Our Words, Our Selves

Our Words, Our Selves

Is our language broken and suddenly in need of repair?


Last month, I signed a contract to have my collected poems published. Kirsten Porter, who teaches at Marymount University, will be editing this book. I’ve spent the last few weeks reading my poems from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Each poem, I guess, contains my flesh and blood. They were all an outcome of my seduction by language. Some of the poems found their beginnings in my mouth, others in my ear. I’ve always liked what words could do. I look at poems the way I do my children. Poems and language change. They bring joy, happiness, disappointment and sometimes grief. It seems these days that language is pushing against old barriers and traditional values. Every year, new words enter our vocabulary. Old nasty ones punch us in the head.

How we “sound” is always different and new but maybe just the changing, the same.

There comes a day when language asks for the car keys. There comes a time when we find ourselves a witness to an accident. Is that time now? Is our language broken and suddenly in need of repair? I’m not a linguist, or even a person who speaks a second language. I’m a poet who once wrote, “The ear is an organ made for love.” This was an outgrowth of listening to the changing “tenor” coming from the voices of people on sidewalks, buses and trains. What would Walt Whitman hear if taking a walk these days? Would he hear America singing? Would our language be filled with hope or would every conversation and song be one of despair?

It’s interesting how certain words are now used in the news media. What’s an editor to do? Like the free market, it seems we want our ears to always be open. Yet, at what point do we become concerned with our moral imagination? When do we try to restrict the use of racist and sexist terms? And what about profanity? What happens when the language of protest is needed to remove the language of oppression? If we live in violent times, is it possible or even desirable to have passive thought and speech? Must we overthrow language, too?

What should one chant at a march? If we wish to change and improve our society, should we embrace what might be defined as righteous speech? If we desire a movement which is non-violent, shouldn’t our spiritual undertaking also be reflected in what we say to those who stand in our way? Where are the new sermons for our souls?

I just started keeping what I call “My New Dictionary.” I’ve been “creating” new words and terms. For example, is there such a thing as “race porn”? Are there things that circulate through social media regarding race that we become addicted to? Might we prefer cases of police brutality more than black success stories? Does “race porn” make one susceptible to rumors that often circulate on the Internet?

When I find terms in the media I feel might help provide clarity to what is happening in our society, I also add them to my dictionary. In a copy of The New Yorker I came across the expression “contaminated moral environment.” I’ve been saying this as well as making reference to the concept of the Beloved Community. If we believe words are powerful, then we must acknowledge they have the power for good as well as evil. Language becomes a tool when we begin to think about how to rebuild our world. There are many myths that describe how a spell was placed over an individual or kingdom. Maybe just a word spoken by a magician or sorcerer. There is the story of Jesus “calling” Lazarus from his grave. What should one say to young activists today? So many have risen up, but have the right words been truly spoken? Is it possible to arrive in heaven before the devil knows you’re dead?

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