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The Language of Life

When I was a schoolboy our teachers required us to memorize poems. By copying the lines over and over, I excelled at the sport. But it was only a sport. The words I had committed to memory were divorced from meaning or emotions. I knew the poems but not the experience of them. Only later, when a series of English teachers gifted in Elizabethan theatrics began to read serious poetry aloud in class, did I hear the music and encounter the Word within the words. Now love truly became a "red, red rose;" "the road not taken" proved to be haunting; and I knew for certain that it is indeed wisdom "to follow the heart." Poetry that entered the ear traveled faster to the "upper warm garrets" of my mind than poetry perceived by the eye. I continue to value the architecture of a poem in print, but as Maya Angelou has said, "poetry is music written for the human voice." Hearing's the thing, and poetry readings are concerts of sheer joyous sound. In the words of Octavio Paz, "When you say life is marvelous, you are saying a banality. But to make life a marvel, that is the role of poetry." One only need attend a robust festival of poets to witness the marvel; better still, to experience it.

I used to think of the poet as living a lonely existence, waiting in solitude for the Muse to appear on beads of sweat coaxed from a secret chamber deep in the soul. That is true in a way, but it is not the whole truth. Poets love each other's company, and they love an audience. The first time the filmmaker David Grubin and I attended the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey's historic village of Waterloo, we came upon thousands of poetry lovers, from a score of states, having the time of their lives. The festival is a biennial event, sponsored by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation as part of an effort to reconnect people to poetry through classroom workshops and public events. Nowhere will you find language more verdant and vibrant, an atmosphere more festive. There are moments rich in humor and wisdom, transcendent moments after which one sees the world differently, and moments when the play of language dazzles the ear as fireworks delight the eye on the Fourth of July.

The New York Times covered the most recent Dodge Festival as if it were the epitome of poetry's resurgence on the public stage. "Once the trademark of a Beat generation," the Times reported, "poetry readings have moved out of smoky cafes" to become a staple of the country's cultural scene. Poetry performances are held at over 150 places in the New York area alone. At the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the East Village, audiences rate performances "like Olympic judges." But the renaissance of public poetry is nationwide. The Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle schedules sixty readings a year. Among the many poetry readings in Southern California is one in Van Nuys, where people age sixty and older gather to share in verse "their war stories from the battlefield of life." In Bergen County, New Jersey, octogenarians and twelve-year-olds read each other's poems in a program called Joy.

Every age calls forth new poets who create new forms, and our age is no exception. Like the Dodge Festival, contemporary poetry reading is a stage on which fresh voices take up the democratic conversation. No less a literary figure than Adrienne Rich has worried aloud about poetry's banishment to the margins,"hoarded inside the schools, inside the universities." She sees this exile as a form of censorship that "goes hand in hand with an attitude about politics, which is that the average citizen, the regular American, can't understand poetry and also can't understand politics, that both are somehow the realms of experts." Readings are returning poetry to the people. They recall those public gatherings in early America in which citizens assembled on commons to read their broadsheets and discuss the news of the day.

Poetry is news--news of the mind, news of the heart--and in the reading and hearing of it, poet and audience are fused. Strangers converge but community emerges, the shared experience of being present when poetry reveals a particular life to be every life--my life, your life, you, me, us. It doesn't happen on the Internet in cyberspace; the mere transmission from afar of information or knowledge among parties with common interests is of course communication, but what occurs at poetry readings is communion.

The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe has often said that there are really three elements to any work of literature: the words themselves (the poem), the maker/arranger of the words (the poet), and the audience. Achebe goes on to say that in traditional African cultures where the poet and the storyteller still survive, there is a generally shared understanding that all three of these elements must be present for the poem to be realized; what begins as a crowd becomes a community; poem, poet, and public interact to produce a new and living organism. The poets in this book seemed to be yearning for, and working toward, this sense of community. Connection is crucial to being a poet.

As for the showmanship, Quincy Troupe reminds us that poetry begins as song. It was performance. Troupe and other African-American poets still invoke the tradition of the griot, the roving troubadour who sang his poetry to villagers. "Language is a living thing, " Troupe says. "It feeds on the living language of a community," When Troupe goes home to St. Louis to read his poetry at Duff's Restaurant, he knows from the response of people there if he has the rhythm and realities of life just right. His poem about Magic Johnson taking it "to the hoop" has them shouting and stomping and roaring with pleasure, as if they were watching the game itself. Poetry creates an experience that the audience lives.

