Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Re-Creating the Language: A Poet's Responsibility

I have maintained, for some time now, that it is the responsibility of poets in particular to re-invent, re-invigorate, and re-charge language. Over the years, we watch television and "news" where not only the language, but the information in dumbed-down; reporting the news has become rife with suppression by news corporations whose CEO's don't want to criticize the government that they've bought and paid for, so instead we're offered trendy stories of whatever movie star or sports figure has screwed up--along with an endless string of talking heads and media whores babbling about it--mixed lightly with news of the world presented with the proper "spin." Information about corporate, police, military, or government blunders (or out-right crimes) is culled relentlessly. One might argue that this is not necessarily affecting language as a whole, but i beg to differ. Language is, first and foremost, a way of communicating. It's a way of presenting information, a way of speaking a message, a way of sharing concerns and showing love and concern. When language is relentlessly "spun" by various political factions to support their viewpoint, or agencies within the government who don't want the masses to have TOO MUCH information, you have a gradual dumbing-down process that eventually affects everyone. This is one of the "trickle-down" theories that actually works in practice . . . Orwell would have called it "doublespeak," and decried it as a death-knell of liberty. Often, when we think, we "hear" ourselves thinking in language . . . Orwell's view was that the "doublespeak" would eventually result in people incapable of thinking anything that was out of synch with the official, established norm. In America, in particular, we assume that we have Freedom of Speech. After all, it is written in the law of the land, and it means that people whose viewpoints may not be popular can say, and print, what they want to. There are reasonable limits to this . . . language that commands or urges violent and destructive actions can (and does) fall under legal scrutiny. However, i'd like to go back to that word "assume." Rights and liberties, like muscles, are only strong when regularly exercised. Without that regular exercise, that vigorous stimulation, they become weak and atrophied, and will (like muscles) fail when they are depended on.

This is where poets come in. Recently, on formspring.com, i was derided for my use of the word "proclivity." My insistence that i was simply availing myself of a wider vocabulary in order to communicate more clearly provoked verbal retaliation, the responder apparently feeling that i was being arrogant, or trying to "prove something" by using that word. Realizing that my responses were the equivalent of beating my head against a brick wall, i stopped trying to defend myself and simply ignored any further communication on the subject. As a poet, i realize that i have to embrace the vernacular--that is, communicate in the common language, the "language of the streets,"--i also realize my responsibility not to have an incestuous relationship with it! I use both street-language and (for lack of a better word) intellectualized-language in my poetry. I've never heard anyone complain about my use of the latter, although i have received some complaints about my use of the former . . . my response in those cases was that people are more apt to understand and respond to something that speaks in a way they are familiar with. When i use the larger or more complex words, or using the language of the streets, in my poetry, i'm not consciously aware of one or the other so much as i am the context of the poem as a whole. I occasionally drop "invented" words like "enphoenixed" (my own) and "frankenpoem" (coined by Ian Cohen), which are generally understandable in the context of the poem in which they're presented. I don't assume that my listeners or readers are English majors pursuing their Masters or Doctorate; by the same token, i don't assume that my listeners or readers are stupid (the way television does). I frequently use odd juxtapositions, either for metaphorical purposes, or to get people's minds in the mode of non-linear thinking. I want to surprise them, or shock them, a little . . . but i don't shock simply for it's own sake; i use it to call attention to something.

All of these things are tactics that i've seen other poets, and better poets than i am or will ever be, use. It makes me feel good when i see other poets challenging themselves or their readers/auditors with interesting metaphors, complex language, street-talk, witty turns of phrase, or shocking juxtapositions . . . all combined with the poet's eye to impart a message. Poets, i think, above all, desire desperately to communicate, to expose themselves and the culture around them to a critical and, sometimes, uncomfortable examination. The fact that some people regard poetry as "uncomfortable" is proof that it's working. In the Old Testament, the prophets often spoke their messages in a poetic form . . . that much hasn't changed. There are warnings implicit in many poets' work, as well as an unflappable determination to improve things.

Don't ask me to dumb down my language. Don't ask me not to discuss things that make you uncomfortable. Don't come to me expecting a poem that completely and neatly falls into your preconcieved notions of what poetry, literature, or language should be. I write, ultimately, because i don't know any other way of dealing with both my own emotions and the complexities of the Universe. I'm not asking for you not to critique me . . . i'll always listen to constructive criticism, even if i don't necessarily immediately agree with it. I'm asking you to understand how important it is to me that i keep working with the language, keep it moving forward, and keep breaking it up and reassembling it in order to prevent the arid locks of "doublespeak" and political or social norms from killing it. There's not much left of me but poetry, and for some reason, God's made it such a part of my life that it seems inextricable from breathing itself, and from whatever it is i'm supposed to be doing on this planet. I don't have it all figured out yet. I'm not a know-it-all, and if you perceive me as "arrogant," that may be as much your own fault as it is mine. Don't insult my intelligence by insisting that i need to "dumb it down," and i won't insult yours by assuming that you're already dumb.

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