People ask me—I ask myself—why I, a poet, cannot express certain things I think and feel? What are these things I can barely sense, that I am not even sure are real or imagined, and does the question really matter?
The poet’s tasks are several and monumental: to express the inexpressible, grapple with the challenges in doing this, and bring readers in touch with the inexpressible in themselves and their own struggle to connect with the inexpressible.
What is the nature of the inexpressible? How can we know something is inexpressible, or if there is even something inexpressible, let alone know its nature? Assuming there is such a thing, why are some things inexpressible?
In Ajmer, India, at the dargah (the tomb of a Sufi saint) of Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisthi, hundreds of birds noisily confer in a large tree. The saint is draped with layers of shiny-green embroidered material and heaps of dyed flowers. His spiritual descendant Hazrat Inayat Khan says the inexpressible exists but that we have forgotten what it is.
He calls this the word that was lost.
I go into my yard and sit in the warmest spot, the bottom of a short set of stairs leading to a small orchard. Beyond the fence is a grove of cottonwoods and untamed grass. I cannot see the homes on the ridge behind me, or across the way. So, I sit in the winter sun and just stare into space.
Words that were lost float in the leafless treetops, sometimes settling in a squirrel’s or bird’s nest, or falling to the ground, mingling with autumn detritus. Little bugs are active, flies, some bees. Where do they come from? Where do they go in winter? Where do I come from, and where will I go when they go?
I have already been to the ghost city of Fatepuhr Sikri, where qwaalis chant the familiar “allahu allahu allahu” before the tomb of Salim Chisthi, watched by scores of eagles. Are they listening to the music, and if so, do they hear the sound of praise? Or perhaps they hear insects or ghosts. Perhaps they listen for or hear the word that was lost.
I feel a need to go
somewhere, even if somewhere
Maybe the insects in my yard
are always there,
Like the insects,
perhaps the lost word comes and goes,
appearing, disappearing, reappearing,
on its own
or through an act of remembering
or retrieving on our part.
After all, since we are supposed to remember everything, why should the lost word be lost forever?
The Word Garden
It’s now time to cover the bare spot in my lawn where I have uprooted the invasive Japanese bamboo, so I dig a little, add compost, scatter seeds, spread burlap, then turn on the rain bird. Words can describe this much but no more. My neighbor rings the bell, thanks me for taking in his newspapers while he was away. In Japan, officials continue to dissemble or make outrageously minimizing statements—there is radioiodine in the milk, but it’s at safe levels, and so on. These words will be forgotten—lost—because they differ from words said the previous day and words undoubtedly said the next day. We speak here of “words,” but really it’s the word that is lost.
The Descent of the Soul
Sufi Inayat Khan says that after we get a glimpse of what’s beyond the garden, whether the wholeness of life or by implication the deeper truth of dissembling officials, we are unable to express what we have seen. Is this true? In Ennead IV.8 the Greek philosopher Plotinus goes to a higher plane, returns, and describes the descent of his soul back into this world, with feeling—his painful sadness at this reentry moving readers to tears for over seventeen hundred years. For Plotinus neither the word nor words were lost, but if we have lost such experiences, the word indeed may be lost.
Sufi Inayat is buried in New Delhi near the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, also of the Chisthi lineage; a train station is named after the latter. Nearby is the tomb of the emperor Hamayun, who revered Nizamuddin.
In the trees around these tombs
myriad birds sing and fly
fly and sing in a whirling aerial dance.
In Conference of the Birds, ‘Attar translates the language of birds into human speech, so that we may glimpse a lost world, a world of lost words, the word that was lost, since in his time humans did not have to invent conceits in which they conversed with animals or in which animals conversed in human language (which we could understand, else how could we have written those stories?); rather—and here, oddly, I have lost my train of thought. . . .
One reason for this “speechlessness,” says Inayat Khan, is that after glimpsing that lost world, we stop valuing what we valued before and have nothing to say.
We poets think we know this, as we try to express what others cannot say, yet we have been struck dumb and limited to the few snippets of birdsong we can bring back from the other side but do not understand. Still, as Martin Buber has said, in our grappling for connection lies the possibility for the entrance of something he felt should be called God, for lack of a better word. Isn’t the word that was lost God, in whatever language you prefer? Moses, encountering God, gained a stutter. Muhammad’s experience was just the opposite: He found the word, and in profusion, inspiring us to move closer to God.
Something in the Wind
When I first began writing poetry, something in the wind and clouds moved me in some way, leading to and guiding my own inspiration. I sense a great deal but cannot always describe why.
In my yard
those seeds are sprouting
just a little.
I can hear them beneath the burlap.
Sometimes I just do not want
Is this because I have lost the language to do so, or know the language and instead choose silence? Some things are best left unsaid, after all. Yet this is different: Something in me, from an early age, either cannot describe something or does not want to, or resists. And if I do name it, the mystique, mystery, unsaidness . . . are gone. Does—or should—anyone else value this?
The Dead Know
Sufi Inayat Khan says that for some people, what most people value has no value. The lost language is something few people value, or even know about. Friends in New York who died long ago know this language. As I grow older, few people are able to share this language, so I am increasingly alone.
Just as in life
some can hear the music
some can hear it in death
Instrumental music has lost its words but still contains the word that was lost. A musician and singer who gave up playing and singing because everything became music for him, Sufi Inayat found the word that was lost in life and, though we cannot know, perhaps also in death.
