Think Piece 4, 2010


Taking Care: A Reflection on (and in! Imagine that!) Words

“It seems as if we don’t know how to speak;

it seems as if there are words which escape,

which are missing, which have gone away and left us

to ourselves, tangled up in snares and threads.”

Pablo Neruda

We’re reading this book that I half-like and half-hate in 9th English called Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, and in it there is the requisite kick-ass teacher whom everyone respects and who is, of course, smart as a whip and an inspiration to all.  (I find this stock character both annoying and inspiring whenever I encounter him/her in the myriad adolescent lit books he/she shows up in.)  Anyway, this teacher says something at one point about how people need to put thought and care back into words — that we need to remember them as weighty, as substantial, and use them accordingly.  I find this idea both infuriatingly, tyrannically modernistic and fundamentally true.  If words are our chief tool for both creating and representing our reality — and I feel very strongly that this is so—then words are Of Consequence.  This idea is one that I think gets entirely lost in our world of ever faster and more shiny communication, and while I’m no luddite, I can’t help but feel — as Orwell did, among many others — that something important is sacrificed in the name of this speed and finesse.

Words are what we use to think.  Words give weight and legitimacy to our feelings, our experiences, our varied understandings of the world.  This is as true of fiction as it is of expository or argumentative writing; it’s as true of poetry as it is of charts and figures.  We use words to construct not only our own mindscapes, but the physical landscape as well (and then, as Derrida would have it, we use them to deconstruct the binary between the two!).  Words are important.

I think this belief of mine is probably the fundamental tenet of this course, and probably of my entire teaching philosophy and resulting agenda.  Because words are so important, they’re worth looking at a little more closely.  They’re worth pondering at length.  It is worth our time to make sure we’re saying what we want to be saying, to examine what all is implied by what we say, to make sure we understand the full implications of what others say, to understand how language can and does work as a tool.  And it’s worth it, too, to take a little time to enjoy the possibilities of language — to recognize how it can become, on a structural level, an embodiment of some of the most profound and the most mundane possibilities of our collective and individual beings.  That’s why I love poetry; it seeks out that structural affinity with our lives, and where it can’t find it, it creates it.  That is, for me, what makes it possible to not just understand a poem, but to actually feel it in an almost tactile sense.  It’s delicious, the poetry — or deeply, morbidly bitter, or, or — whatever it is, it has reverberations on a physical level for me.  I mean, that’s not just cool; that’s just really, really important.  Worth looking at.

If language can do that, look out.  (If you think language can’t do that to you, look out!)  Like anything of power, language is most certainly dangerous.  It doesn’t just describe; it creates.  The most careless and the most careful use of language BOTH build our sense of the world.  The degree to which we examine and question the language that our world consists of determines, in some respects, our control over our world.  If we’re lazy about language — both our use of it and the way it’s used on us — we lose our power to navigate the world.   We instead drift.  We could end up anywhere, and while that metaphor is somehow incredibly relaxing and adventurous-sounding, I think I’d still like to have a hand in my own destinations, personally.

I think that’s about all I can cover in one Think Piece, as this is already sort of unbearably didactic.  I’d like to close, then, not with a question, but with thanks.  How lucky am I to be able to work with folks to whom I can write something like this?  How lucky am I to work with such brilliant and vibrant and funny and weird and quixotic and maddening and alive people every day?  How lucky am I to be able to say in truth that I work with you rather than teach you?  Thank you, because that’s your doing.  And as ungrateful as I’ve been, my thanks to you now could not be more sincere.


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