As part of my role as commissioned poet for the Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ naturalness project, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we use language and also how language resists these uses. Many of the questions and comments that came out of the recent roundtable hosted by the Council (at which they introduced a draft of their report on the way the terms ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ are used) were to do with some of the reasons why we might use the words ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ in certain ways and it is this aspect of proceedings that I will focus on.
At the roundtable one of the invited guests responded to the draft report by saying that often the words ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ are stand-ins for a discomfort someone might feel but cannot name. It could be the case when someone objects to a medical procedure on the grounds that it is not ‘natural’ that they are actually expressing a fear or sadness or shame that procedure evokes. In such cases a term like ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ is a capacious umbrella under which that discomfort can shelter. Another guest reasoned that this is because such words mean so many different things to different people that, in effect, two people discussing ‘naturalness’ with each other might well be having two different conversations. As I was listening to the discussion unfold I jotted down some notes in the scrawled handwriting I use in lieu of shorthand. The following part is something I think I will return to:
‘A loss for which there is no word’
I don’t know yet whether that will make it into the poem but it captures a feeling that I hope the poem will embody. To me the phrase asks a question posed by another of the attendees at the meeting: what happens when we scratch beneath the surface of an appeal to naturalness? This is a very fruitful question for a poet and one that will closely inform the remainder of my writing on this project and, I imagine, beyond it.
Exploring the way language works has been part of what I do as a poet, in one way or another, since my early twenties when I studied Literary Theory at the University of Sheffield. There we looked at the work of Denise Riley a poet and philosopher who, across her writing, has focused often to what she calls an ‘affect’ in language; its capacity to do things as well as to refer to things. It is this dual capacity that poets draw on in the making of a poem since it is by dint of this that a poem can be about something but also enact that something when it is read or spoken. My favourite example of this quality in a poem is ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ by Kate Kilalea which is deeply evocative of what is sometimes called ‘nameless dread’, a condition of foreboding in which the dreaded thing remains tantalisingly elusive.
What the poem does, then, is try to name something that is at the limits of naming. Perhaps this same impulse is at work in the process of a scientific discovery and the ways in which the world comes to terms with that discovery.
Listen to ‘Hennecker’s Ditch’ by Kate Kilalea: – recording from Carcanet Press website: