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Dana Gioia's "Words"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Dana Gioia

Introduction and Text of "Words"

Dana Gioia is a poet that readers can always count on. He always has something to communicate; his poems dramatize and portray and examine. Unlike many contemporary poets who want to shock, disturb, protest, or simply express an airy nothingness, Gioia's poems demonstrate a poet whose skill and devotion to his craft result in an art that is useful, insightful, entertaining, and educational. Simply put, his poems are real poems.

The poems, "Words," dramatizes both the power and the powerlessness of language. Because human beings create words, they become dependent on them for retaining ideas in the memory. But in contrast, the natural world continues to communicate through its very being. It is therefore a paradox that the world has no need of words because the human being does have certain needs for words, and those needs have been created through the mental capacity God has given humankind. Thus words are basically not needed, even some people without hearing must remain silent but still communicate through sign language: can sign language really be considered to form words? Still, words nevertheless remain very important to humankind despite the nature of the need.

Words

The world does not need words. It articulates itself
in sunlight, leaves, and shadows. The stones on the path
are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.
The fluent leaves speak only the dialect of pure being.
The kiss is still fully itself though no words were spoken.

And one word transforms it into something less or other—
illicit, chaste, perfunctory, conjugal, covert.
Even calling it a kiss betrays the fluster of hands
glancing the skin or gripping a shoulder, the slow
arching of neck or knee, the silent touching of tongues.

Yet the stones remain less real to those who cannot
name them, or read the mute syllables graven in silica.
To see a red stone is less than seeing it as jasper—
metamorphic quartz, cousin to the flint the Kiowa
carved as arrowheads. To name is to know and remember.

The sunlight needs no praise piercing the rainclouds,
painting the rocks and leaves with light, then dissolving
each lucent droplet back into the clouds that engendered it.
The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always—
greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon.

Dana Gioia reading his poem, "Words"

Commentary

Dana Gioia's poem, "Words," dramatizes both the need and lack thereof regarding the poetic tool known as paradox.

First Stanza: Words vs Wordlessness

The world does not need words. It articulates itself
in sunlight, leaves, and shadows. The stones on the path
are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.
The fluent leaves speak only the dialect of pure being.
The kiss is still fully itself though no words were spoken.

Dana Gioia's poem, "Words," demonstrates the poet's important skill abundantly. The poem consists of four five-line, unrimed stanzas. The first line of the first stanza asserts the claim the world has no need of words, because it communicate perfectly through "sunlight, leaves, and shadows" among other things of nature.

Of course, it is easy enough to understand that leaves are leaves without their saying so with words, but even a human activity such as a kiss is "fully itself though no words were spoken." The kiss then speaks in the same wordless way that the sun speaks or the way stones speak—just naturally with its essence.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Second Stanza: One Word Drama

And one word transforms it into something less or other—
illicit, chaste, perfunctory, conjugal, covert.
Even calling it a kiss betrays the fluster of hands
glancing the skin or gripping a shoulder, the slow
arching of neck or knee, the silent touching of tongues.

Still focusing on the kiss, the second stanza dramatizes just how the activity can be changed from its nature by one word. And just by naming it "kiss," one has limited it; the term erases the other activities that may accompany it: "the fluster of hands / glancing the skin," the "gripping a shoulder," or even "the silent touching of tongues."

Just calling any activity its name limits its nature. The little drama asserted in this stanza makes us start to feel a bit of antipathy towards these things we call words, even though we know that without them we would not have been able to experience the little drama. A paradox is showing itself in the ideas—all expressed with words.

Third Stanza: Faith in Words

Yet the stones remain less real to those who cannot
name them, or read the mute syllables graven in silica.
To see a red stone is less than seeing it as jasper—
metamorphic quartz, cousin to the flint the Kiowa
carved as arrowheads. To name is to know and remember.

But the next drama in the third stanza restores our faith in words: naming things makes them more real to us because, "To see a red stone is less than seeing it as jasper— / metamorphic quartz, cousin to the flint the Kiowa / carved as arrowheads."

And because we can name things, that is, attach words to them, we can store them in our memory. We do not have the same luxury that stones and trees have—the luxury to remain silent without words.

Fourth Stanza: No Need for Praise in Nature

The sunlight needs no praise piercing the rainclouds,
painting the rocks and leaves with light, then dissolving
each lucent droplet back into the clouds that engendered it.
The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always—
greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon.

The fourth stanza again serves as a reminder that our human language cannot add one iota to the natural world. Even though we humans run on praise, the sunlight will go on "piercing the rainclouds, / painting the rocks and leaves with light" without being congratulated.

And though "daylight needs no praise," it is a tribute to the human soul that is capable of praising it. Just as God does not need humankind, but humankind does need God. The soul that is capable of praise is the soul that realizes what is "greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon."

Dana Gioia: "Why Reading Matters"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes