I love words. Their sounds, their shapes, the way they tango off the tongue and lips. I love the creative combination of these weird utterances and am amazed at their ability to move men to both greatness and ruin. I love their histories and often surprising heritages. Most of all, I love their unifying message.
Consider this. In a world where people are fain to disagree on just about any subject, every single English-reading person can agree on the meaning of this blog’s first sentence, “I love words.” While this sentence categorically qualifies me as a nerd, it exists in isolation from logical critique. Every one of every creed, color, and political persuasion can quickly reach an agreement about what it means.
This ability to communicate meaning has been critical to the success of our species. From troglodytic grunts to Dickensian prose, words have undergone evolution to keep pace with society’s increasing sophistication. As human existence became less of a struggle to survive and more of a mission to thrive, we began to view words not just as tools, but as art that could connote deeper thought. Words have idiomatically evolved from fireside oral tradition into world-shaping novels and multi-billion-dollar films.
Today, with so many media at our disposal, human word use has become downright decadent. In some ways, we have depreciated their value. For instance, you can “love” your spouse and a fried chicken sandwich with equal facility. In other cases, we have become so minutely focused on the letter-for-letter definition of some words that we have completely bastardized their communicative power. One need only look at the latest celebrity Twitter cancellation to see the results.
Every relationship, no matter how healthy, reaches a point where careful reevaluation is needed. This even applies to the relationship between people and words. Since I don’t foresee Dr. Phil intervening on behalf of the entire human lexicon, I have another remedial recourse to recommend. It is a proven regimen of wordplay guaranteed to rekindle your linguistic spark and spice up you sense of semantics. Poetry…
Poetry has had an interesting journey historically. Once entertainment for the masses, over the past century it has become a niche artform reserved for the erudite and disaffected youth (I’m still figuring out which one I am). As a student, poetry units were fraught with dread, except for smart aleck students who cheekily recited such opuses as Green Eggs and Ham. Even I, a born word-lover, never really appreciated the artistry and genius of poetry until college.
Why is there such wide disdain for poetry? My conjecture is that it completely subverts how we are taught to use language. Growing up, I remember very few English classes emphasizing originality or creativity as the mark of good writing. In most cases, mechanical perfection and the ability to meet a word count were prized above anything that skirted on actual literary brilliance. Language was just a tool, not an art. It communicated ideas but did not evoke emotions or create experiences like a painting or a sculpture.
As a professional writer, I am a staunch disciple of grammar and mechanics. However, I also tend to subscribe to the axiom that “rules were meant to be broken.” Poetry completely upends the rules of good, academic prose. It is as not interested in the economy of communication as it is engendering a truly cerebral experience. Take this excerpt from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass:
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
This profoundly gorgeous verse has succored my spirit when confronted with self-doubt. The essence boils down to “I’m proud of who I am. You should be too.” However, rather than simply telling us how he feels, Whitman walks us through the experience of feeling. He shares not only his emotion, but how it manifests and affects others. In doing so, he imparts something more inspiring and exciting than could be expressed with more straightforward, laconic diction.
Most importantly, the poet COMMANDS his words. While Whitman clearly has a mastery of his vocabulary and English grammar, he is not enslaved by convention. The phrase “sing myself” is not semantically sound or logically possible, but is used to such poignant effect that the words transform from functionaries into a color. Herein lies the power and importance of poetry as a hierarchy of man and language
Words are not our masters – they are our servants. Just like the wheel and the light bulb, language is a human invention meant to benefit the makers. It is ripe for improvement, innovation, and reinvention, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Still, our shared vocabulary, like all human inventions, it is imperfect. There are some aspects of being no vernacular in recorded history has been able to capture. The vastness of infinity, what constitutes a soul, and the meaning of life are concepts no words can truly capture in a strict, denotive capacity.
However, through poetry, we humans can attempt to express the ineffable. We can reassert our command over words and rearrange them into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Challenging our perspectives of meaning, we can explore new avenues of thought, open minds to new perspectives, and question old conflicts. In doing so, we have the chance to weave the lives of scattered billions with throughlines of human experience.
So, ask your doctor about over the counter, etymologist-approved poetry, guaranteed to invigorate your outlook on life and meaning!