Naming, Poetry, and Healing

When the child was a child,
It was the time for these questions:
Why am I me, and why not you?
Why am I here, and why not there?
When did time begin, and where does space end?
Is life under the sun not just a dream?
Is what I see and hear and smell
not just the reflection of a world before the world?
Is there really such a thing as evil, and people
who really are the Bad Guys?
How can it be that the I, who I am,
didn’t exist before I came to be,
and that, someday, the I who I am,
will no longer be who I am?

–Peter Handke, from Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders, 1987

One thing I love about poetry is the naming. It isn’t that poetry pins things down, like a specimen to be captured and preserved. Poetry moves and changes and transforms. But it reminds me of the Creation story in Genesis, the way God named and the world came into being. It didn’t freeze into stasis, of course, but twisted and slipped from the grasp of the Namer–and yet, still, the naming itself had power to set things in motion.

All my life, I have loved the names of things. I have in fact, strongly equated Naming with worship and with love. To name it, is to speak some kind of truth. The names of plants, the names of people, places, things. My poems are full of the stuff of the world, the 10,000 things, as Charles Wright says.

Charles Wright also says, “Just give me the names for things, just give me their real names, not what we call them but what they call themselves when no one is listening.” And this gets to the limits of naming and the limits of the power of the artist to create, the humility we must have as poets, to know when to bow down.

Naming is also something we do as we grow from childhood into our own sense of self. We have the eyes to witness the world as we see it. When children experience abuse, often this necessary process of self-actualization is thwarted. The child is expected to reflect back what the parents demand the child sees. The child must put aside her own exploration and observations and align herself to the parent’s own vision. For me, it was nearly impossible for me to develop a healthy sense of self under the shadow of my parent’s narcissism.

When I was about seventeen I first saw the movie, Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders. It was my first real introduction to Poetry. I felt it in my guts–This, this is what I want. What longing did that film tap into? What was it that I was crying out for? To be a witness. To say the names out loud. To repeat the names of things. You see, I don’t think it is the kind of naming that imposes power and control upon something else. But the kind of naming that is praise itself. Rilke said, “Praise is all that matters.” To be in the world and to pay attention. That is what I wanted.

I think it was this desire that set in motion the healing of my fractured childhood self. It was this desire that led me to begin to see the world around me with my own eyes, at long last, and with such joy! I had found my vocation as a poet and I wanted to pay attention to everything.

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