the photo again. See if you notice anything new.
4. Close your eyes, paying attention to physical sensation.
5. Sketch the photo. (The projector is turned off.)
6. Look at the photo again.
7. Compose a written sketch of the image. (The projector is turned off.)

After this, I invited the students to talk about their experiences of the exercise. One soft-spoken student said, “the word wood to describe the desk—it misses so much.”

Yes, I thought, it’s inadequate, reductive. Lost is the grain. Lost are the shades of lighter and darker wood. It’s why translating sensory experience into language that retains at least some of the texture, complexity, and nuance of physical sensation is so hard.

On my drive home from class that night, I thought: language, whatever else it says, it always says, I sing of loss, I mourn.


I am what is missing.

For the first time in many years (twenty? thirty?), I think of Mark Strand’s poem “Keeping Things Whole.” It begins:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing

When she wrote “wooden desk,” did my student think oh, my, there’s so much missing?


“The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments,” writes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in The Sabbath.

Maybe she, my student, experienced the disappointment, the despair that comes from losing “a wealth of information” as she tried to preserve in words what she had seen.


“Little we see in Nature that is ours,” writes Wordsworth.

Still, we see. When we are astonished by what we see, when we are shaken, uplifted, wounded, comforted by what we see, the astonishment, the anguish, the joy, the relief we experience is ours. We experience it deeply as ours.

Then we try to tell it, but the words are inadequate. They fail to convey to others what is, alas, unbearably ours and ours alone.

But this is not what troubles Wordsworth in “The World Is Too Much With Us.”

“We have given our hearts away,” he writes, to “getting and spending,” manufacturing and consuming. (As then, 1806, now?)

Where might we turn to have our hearts returned to us? Nature.

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers

Wordsworth gives us nature—intimate, vulnerable, vital—only to show how it has withdrawn from us or, as he writes in the next two lines, how we have become alienated from it.

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.

Numb and suffering the acute pain of the loss of his tuneful bond with nature, Wordsworth cries out sharply,

Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn

Exposed, raw, and at once vulnerable and strong, Wordsworth is nowhere more present in this poem than here: “Great God! I’d rather be / A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn.”

But he isn’t a pagan, and his anguish is addressed to God.

And he doesn’t turn from the lea, the very spot from which he sees and hears the sea and suffers the absence of feeling, the loss of what he once felt in nature.


Sonic patterning: that’s one way a poet tries to make up for the poverty of language, its inherent inability to express the fullness of sensory experience. Just listen to the repeated and modulated sounds running through the few passages of Wordsworth I quoted above. (Go ahead, scroll back up, and read those passages aloud.) Say and feel in your mouth the fullness of this line alone: “A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn.”

Metaphor, or, more broadly, comparisons: that’s another way. Kenneth Koch, in Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry, says this about “comparisons”:

A comparison not only compares things but brings in more of the world. Explanatory sentences tend to restrict and even to reduce the amount of reality in what is being said; poetry, with its comparisons, expands it.

Thus, that seductive sea, that lustful, raging wind “up-gathered now like sleeping flowers.” How impoverished would the poem be if the sea were merely moonlit, the wind merely blowing all night, and both seemed distant and small and made little impression on the man on the lea.


I’m not a good writer. I don’t like writing. That’s what she could have thought, my student, when she looked up at Frank’s photograph and down at her written description of it.

I don’t know if she thought that. I know only this: she experienced loss in the classroom that night, and she was courageous enough to share her experience with the rest of us.

Those other thoughts—I’m not a good writer; I don’t like writing—arise immediately after experiencing loss, to “protect” us from repeating the mistake that made us feel bad in the first place: writing.


The rest of Strand’s poem:

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in   
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.

I move
to keep things whole.


“There is nothing as whole as a broken heart,” says the Kotsker Rabbi.

Writing: it breaks your heart to make it whole.


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Betty Alia

    Very nice.

  • Allen Saxe

    Fine thoughts,prose and poetry from teachers,poets ,
    rabbis and all seeking to learn.

  • Nathan Klose

    Your posts are the richness of a richness outside you, and I’m glad you can bring it all in and put it all back down, at your best, for us to read with you. Thanks for the work that helps navigate.

  • Lovely, Rick. This has been my morning meditation. What we lose in language… what poetry gains back for us.

  • shan k

    “…words like nature half reveal, half conceal the soul within…” But we try anyway. We try or we wither.

  • Thank you for reminding us that words don’t limit what we see. They do limit how we talk about what we see in ways that break the heart directly — and in ways that make communication painful.

  • A beautiful thought-provoking piece. Your student may have been courageous enough to share her experiences but I suspect you first created the conditions that made her feel comfortable enough to express such thoughts.

  • Mark West

    And yet! Your own prose is so rich, so evocative, that it brings so much more to the world than could a mere photograph. Does that fact not bring a new richness — and contradict — the point you raise?

  • φ

    There is just as much “loss” in looking at some thing while not looking at myriad other things; the shortcomings of description are not at first caused by the limits of language. There is a prior limitation in human attention.

    While we always fall short in observing and describing, and while we always lose something in saying anything at all, I would not blame language for this. Maybe, instead, we have unrealistic expectations for what our words can do, should do. Maybe the “poverty of language” is an illusion, an unnecessarily sour judgment, as when we say a miserable man is “rich” and a blessed man “poor” because the former lives the way we like and the latter does not.

  • Thank you for introducing me to “Keeping Things Whole.” It beautifully illustrates the essay.