I’ve learned to believe we’re made of words: words flowering in phrases, sentences, verses, paragraphs, stanzas. They form and define us, and we live in and through them. In high school, I challenged a teacher who admired the poetry of E.E. Cummings. “Anyone can write this stuff,” I argued. “So try it,” he responded. I did. Night after night I struggled to produce whatever I then imagined would pass as a poem. My failure astonished me.
Another teacher, less amused by my questioning of authority, sent me to detention to reconsider my disdain for her methods of teaching calculus. Detention meant the school library, which few students would otherwise enter. Bored, I yanked book after book off the shelf and finally lit on Lord Weary’s Castle, Robert Lowell’s 1946 Pulitzer-Prize winning collection of poetry. I fell in over my head and almost drowned in those difficult, beautiful poems. I realized that for Lowell, language was tough, obstinate stuff, not so easily bent to his will but with a vitality of its own, and the struggle between the poet and the words brought the poem to life.
No questioning of authority here: I could never write anything like this, not then, not ever. And I then realized I’d been wrong about Cummings, that I had seen black marks on a page and thought anyone could make them, but hadn’t heard the language and the person speak together. And when I did, I started to grow up and become a language user instead of a person used by language.
Poetry, I realized, alerts us to words as no other form can, and offers the most direct route to understanding how language makes us who we are. Over the years I read Frost and Wordsworth, Elizabeth Bishop and Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg, John Donne and William Blake; and gradually I came to understood that language is a gift of the spirit–an empowerment, not merely a tool. We are language users, but more vitally we are language believers. With words, phrases, or treatises, we create belief, and in the process our verbs and nouns comfort and assure with the curve of their vowels and rasp of consonants.
Now I teach poetry and the writing of poetry. When I look over my classroom of struggling creative writing students I see some of them fall in love with their own words while other resist, still fearful of the self they might express, and I believe they all are learning to become more fully human. Not because we are the only wielders of language. My cats speak, sometimes with remarkable clarity. Dogs and elephants express themselves. Birds revel on their musical vocabularies. And, like people, in their expression these creatures become more fully who they are. Life is language, words arranged in delightful, witty, critical, mendacious or loving order, and when we die the silences we leave, far more eloquently than our vacant bodies, testify that we had been present and whole while we lived.
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