It’s not a word I’ve thought about before. If I saw it on the side of the road, surely I would drive by.
It means a cry, an animal’s call, a power of speaking ... one or more words preceded and followed by silence. It derives from the Middle French outrer, “to go beyond.”
Why's this on my mind? Perhaps because I’m reading poems by prisoners, preparing for a community poetry reading at St. Paul’s Chapel, and trying to crystallize my thoughts into daily blog posts.
All three remind me of the limits of language and the human desire to go beyond it. And that reminds me of speaking in tongues.
One quirk of my upbringing is that until I was 10, my parents ministered a small church in Phoenix, Arizona, called Springs in the Desert. Being a charismatic congregation founded by people who came of age during the Pentecostal movement, it was home to the kind of worship you don’t see every Sunday.
The elementary school cafeteria that the church rented out would fill with guttural sounds, an eruption of dancing, singing and praying, voices layered over voices and tambourines. When someone faced a hardship, worshippers lay hands on the shoulders of the people in front of them, creating a human conduit of prayer. Some prayed in words, others prayed in tongues.
Like Alice in a mysterious wonderland, I was fascinated by the idea of a secret language of the soul. I imagined that one day I would open my mouth to say something perfectly plain, and an otherworldly utterance would fly out.
It never happened. My family moved on. But that early image of adults sending fervent, unintelligible words into the ether still mystifies me.
Glossolalia is the term for speaking and writing in tongues, and it means “utterances approximating words and speech.” Some studies have found that when people practice it, their language centers go dark and emotional centers light up, suggesting it’s not about language so much as emotional experience.
Augustine of Hippo looked askance on glossolalia but recognized jubilation, or “sounds of exaltation without words.” As a writer, I connect with his idea:
What is it to sing with jubilation? To be unable to understand, to express in words, what is sung in the heart. For singers, either in the harvest, or in the vineyard, or in any other busy work, after they have begun in the words of their hymns to exult and rejoice, being as it were filled with so great joy, that they cannot express it in words, then turn from actual words, and proceed to sounds of jubilation. The jubilee is a sound signifying that the heart laboureth with that which it cannot utter.
How often do you labor with what you cannot utter? I do all the time -- at this very moment, in fact! Utterance, then, is a yearning for pure expression, a desire to communicate something weightier than traditional language can bear. This could be the very definition of poetry.
Kei Miller’s poem “Speaking in Tongues” helps me understand the idea of utterance, and it’s worth listening to him read it here. The speaker recounts being dragged to church by his grandmother, and standing in awe of the language he witnessed:
I remember my grandmother unbecoming
the kind of woman who sets her table each Sunday,
who walks up from the river, water balanced easily
on her head. My grandmother became, instead,
all earthquake – tilt and twirl and spin,
her orchid-purple skirt blossoming.
She became grunt and rumble – sounds
you can only make when your shoes have fallen off
and you’re on the ground
crying raba and yashundai and
The poem pivots when the speaker, older now, meets a friend who ridicules tongue-speakers. The opportunity for embarrassment hangs low. Instead, the speaker surprises me by drawing his grandmother close and defending her practice, reframing it with his poetic lens:
[...] Years later a friend tells me
tongues is nothing but gibberish – the deluded
pulling words out of dust. I want to ask him
what is language but a sound we christen?
I would invite him to a tent where women
are tearing their stocking, are on the ground
pulling up fresh words to offer as doves to Jehovah.
I would ask if he sees no meaning here
and if he never had the urge to grunt
an entirely new sound. The poem, always,
would like to do this, always wants to break
from its lines and let a strange language rise up.
Whether we are prisoners, parishioners or poets, skeptics, believers or agnostics, we are united in our frustration with language.
It betrays us. It evades us. It comes up short when we need it most. It's why the things we care about are hardest to write.
And yet language is the best we have. So we pick up these humble words, we smash them into sounds, and if we’re writers, we glue them together again. We press our poems against the bars and hope something breaks through the clink.
When Bishop’s Crusoe eyes the knife, when Eliot dares to eat a peach, when Ammons beholds the garbage heap, they crack through -- they “go beyond” language to achieve a state of utterance.
Sometimes we prevail. Sometimes we fail. Dear reader, I love that we try!
Speaking of, don't you think The Best American Poetry blog is doing nothing short of mapping the poetic genome? Everything has a place, from Cary Grant’s birthday to a poet’s struggle with belief to a close reading of Dickinson to the beauty of the word “sure.” Thank you for letting me map out my small corner this week. It's been a pure pleasure.
Image: Voynich manuscript, which some believe to be an example of written glossolalia.