In the Alchemy of Happiness, Al-Ghazzali says our “heart . . . contains a hidden fire . . . evoked by music and harmony . . . and renders” us beside ourselves “with ecstasy. These harmonies are echoes of that higher world of beauty which we call the world of spirits.” If music is one path to the word that was lost, which is what Al-Ghazzali is speaking of, and Inayat Khan experienced all life as music, hearing it everywhere and in everything, opportunities exist to reclaim the word that was lost . . . in everything.
Forgetting, then Remembering; Remembering, then Forgetting
Flashes of light are everywhere. All is music when you close your eyes and allow your body
to dance to the songs of the birds. In Flashes of the Divine, Fakhruddin ‘Iraqi says you see the divine in your reflection and your reflection in the divine; lover and beloved are one.
I come to a meaning, an interpretation, summon up the souls of dead saints to help me understand, then forget. Forgetting is difficult to accept, coming to understandings later forgotten. In the remembrance or recollection—dhikr in Arabic, zakhar in Hebrew—is splendor and radiance—in Hebrew, zohar; in Arabic, zahra (among various possibilities), a cognate whose discovery took me a week to find—we intone “la ilaha illa ‘llah” in the attempt to recover another word that was lost, if only temporarily.
We forget, then remember, in our effort to connect with the words whose meaning has been lost, which might as well be the same as words themselves that are lost.
these are the word
that was lost.
When I forget something, I also forget there is even something I forgot. Long ago the universe revealed its ultimate, absolute meaning in a sharpness unlike anything I had experienced or have experienced since. Imagine a neurotelescope able to see into metaphysical mysteries the way powerful telescopes see into cosmic mysteries. Then the meaning faded, until no traces of the experience itself remained, only a vague memory that I had had such an experience, so it cannot be described further.
Sufi Khan says when we have certain experiences and try to explain them afterwards, we cannot, because the words have been lost.
But, wait: Perhaps traces of such experiences do remain, infiltrating the lost language that spreads through our being and consciousness like a filamentous nebula. The language, then, gains a vocabulary, a few words at a time, a few syllables, perhaps just sounds, or whispers, gestures, hints, musical notes, and modes, like the language of vocalization in a sacred language, or the language of trope in chanting such a language.
A dot here, a dot there;
a squiggle here, a blip there,
the sequence is worked out, like dots and dashes in Morse code, and the letters come alive, as they must have for the authors of holy books. Are poets like that, accumulating over the years bits and pieces of the inexpressible, now and then able to set them down in a form the reader can grasp?
In the Beginning Was the Word
Inayat Khan says in the beginning was the word, and the word has been lost. In ancient times at the Jerusalem Temple on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (or at-one-ment), the High Priest intoned a name of God whose pronunciation has long since been forgotten or that we no longer know how to pronounce. This name of God is lost. Still, we Jews prostrate ourselves as in ancient times when our ancestors did so upon hearing the name that now is lost,
remembering or glimpsing
the radiant Glory.
has no form
and cannot be seen
but God’s glory can
in every particle
To express this kind of experience, which involves a lost word or words or an entire language, literal or metaphorical, we can either express ourselves in a higher register than we do in daily life, perhaps like often-incomprehensible mystics and philosophers, or try to find a simpler way. But although some of us try to speak plainly, in that ordinary, daily voice, many of us also want to be uplifted in a special way, perhaps so much so that paradoxically we end up prostrated.
The Mystic and the Materialist
Inayat Khan says: “There is not that much difference in belief between the mystic and the materialist.” So too the different types of poets, or people—those who use the ordinariness of language to express the greater idea of life and those who see within language something that goes beyond. They are, but not totally, the same—
discovering the deep and profound,
the image and the reflection thereof,
grass seeds sprouting and the mystery
of what makes them
sprout; elusive Sufi texts
and their radiant authors,
the Zohar and its elusive authors; why birds
perch near the tombs of both saints
and absolute, cruel, ruthless monarchs;
why someone had an experience long ago
that he forgot, and the natural inspiration
for his attraction to poetry.
Within, deep, sometimes not, is something beyond religion and spirituality, beyond words, that cannot be expressed or only dimly, privately, to which we return from time to time, something that seeks recognition, recollection, or remembrance, then expression. It is inexpressible, the lost word, which poets seek to express
in a lost language,
like the language
of the birds.
Al-Ghazzali, Abu Hamid Muhammad. The Alchemy of Happiness. Translated by Claud Field. Revised and annotated by Elton L. Daniel. Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe, 1991.
‘Iraqi, Fakhruddin. Divine Flashes. Translation and Introduction by William C. Chittick and Peter Lamborn Wilson. New York: Paulist Press, 1982.
Khan, Hazrat Inayat. The Mysticism and Sound of Music. Boston: Shambhala, 1996.
In 2010 I visited the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, India (wow!!) (the first Chisthi Sufi), as well as the Chisthi Sufi shrine at Fatepuhr Sikri and the dargah of the Chisthi Sufi Hazrat Nizamuddin in New Delhi. I first heard of Sufism in the 1960s when involved with a Gurdjieff group, and was attracted to Hazrat Inayat Khan because of our joint interest in music and mysticism.
In January 2015 I was fortunate enough to visit the tomb of Hazrat Inayat Khan himself, in New Delhi. He is around the corner from the Nizamuddin dargah and also from the tomb of the famous nineteenth-century poet Mirza Ghalib. If you visit the Nizamuddin dargah, when you exit, Inayat Khan’s tomb is to the left and Ghalib’s to the right. I obtained this information from two friendly and saintly Muslims sitting in front of Nizamuddin’s tomb.
And in 2015 I was fortunate enough to have “The Word That Was Lost” published by Mr Sadiq M. Alam in his fine online publication Technology of the Heart, which as of January 2020 no longer seems to be published.