Monday, January 19, 2009

When the Body Is as Numinous as Words

I've got several pat answers for why I stopped writing poetry. One of them is this--you can only write the "langauge is a tool that fails us" poem so many times before you have to take your own word for it. That said, it's the only tool we've got, if at times it's like using a bulldozer to study orchids or a flea comb to search a supernova.

Language has been in bad way these past eight years. It's not just because Bush has so little facility for it, it's that he cares for it the way he cares for the poor--he hopes some meaning trickles down. We've seen how that works, and now more of us are poor. It's got so bad we've had to argue about what torture is, and asses like Rush Limbaugh can suggest Abu Ghraib was no worse than frat boy shennanigans.

So let's hope that electing a president who can write, who can say about the work of Marilynne Robinson, "The language just shimmers," might be a start to getting language back. I hate to be all old-fashioned and the artiste, but a president who values beauty can get me almost misty eyed. I mean, a president who nails his diction with a glorious word like "shimmers"? To paraphrase another ascendant African-American politican Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, it's time to "luxuriate in America's deliciousness." How sneaky, mixing wordplay with food, but then again the best writing is the most sensuous, and we need to feel it in our mouths, need to chew before we swallow.

And on this most miraculous of MLK Days, I want to quote some King, from "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," one of the best passages in American English, with that sentence that begins with "But" a lesson in the periodic sentence:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness"--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

Here's hoping his joyous literacy is a legacy we can all share in, hoping the ominous clouds of inferiority no longer form in any child's little mental sky, that our country can put ideas into metaphor, metaphor into meaning, our words, then, made flesh.

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Blogger Mike said...

Believe it or not, I'd never read that. Pretty amazing stuff, of course.

4:15 AM  
Blogger Rickey Henderson said...

Great stuff. You nailed what Rickey is most looking forward to in the Obama Presidency: a literate & expressive guy. Finally.

6:13 AM  
Blogger Smitty said...

Thanks, George, for nailing the sentiment just right.

6:45 AM  
Blogger George said...

If you've never read the whole thing, it's on the web.

Amazing writing, especially given the situation in which it was written.

10:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was beautiful and painful to read. I can't imagine how awful it is to be on the receiving end of that kind of hatred and ignorance, all because of what you are. Dr. King exuded such elegance, eloquence, grace and dignity. Thank god for his life and his contribution to humanity, this country and language.
And now it's the dawn of a new day in America. President Obama exudes many of the same attributes: grace, dignity, elegance, eloquence. Free at last, thank god almighty, we are free of that attrocious language mangler GW BUSH. Hope is alive!

11:06 AM  

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