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We all know what it’s like to grasp at words. “It’s on the tip of my tongue,” we say. Or we pause with pen hovering over an “In sympathy” card, not knowing how to convey our mixed-up feelings. And this kind of grasping, even gasping, for the right words is the stuff of poetry writing.

I must confess, I don’t remember much from Dr. Beiber’s Modern Literary Theory class six years ago. But one of the things that stood out to me was the idea that words and meanings are continually slipping, that you cannot freeze a word or pin it to its meaning. Different words mean different things to different people at different times. The signifiers and the signified are in constant flux.

Correct posture for writing, 1920's. Cornell University Library.

Writers know what it feels like to search for “the perfect word”—one that fits the rhythm of the poem, one that has the right evocative combination of connotations and meanings, one that sounds beautiful. If we could only find that word that says exactly what we want it to say, that plucks meaning out of our minds and pins it to the page once and for all…but we know that it’s impossible.

This pinning down of meaning is what we attempt to do with definitions and creeds. “Jesus is fully human and fully God.” The succinct combination of words is a nice, neat little “pin” that tries to capture the incarnation. It is useful, and it does convey truth—but what it leaves out is mystery and flesh-and-blood reality. In attempting to parse truth, we have lost its fullness; “we murder to dissect,” in the words of the aptly-named Wordsworth.

Even if it were possible to capture and convey meaning and mystery in a “perfect word,” would we want it—a word that never changes, that fixes meaning in one place forever? Surely part of the fun of writing is that words open up new connections, new meanings that you hadn’t originally thought of–that other people can see things in your words which you didn’t know were there. A word, like a seed, can start as one idea and blossom into something related but new.

How amazing, then, that in Jesus we have the perfect word—not a combination of vowels and consonants, but a person. Jesus is the Word of God; he can convey God to us because he is God. This Word can convey meaning perfectly, something our shifting, slipping words cannot do, because he is meaning. He anchors and pins down meaning for us, and was himself pinned to a cross. But this meaning, this truth, also sets us free. The Word doesn’t just transfix meaning in a static place forever; it—he—explodes in our hearts, blossoms in our souls, and finds new expressions in hundreds of millions of lives.

I wrote the following sonnet inspired by thoughts like these, and influenced a bit by John Donne and George Herbert (especially “Easter Wings”: http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/herbert/wings.htm).


The Perfect Word

The perfect word could pin meaning to a board,

An insect captured, catalogued precisely,

And listed Latinate: safely stored.

If I could pluck the butterfly politely

From flight, oh it would writhe, but I could keep

It with a word forever, and forget

The mystery of its color-dusted sleep.

But words were never pins, but wings, to set

Our minds a-wander into sky and stars:

They’re seeds defying gravity’s confines.

Of course, the Word that spoke into the dark

A pin-prick sun, could not be defined

Nor man-transfixed, but pierces as it sings;

Flies, and gives this earth-bound worm its wings.


– A. C. McFarthing, 2006