of poems and petroglyphs

Writing a decent poem takes time.

It can be a slow process because no matter how grand or sublime the subject, the poet has to peck away at the surface of the idea one letter at a time, through layers of symbols, to expose the idea beneath. It's complicated, but done correctly, it's clear. Follow me on this.

Ideas are themselves communicable only as symbols. Consider a crow; consider the whole creature as you know it, and then recognize that all of that is contained in the utterance "crow," or at least that was the poor human attempt to identify the animal. Somewhere a person first uttered this sound in reference to the creature and created the first layer of symbolism that evokes it.

Later, crow as a concept would emerge as a pictograph or ideogram. The former is a picture and the latter a written character that symbolizes the idea of a thing without indicating the sounds used to say it. These earliest forms of writing are the second layer of symbolism.

The third layer of symbol is the kind of writing we use wherein characters like the ones on this webpage to represent specific sounds, which and are then assembled into words that graph an utterance such as "crow." This kind of syllabic writing has been with us for about 5,500 years or so—a fraction of the time we've actually been communicating with oral language. This late-comer to the communication party is nevertheless ubiquitous in modern society, wherein about 98% of people can read (though up to 20% of Americans are aliterate, which means capable of but choosing not to read beyond things like street signs and packaging, etc.).

So when a person writes a poem, he or she grasps the idea, selects the utterance, assembles the sounds into words and the words into phrases. Symbol upon symbol upon symbol. Mix in tropes, oxymorons, metonymy, melopoetic sound-layering, and all the other components of poetry and it's no wonder the best of this art can be at once so beautiful, powerful, and yet so challenging to fully understand.

I've long argued that the best poets are those who manage all this complexity and still achieve clarity. Let me say that again: complexity into clarity. These words are not necessarily themselves an oxymoron. Human emotions can be hugely complex—their origins, what triggers them, how they are expressed, and dare I say, what and how they mean. But a masterful poet can strike with language and ring your bell so it resonates inside you for days, months, or maybe a lifetime. Are there not particular lines of poetry you can recite, right now, whose resonance is as fresh in this moment as it was when first you read them?

Poets who obfuscate complex subjects do so either from lack of skill or by intention. Sometimes I think those who say they do so by intention are merely covering up for a lack of skill, but we'll leave that debate for another day. I believe the best writers are not content unless they wrangle the complex layers of symbolism that are language into a poem whose clarity rings true in the reader. This does not mean they are simplistic; quite the contrary, they are achieving artistry and doing so in concordance with Aristotle's Affective Theory of Art.

Which brings me to the petroglyphs of Boca Negra Canyon.


Who was the ancestral puebloan who sat before this hunk of volcanic rock some 800 years ago in what is now northern New Mexico, tapping away at the oxidized surface of desert varnish to reveal the symbol of a dragonfly? I'll never know, but as I sat there on a recent sunny November afternoon, I felt a clear connection to this artist, even though my medium is English language.

Is it merely an image? Was the artist at work voicing the sound of his word for "dragonfly?" The simplicity of the image is stunning to me, simultaneously communicating over eight centuries something vital about the creature itself and also about the act of making. Look close enough and you can see the individual chip-marks where the chisel-stone struck away the dark layer to reveal the grey, vesicular basalt beneath. Pock. Pock. Word. Word.

More than 21,000 other images are scattered throughout this canyon on a 17-mile escarpment laid down here by three nearby volcanic spatter-cones about 150,000 years ago. And rather than write more, I'll just leave you with this run of clear, direct symbols.