The Ephemeral Nature of Words

The beauty of words stems largely from their ephemeral nature. Conrad Aiken described words as “these squeaks of ours”. Poets spend their life contriving meaning out of these “squeaks”, a process which T. S. Eliot described as, “wrestling with words and meanings.

The poet is very aware of this ephemerality of language. They know firsthand how flimsy the conjunction between a simple mere sound…a “word”…and subjective experience can be; and always is when any particular word is first formed. Carl Sandburg described this as “the moment of doom when the word is formed.” (See full poem in posting of 10/28/12 ) And listen to Eliot describe his experience:

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them.
(Four Quartets)

And I love Archibald MacLeish likening this poetic moment to “the flight of birds flung from the branches where they sleep”:

Bewildered with the broken tongue
of wakened angels in our sleep
then lost the music that was sung
and lost the light time cannot keep!
There is a moment when we lie
Bewildered, wakened out of sleep,
when light and sound and all reply:
that moment time must tame and keep.
That moment like a flight of birds
flung from the branches where they sleep,
the poet with a beat of words
flings into time for time to keep.


3 thoughts on “The Ephemeral Nature of Words

  1. InnerDialect

    This process is taking me years and years : I stumbled onto words, becuz I was a loner, still am inside an outer facade 🙂 .. but oh the precocious power of words… its wealth and otherwise. And then we find Words, that reach thru the generations of man, never losing its seasoning and savour.

    Jeremiah said, ” Ive found Your Words and I’ve eaten it…” am reminded. Thank you for a powered post. Its to take a print out and quietly inhale : I write so random often, depending on the day. This reminds one of the responsibility : even careless words… erggghhhh but worth the knowing.

    ah we are wrestlers….


    1. literary lew Post author

      Thank you my dear friend. “My spirit bears witness with your spirit that we are the children of God.” I’m gonna look up that verse in Jeremiah. That sounds rich.

      Thanks again.



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