Naming the Just Barely Nameable

Theologian Fred Sanders  on teaching the poetry of T.S. Eliot:

[O]ne of the things we want poetry to do for us is to name an experience which hasn’t yet been named, or which has been laboring under a false name. We learn names easily enough for a certain range of experiences—chiefly the useful experiences that we want to be able to repeat on command—but for the rest of our lives we wander around encountering all sorts of phenomena which we can’t describe. When it’s time to name something so subtle it’s escaped our powers of description, we call in the poets. Eliot talked about a struggle “which alone constitutes life for a poet –to transmute his personal and private agonies into something rich and strange, something universal and impersonal.” (Selected Essays p. 117)

Most of us have things we want to get done and people we want to communicate with, so we narrow our range of concerns, and agree to name and describe things within the acceptable range. Can’t quite put a word to that sense of nostalgia for a place you’ve never been? Not sure how to describe what’s wrong the world when your eyes are a bit unfocused after too much reading? A bit overwhelmed with the surge of emotion brought on by a song you don’t even like? Call in the poets: they’re especially skilled at naming the just barely nameable.


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