Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Words matter

I remarked the other day in my reflections on Adrienne Rich on the gift of language, this amazing ability that evolved through many species into human babble, our multiple, diverse, ways to express ourselves, communicate with our loved ones, our tribe, our culture. It holds tremendous power, language does. It holds people together and divides them up; it builds both bridges and walls.

Turn on cable pseudo-news stations these days, or listen to right-wing radio talks shows and evangelical preachers, and you get a sense of the power of language - how it can hold together tribal identity and shred a society all at the same time.

It seems these days that we hold this remarkable skill - the ability to create language full of nuance and layers of expression - in great disrespect. We treat it with so much disdain. We use it as cudgel, weapon, a destroyer rather than a connector. Listen to the politicians running for election this year. Talk about dragging this gift in the mud!

In my life as a writer, I do what all writers do, struggle with the modes of expression a language provides me to create a narrative that entices the reader to enter in and see the world from another vantage point, or to attempt to open an insight, or simply to tell a damn good story!

I was sitting this morning with Rita Dove's, American Smooth, one of her several brilliant volumes of poetry. When I encountered, 'The Sisters: Swansong' - oh my, talk about using language to open a window on the world that makes the heart ache! I haven't recovered yet. The last line finished me for the day. See? Now you have to go to your library or bookstore and find this heartrending poem.

Meanwhile, poetry, the humanities, literary endeavors, while still alive and well in many circles, are receding from the mainstream culture, overtaken by the noise - loud, angry noise - of a culture in clear decline. We don't know who we are anymore, and so we use language, religion, and identity politics to retreat into small spaces, using language to thicken the walls of our self-segregated communities and the doors we close on 'the other.'

It's a sorrowful thing we are doing to ourselves. Language could be a bridge built upon pillars of multiple and diverse cultures and expressions, all holding up this larger community of our humanity. Wouldn't it be fun to prance around on that bridge going from pillar to pillar to take it all in, the joy and wonder of this human cacophony celebrating the opposite of monotony and monoculture!

Sometimes I wish this ranting non-culture would just shut up. Maybe we could hear our poets then, or the tales and essays of our best writers - the ones who open windows on ourselves and our world. Maybe we could relish in the turn of a phrase, a poem of sorrow and forlornness that makes the heart ache, an expression of love that pierces the heart with the turn of a phrase, a story that brings to life unforgettable characters, or an essay that is simply delicious.

Maybe we could even learn to talk to one another again - if we started by sharing our poems and our stories beyond the small circles and precious independent bookstores where these things still thrive, you know, a little practice in how to use language again, to revive it from the wrecking ball that has been our culture's assault on it. Maybe this is one way we could learn to embrace diversity rather than fear it - if we began to find delight in the expressions of it, rather than fearing this or loading 'the other' up with so much blame for our unhappiness.

We are learning the hard way that words matter. Words in this culture are becoming harsh, and their impact is harsh as well. In our education system, we are finding it more important to teach computer code than the humanities; we have replaced school libraries with computer rooms. That's so that our kids will grow up to be competitive in the global economy. But how about being proficient in life, in critical thinking, in appreciating that we now live in a crowded world reeling with change and that this ought to be calling out the best in us - not the least, or the most narrow and specialized.

Seems to me that one of our tasks as writers and artists is to urge people to shut off the background noise of this woeful non-culture, to quiet our brains, so that we can hear language again, hear how connected it is to the rhythm of the breath and the heart-beat, to the blood coursing through our veins, to this urge deep within us to express ourselves out into the world - to make worlds, not destroy them.

And we just might find that, amidst the cacophony and diversity, even when we don't understand one another's language, what we have in common is what lies beneath the outward expression - the breath and the heart-beat, and the urge deep within to express ourselves out into the world - to be creators, not destroyers.

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