Because Americans come from so many places, the poets of our time are infusing powerful new energy and idioms into our language. Their poetry flows from different geographies and cultures, as immigration continues to transform this country and native-born Americans retrace the steps and recapture the voices of their ancestors. Moreover, the source of much new poetry is also spiritual, originating in some unmapped interior country waiting to be explored. Linda McCarriston held a packed house in silent thrall at the recent Dodge Festival as she read her poetry about the torments of a family ravaged by her violent father; until she started writing about these experiences, she said, she never felt that she possessed "as a woman" the authority to speak to the larger culture. As she read on, into poems about healing those wounds from her past, she ceased to be the victim and became instead sojourner and celebrant, whose praise of life wrapped her audience into the exaltation with her.

Listening that evening, I was struck by how much we owe our poets for reminding us that experience is the most credible authority of all. Democracy needs her poets, in all their diversity, precisely because our hope for survival is in recognizing the reality of one another's lives. "Is that a real poem," the student asks, "or did you just make it up?" It is real because it is made up--from life, so that even those of us who are not poets know when we hear it that the language is true. We nod yes and say, That is just how I felt when my father died, or when I spied the first crocus parting the snow, or when the maple withered outside our breakfast-room window, or when waking from surgery I looked into my wife's eyes, or when I took my new grandson's hand into mine.

Poetry is the most honest language I hear today. It can be unbearably honest. Such honesty is why even modest poems are useful--better a fumbling effort at truth than a slickly packaged lie--and good ones indispensable. Against the sybaritic images of advertising that daily wash over us, against the sententious rhetoric of politics, poetry stands as "the expression of faith in the integrity of the senses and of the imagination" (W.S. Merwin's description). The poets I have met would be incapacitated if they did not write from a place of truth. Revelation is their reason for being.

Revelation comes hard. As Stanley Kunitz once acknowledged, poetry is "the most difficult, most solitary, and most life-enhancing thing that one can do. It's a struggle because words get tired. We use them. We abuse them. A word is a utilitarian tool to begin with, and we have to re-create it, to make it magical. You have to kill off all the top of one's head, remove it, and try to plunge deep into self, deep into memories, deep into the unconscious life. And then begin again."

Now in his ninetieth year, Kunitz still plumbs the depths. He says that "poetry is a means of feeling that, solitary as you are, in the act of writing the poem you are in touch with the whole chain of being. You are always trying not only to get in touch with your most primal self, but with the whole history of the race."

If that were the only reason for poetry, it would be enough. In accepting the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature, Czeslaw Milosz said: "Our planet gets smaller every year, and with its fantastic proliferation of mass media is witnessing a process that defies definition, characterized by a refusal to remember." A refusal to remember. Yet memory is critical if a people are not to be at the mercy of the powers-that-be, if they are to have something against which to measure what the partisans and propagandists tell them today. Memory is critical if, as democracy requires, we are to make midcourse corrections in the affairs of state and our personal behavior. Mark Twain wrote that a cat, once it had sat on a hot stove, would never do so again, but neither would it sit on a cold stove. We humans are different. We can reflect on our experiences and share the insights with others. Life becomes a conversation between generations--past, present, future. "New ages don't begin all at once," Bertolt Brecht said. "My grandfather lives in the new age. My grandson will still live in the old. New meat is eaten with old forks. From the new antennae come the old stupidities. Wisdom is passed from mouth to mouth."

It has often seemed to me that in the poems I most fancy, every word has hanging on it scores of remembrances, like pots and pans dangling from a prairie schooner trekking westward. The poet's yearning to haul to the surface those reverberations from the past is a yearning I share. My own puny, failed, and always furtive efforts to write poetry are in response to distant voices in my head. One belongs to my grandfather Joseph, who died when I was five. How long I have wished to unwrap from the enigma of that cold, waxen corpse the person I yearned as a child to know. I have tried, too, to call up my great grandmother, abandoned with three children in the 1880s by her husband who left Tennessee for California and never came back. There are family secrets only she can answer, and that I imagine the poet's muse coaxing from her.

Garrett Kaoru Hongo, too, agrees that "poems are carriers of memories." His Japanese American grandfather was arrested in Honolulu the day after Pearl Harbor and held for questioning. He never forgot the pain and humiliation, and every night after dinner, bourbon in hand, he would repeat the story to the grandson whose poems are now a family's vessels of remembrance.

Naomi Shihab Nye says, "Poems allow us to savor a single image, a single phrase. Just think how many people have savored a haiku poem over hundreds of years. It slows you down to read a poem. You read it more than one time. You read it more slowly than you would speak to someone in a store. And we need that slow experience with words."

Here, then, for slow readers like myself, is the language of life.

(Excerpted from the introduction to The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, edited by Bill Moyers. Introduction copyright © 1995 by Bill Moyers. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or republished without permission in writing from the publisher.)

The Language of Life
by by Bill Moyers

  • paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0385484100
  • ISBN-13: 9780385484107