Each step we take; each word we speak;
Each course we chart; each trail we tread
Each tender phrase or sad refrain,
And each unspoken
Each path we take; each love we seek;
Each faulty start; each sunset sped;
Each wide-eyed gaze or cry of pain
And each heart broken
We cannot take a backward step
We cannot choose to not have seen
We cannot wish another chance
We cannot sigh what might have been
Another step might be more sure
Another word might hold more sway
Another end, this choice might bring,
And I might miss one.
A different word might sound more pure
A different step, a different way
A million ways to say one thing
And I chose this one.
Over at NPR, http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2011/07/19/138473791/words-hurt-the-world-poet-says, an interesting bit on an argument at a poetry conference (I doubt I'll ever be invited to a poetry contest; they look down on those of us who rhyme), which Robert Krulwich introduces with a lovely bit of video. The topic under discussion is whether using words helps our planet or hurts.
One view (held by Yusef Komunyakaa) was that language distances us from experience; it names things as not-us, and allows--perhaps forces--us to separate ourselves from a world we would otherwise be imbedded in. We may harm the earth, then, without harming ourselves.
Another view (Mark Doty's) is that "the more we can name what we're seeing, the more language we have for it, the less likely we are to destroy it." Naming each plant in a meadow, each star in the sky, each organism in an ecosystem, makes it more known to us, and more missed if it is gone.
Krulwich states that "obviously both sides are right", but ultimately comes down in favor of words. I don't think it is so obvious. I think Komunyakaa's assumption is faulty; I think if we remove the words, we do not remove the distance, but rather remove the thought.
It is true that choosing one word over another will bend the ideas of the reader or listener; politics gives us "spin", psychology gives us "framing", and used car salesweasels give us "certified pre-owned vehicles". It is as if there is a huge possible landscape, and these word-smiths are trying to show us one small corner of it, by focusing their flashlight beam very closely. The rest of the world is black.
Komunyakaa's view, if I have it, is similar to that of the night hiker. A flashlight, for such an explorer, is a limiting tool. The world closes around you, and ends where the beam of light ends. Turn off the light, and in a few minutes the world is vast again, and if the stars are out then you can see much farther than you could possibly see by day.
But that's the wrong metaphor. I was once in Mammoth Cave when the guide turned off the lights. I could have stayed there for hours, but would never have been able to see my hand in front of my face. Words are the light we see by; without them, we don't get the night-time sky, we get the utter blindness of the cave.
Yes, each word may act as a focused beam. Fortunately, we have more than one word. In science (which, really, is where the debate about "helps our planet or hurts" can actually be answered, and not merely argued), we may have different schools of thought which use different operational definitions and different measurements for very similar concepts (I would say "the same concept", but either choice leads you on a particular path; now, of course, you have two views). A scientific community does not (especially at first) need to agree on one definition, but may explore several before finding one or more to be more useful. A verbal community, likewise, will toy around with words--many shades of meaning for one word, or a spectrum of words for one concept.
This is why I think everyone should write poetry. (Except for me; I should write verse.) Being forced, on a regular basis, to spend time searching for just the right word, rather than using the first one that comes to mind, has got to be good exercise for the brain. If we want to see the whole world (and more), we have to be willing to try different lights and different lenses, and not just search where it is easy, where somebody else already shines a light and says it is trustworthy, or has low mileage, or is fair and balanced.
Words can separate us from our world, but the remedy is more words, not fewer. And certainly not none.