Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Words, Words, Words

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,, 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.


Anonymous said...

Without Language we exist in the world like a fish in the river or a deer in the forest. We don't hurt it, but we can scarcely be said to understand it, let alone help it.

And since I don't know when my phone will and will not actually let me sign in, this is The Ridger

Margie said...

I find it hard enough to write 'prose' that conveys what I really mean. I am in awe of people like you who can do that with verse!

Johnny Vector said...

Not poetry? How can you call what you did there not poetry? Pshaw.

Melissa said...

Without words (spoken, written) it would be difficult for humans to build our communities. As frustrating as language can be, I've always had a bit of wonder that simple sounds and symbols can convey so much meaning.

Joan said...

I disagree. That particular poem was poetry and it was beautiful. Whatever pedant decided non rhyming free verse was now the only thing worthy to be called poetry has given rhyme a bad name, and those who rhyme a distinctly undeserved inferiority complex.
This was particularly poignant to me today because Borders Books closed their doors after 40 years. I am in mourning.

Pigbristles said...

A keeper, this one!

Cuttlefish said...

Oh, Joan--I take your point, but will disagree about an inferiority complex. I am quite happy to be a versemonger and doggerelist, and not a poet. I wouldn't change if I could.

Joan said...

(Grin) Well, perhaps I was talking about my own inferiority complex. What currently passes for ‘true’ modern poetry, is unrhymed, and while employing metaphors, galore, is often indecipherable to me. Also, I never met a metaphor I couldn’t mix. I have found my niche in the school of Cuttlefish.:)