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Words Hurt The World, Poet Says

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
July 19, 2011

Before we argue, let’s agree: When you are trying to say something important, words matter.

They matter a lot. Here, because it’s so deftly done, is a video reminder:

OK, now that you’ve been softened up by an ad agency, Purplefeather, in Britain, we’re ready for the counter-punch.

Here’s a question. It began an argument between two poets, so it’s about words, about whether using words helps our planet or hurts.

After all, we all have eyes, hands, tongues and noses. We don’t have to talk about things, we can breathe the world in, get dirty with it, attach with our senses. Even poets know that words aren’t always necessary.

But what if they hurt?

The two poets were at a conference called “Poetry and the Earth.”

“I can’t remember which of us spoke first,” recalled one of them, Mark Doty, in his new book, The Art of Description, “but here’s the substance of our positions: Yusef [Komunyakaa, a poet from Louisiana] said that language comes between us and things, and that as soon as we had NAMES for what we saw, we experienced a certain degree of removal from the world.”

When you give something a name, the argument went, you can stand back and address it, talk about it, so you detach … make it ‘other,’ not you. Then later, if you hurt that thing, poison it, or take away its habitat, what’s happening is no longer happening to you. It’s happening over there, to ‘it;’ so you have the illusion of distance, safety.

What Yusef was saying is “If we could remove ourselves from kinship through the agency of language, then we could wreak havoc upon the world without feeling that we harmed ourselves.”

Here’s Mark argument:

“I said 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. If you look at the field beside the road and you see merely the generic “meadow,” you’re less likely to care if it’s bulldozed for a strip mall than if you know that those tall, flat-leaved spires are milkweed, upon which the monarchs have flowed two thousand miles to feed … [or if you can give names to all the wild, stalky things poking the air ...] sailor’s breeches and purslane, lamb’s quarter, or the big umbrels of wild carrot feeding the small multitudes … Isn’t the world larger and more valuable, if you know what an umbrel is? Thus, in Eden, paradise became a more intricate place, artfully arrayed, and its loss was felt all the more sharply.”

Obviously both sides are right. Words divide us. Words attach us. But if I had to choose, I’d tilt word-wise, I think. The video says it nicely. But this is nicer. This comes from a poet, A.R. Ammons. It’s winter, and he’s appreciating blue jays …

Winter Scene

There is now not a single

leaf on the cherry tree:

except when the jay

plummets in, lights, and

in pure clarity, squalls:

then every branch

quivers and

breaks out in blue leaves.

Case closed.

Mark Doty and Yusef Komunyakaa’s debate at the Poetry and the Earth gathering in the 1990′s was described by Mark Doty in his recent book The Art of Description, World into World (Graywolf Press, 2010); the video from Purplefeather was scored by Giles Lamb and filmed by redsnappa; A.R. Ammon’s poem, Winter Scene, has been reprinted from COLLECTED POEMS: 1951-1971 by A. R. Ammons, Copyright (c) 1972, used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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