Words fail me, and I fail them


Words fail me, and I fail them.


Despite my love for the English language, I find my own ability to use it to convey complex, often nebulous concepts is far from adequate. I cast around for metaphors, for analogies and parables to express what I feel deep within. Sometimes it’s beyond my capacity to hit the mark, sometimes I fail the words and the concepts. I get upset by the feeling that while the shades of meaning and the subtleties almost convey what I want to say, in the end I fail to transmit the core of what I want to say. Rather than resort to aphorisms or platitudes, reusing the worn-out and often inadequate but comfortingly familiar phrases and sound-bites that have proliferated in recent years, I’d rather fall back on poetry. This snippet expresses well the feeling of a failing command of words when under great pressure to express what maybe is only something that can be directly experienced:


And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
And all is always now. Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Will not stay still.” T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

So why do I write when the words fail me and I fail them? Perhaps this is why:

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,

You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess

You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.” T.S. Eliot, East Coker


13 thoughts on “Words fail me, and I fail them

    • I wrote a novel called Little Gidding Girl that sits quietly on my harddrive waiting for the right moment.
      Very, very few have sufficient experience of these experiences to engage with this poet, so thank you for sharing this.


  1. ah…well, I’m comforted in the end accepting that much of what I desire to communicate exists in the realm of the ineffable…and as such we always can only do the best we can…I’m mostly okay with that, but, of course it can also frustrate endlessly when we fail to make something understood.


    • That’s why sometimes words are not enough. I often feel like turning myself inside out and pointing to that one neuron that is firing with an ineffable idea, and yelling, look, it’s there, it’s there can you see it?? “Fynn, it is like turning inside out! There was a look of amazement on her face (Mister God, This is Anna) “The young poet must do some sort of violence to himself to get out of the general idea, No doubt this is difficult, but it is the very art of living” Goethe.
      But of course, I can’t and I have to make do with fumbling around for words that almost get there.
      And yes to frustration.


  2. But Viv, words fail us ALL in terms of doing what they claim to do on the tin; ie to communicate. This is the task of writers, to make language do what it is cracked up to do and so many shirk the task. Words are slippery, elusive, doubled edged and have several shades of meaning, sometimes even contradictory ones (‘cleave’, ‘fast’). Our vocabulary is pitiful when it comes to words for emotions, little better than the happy/sad range of emoticons beloved of our children, yet our own ability to articulate in any more sophisticated fashion is no more refined than theirs really.

    Politicians of course are the experts in taking any meaning out of words. The very definition of hollow talk. Or Eliot’s “Hollow men” even…

    Writers ought to write in order to buttress the language in the face of its continuing diminution, by making the art of the written word memorable and desirable. Most of course don’t.


    • Don’t mind me, I’m having a little whinge. Writing is also dialogue and the reader brings their preconceptions, agendas and other baggage to everything they read, which the writer cannot completely allow for. Ambiguities abound, misunderstandings proliferate as people read into something what may only be visible to them as a single individual. Projection, too, and mirroring, cause words to become holograms of something else.
      A humorous take on it, from a poem of my own:
      Letting Go

      When a poem is written,
      Released to be read,
      It ceases to be mine alone.
      Like a wayward child,
      It speaks its mind
      To all it encounters
      And is changed forever:
      I never meant that!
      That’s not what I said.
      I gave it life,
      Gave it wings,
      And now must say goodbye.
      It has its own life:
      A purpose, a mission maybe.
      And I, like every mother,
      Wish it well, wave it off,
      Shed a tear and hope at least
      For a Christmas card
      And flowers for Mother’s Day.

      Thank you for the encouragement, much appreciated!


  3. … When a poem is written,
    Released to be read,
    It ceases to be mine alone …

    It’s still yours, but it’s also cloned 🙂 to weave another thread.
    I remember days when my photography was interpreted in ways I did not consciously intent. I remember my confusion. I felt like a fraud. This is the torture of the artist, we bring up stuff from the dark and people do with it what suits them.


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  5. You have nothing to worry about, Vivienne. I used to feel inadequate with word until I had a stroke. Now my word blindness drives me up the wall and is a real downer for a writer.


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