George Szirtes is a poet and translator. His New and Collected Poems are published by Bloodaxe, along with a critical guide to his work, Reading George Szirtes by John Sears.

A blackbird will tell of what you cannot know

God knows where words go.
Dust to dust.
The poet loves and distrusts them.
Someone must.

Trust no one, least of all yourself. Least of all your own best beloved blather, those sentiments and instincts that seem to elevate you into one of life's nobler specimens, that render you a Mensch, a judge of character, a person who, according to your secret internal PR, is someone to be trusted. If you must trust in something, trust in distrust, or at least listen to it sometimes. As they say: Just listen to yourself! At least have the decency to be just a little disgusted with yourself.

Can you hear the shakiness of those words, those little drops of sound as they fall, those traces of black and white certainty as they imprint themselves across the page? Something – a shadow, as Eliot would have it – intervenes between, what shall we call it? Idea and reality? Motion and act? Conception and creation? What do you read, my lord? Words, words, words.

They really are terrible things: small objects of pain, strange myopic blurs that suddenly rush together to form an avalanche tumbling from one or other Mount Sinai. Tablets of cant. Here, take one. If it doesn't cure you at least you can flatten yourself with it. See how treacherous they are, these mixed metaphors, these puns? And I don't mean just the obvious stuff: We have made it perfectly clear... The community... My sources tell me... The people of this country... (alternatively, The working people of this country...). No, that's too easy. Those dull, lying signals of oblivion are visible a long way off, even in a dense political fog.

It is closer to home than that. They are your home. You enter your front door of words, wipe your feet on a mat of words, sit down in your words-chair, gaze at your wall of words, sit at your stripped-word dining table and proceed to eat your words. Welcome to my words, won't you come on in?

And what comes before words? Idea? Motion? Conception? The wisest words are those of the proverbial old woman: How do I know what I think till I see what I say? What say ye to that, ye men of principle? Ye thin men of Haddam?

I do not know which to prefer, said Wallace Stevens in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"...

...The beauty of inflexions
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

But there I suddenly stop, with the beauty of inflexions and innuendos, with lucid, inescapable rhythms, with, if you like, the blackbird, who is "involved / In what I know". Because there is, after all, a blackbird in all this and we can't be leaving the house without the blackbird, who, at bottom, is not entirely a verbal creature, but flits into that "just after" which – and we had better learn this – is the best we can do.

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