Annabelle Carvell


Annabelle Carvell

Illustration by Eugenia Loli

tongue [noun] the fleshy muscular organ in the mouth of a mammal, used for tasting, licking, swallowing, and (in humans) articulating speech

The tongue is the most flexible muscle in our body. We learn to manoeuvre it inherently; we shift food about our mouths and learn to swallow from the moment we’re born into the world. We form our own set of taste preferences through trial and error of foods. We learn to do so much more with it after the ‘basics’, yet we don’t often acknowledge our use of it as mastering a skill. Somehow, we learn how to kiss; how to move it against someone else’s tongue. Someone else who is somehow also doing the same thing.

Above all, we learn to communicate. We imitate sounds translated by others around us. We learn to place guttural sounds at the back of our mouths; mix friction and our breath for words likefrozen and thrust. We learn how and where to place our tongue and how to shape our mouths. Some words make us work hard, like anemone, but we have the basics.


tongue-poetry describes the way words make your tongue shift and move in your mouth when you read


So what has the tongue got to do with poetry? Heffernan writes that ‘neither verbal narrative nor graphic stasis can fully represent being.’[1] This is something I stand by, too; if literature stands alone, or art stands alone, neither can singularly fully represent what it is to ‘be’. But, we can getclose to this representation of ‘being’. Not all of us are able command use of each sense: some of us cannot hear; others cannot see; some cannot smell. Yet we still receive the world through a combination of our senses. Synaesthesia within literature allows us a more wholesome literary portrayal of the world – our experience of ‘being’ can be amplified through that mixture of the senses. When you bring the tongue into play, for all its capacity and capabilities, it too can be that valuable tool moving us towards a more wholesome reading experience.


we don’t only experience reading with
our minds, we feel it with our body, too


‘Tongue-poetry’ isn’t a term we’ve read up about; it’s one that we’ve coined behind the scenes while we discuss your submissions. It’s a term that seems to encapsulate when a poem or story really hits that moment of ‘wholeness’. When we read, we involuntarily pull images into our minds. This is something that we’re all probably aware we’re doing. For some of us, it might be flashes of story like a comic strip; for others, images might play out like an old film, dust sparkling in the light of a projector. Over the years, as we’ve become more and more familiar with what it means to be a synaesthete, and as we become more and more well-read each day, we’ve found that we don’t only experience reading with our minds, we feel it with our body, too. Our tongue, it seems, centres this experience.

Tongue-poetry describes the way words make your tongue shift and move in your mouth when you read; it describes the moment in a piece of writing where you can almost feel the moment. We all know what it’s like to not be able to quite put into words how a line in a poem or story makes us feel – it’s that immediate and visceral that it makes us want to scream, laugh, cry all at once; it makes us taste violets and roses and everything indescribable. That’s tongue-poetry.

Take, for example, the following lines from Nolan Liebert’s poem ‘how to eat a tornado’ in our EAT issue: ‘Plant / your fearless mouth /firmly against /the wild blue storm, / let it kiss hard /your cracked-earth skin’. Feel the way ‘cracked-earth skin’ resonates in your mouth. The hard sounds bounce off your teeth; you can taste terracotta, and you can feel the roughness of the skin’s surface. There is, for you, no better description than the poet’s. It’s an ultimate description – it’s one that you cannot tamper with, and represents that sense of wholesomeness in an almost absolute way. It’s colours, textures and sounds all at once. This is tongue-poetry.

Sometimes, it’s not just a case of just describing textures. It’s finding a string of words that bring us deeper into the poem. Emily O’Neill shows us tongue-poetry in her poem ‘Orioles’ with the following line: ‘I pour bass into my body, / get slippery with shake.’ In this case, it’s down to basic literary techniques. We’re seeing alliteration and sibilance here – ‘b’ in ‘bass’ and ‘body’, and ‘sh’/‘s’ in ‘slippery’ and ‘shake’. Emily has produced a set of lines that cause our body to move with the words and rhythm the same way a dancer shifts with music. Simple techniques employed in an effective manner give us a rounded experience that ordinary language might not have otherwise captured.

When we read a submission that hits hard with this tongue-poetry, it grips us. We’re no longer simply readers, we’re characters, objects, animals. Like in Denise Miller's 'The Concept of Reference' and Eloisa Amezcua's 'Long Distance'. This is what we look for; tongue-poetry is what makes good writing so, so much bigger than us. We’re part of that poem or story, and we’re immersed in a world where words like husk, brisk and rust are textures, and lips and kisses are sticky liquorice.

[1] Heffernan, James A. W., ‘A Genealogy of Ekphrasis: Homer: A Shield Sculpted in Words,’ Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery. (London: The University of Chicago Press Ltd., 1994) 10-22, 14

Annabelle is co-founding editor of Synaesthesia Magazine.