Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Words Have Meaning, Unless They Don't

The second of my Happiness Project commandments, "words have meaning," began unraveling the moment I wrote it. For insight into the power and limitations of words, I turn to Stephen Dunn.

In a poem dedicated to his brother, he writes, "What is the past if not unfinished work? / Swampy, fecund, seductively revisable? / One of us has spent his life developing respect / for the weakness of words, the other for what / must be held onto; there may be a chance for us" (from "Our Parents" in Different Hours).

It is the poet, of course, who develops the reverence for the weakness of words. "Poet" was one of the first identities, at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, that I took on wholeheartedly. It felt like a spiritual calling.


If the poet doesn’t yield to the priest,
as Stevens says he shouldn’t,
and if both reside in the same village,
and call on their powers to rectify
or explain the latest disaster,

does the priest become less persuasive
because his ideas are likely not his own,
and is the poet suspect for the same reason?
Would a good priest find the right words,
as the good poet would, in among the many words

passed down for centuries
on what to think, what to believe? Or would reverence
always get in the way of the true,
thus possibly giving the poet the edge?

That is, if the poet mistrusts words, as he should,
makes them pass hard tests, knows that they must
be arranged and shaped in order to convey
even a smidgen of truth, wouldn’t he,
although self-ordained, be more reliable?

But what if the villagers believed
they were saved by a prayer the priest said
on Sunday among the ruins? And all the poet
could do was elegize the ruins?
Would the real and the imagined fuse,
become something entirely new?

And what if the poet and priest were one,
each invoking the other as the crops grew
and rain was steady in rainy season, or,
just as confusing, things got worse
and prayers proved useless, and poems
merely decorated the debris where a house

once was? Would it be time for the priest
to admit he’d known but one book? For the poet
to say he’s read many, and look, it hasn’t helped?
Or has the issue from the start been a great need
that can’t be fully met, only made bearable
and sometimes served by those who try?

Stephen Dunn from Lines of Defense, W.W. Norton & Company, 2014

Religious zealots, Zen Buddhists, political activists, radio show hosts and poets all have different uses for language and different relationships to language. In this blog, I hope to expose the way language is used to silence and oppress and to highlight those occasions when it is used to celebrate and uplift.

The relationships will get dicey. The priests are everywhere, and many of them have good intentions. The poets profess to many faiths.

Still, priests and poets have different reference points for truth. I'm glad Dunn put these two in the same village. I might put them in the same room. It's time they talked face to face.

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