“Yet the speaking tongue is supple, / untroubled by bone.”
Jane Hirshfield’s “Articulation: An Assay” addresses when articulation begins and how it occurs, in part by addressing the physical aspects of speech. The tongue, “untroubled by bone,” is able to flex and move to form sounds that become words. One doesn’t often think of bones as troublesome. In this organ, they would cause rigidity making it difficult to move in subtle ways; slight movements add inflection to speech and differentiate between question and command. The tongue distinguishes between harsh consonants and soft vowels whose combinations forms words whose combinations forms sentences. Hirshfield’s use of alliteration, both consonance (p, g, and b) and assonance (e, o, and u), requires the tongue to perform the sounds when read aloud.
Further into the poem, she introduces “thought.” Raising a question: when does articulation begin? But thought is hinge and swerve, is winch, / is folding. Thoughts are tools like a hinge and a winch, which are both objects and actions. By listing “swerve” with nouns that can also be verbs, Hirshfield forces the reader to change directions, to swerve to miss the collision of thoughts brought on by this technique. Swerve, hinge, winch, and fold are also physical actions that the tongue makes to form certain sounds and words. Thoughts are the mechanism driving speech, driving articulation. Or are they? Are thoughts fully formed articulations? Or is articulation when someone’s thoughts become speech? Is speech a reflection of thought?
Hirshfield’s poem—an Assay—is itself a form of articulation, an examination of language, written and spoken, from its inception to its fulfillment. It is up to the reader to decide which part of the “many-jointed” argument they believe.