The Pleasure of Poetry & the Problem with Words

Nikky Finney has a new book out, “Head Off & Split.” She is a powerful woman. Powerful words. She makes me weep and cheer. I read her until late last night and woke this morning inside a poem, words which slipped away before I could close my fingers and catch them.

I’ve been thinking of the problem of words since reading Jane H. Hill’s The Everyday Language of White Racism. Jane deconstructs Mock Spanish to demonstrate how the casual, joking, “harmless” loan of Spanish words, misshapen and irregularly conjugated, reinforce an ideological view of Hispanic Americans as casual, easy-going, i.e. not to be taken seriously or respected. Like so many aspects of racism, it is subtle and potent, part of the fabric of everyday speech.

This morning I called to make a hotel reservation for my wife and I. Mentioned my “sweetie,” and the woman on the other end of the phone asked for his name. Such little things.

I’m thinking of words, too, because Kate Swift passed away recently. She and Casey Miller discovered sexist language while copy-editing a sex education manual. “It was the pronouns! They were overwhelmingly masculine gendered.” Today it seems obvious that if you always say “he” you privilege male reality. But in 1970 when the realization hit, Kate said: “we had been revolutionized.”

Revolutionized. A revolution of language. Because language limits both what we can think and how we can communicate those thoughts to others. Yes, please.

Jane Hill quotes a 1985 study by sociologist Stanley Lieberson. He introduced the sentence “Americans are still prejudiced against blacks” and studied his subjects’ response. White people seldom heard the contradiction. Yet Lieberson’s other test: “Americans still make less money than do whites” startled and confused them.

Hill is a linguist so when she concludes “Whites” can stand “metonymically” for “Americans” in a way that “Blacks” can’t, I have to reach for my google. Wikipedia tells me that a metonym is a “figure of speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated.”

So white is intimately associated with American. The words which represent the concepts which construct the reality share a bed at night, spoon against one another in the dark. It is an unromantic but wholly monogamous relationship. Neither of them date other people. What I don’t know is who has the upper hand. Is it white that owns American or American that owns white?

These words – “American” – “democracy” – “citizen” – have the power of who they can describe built right into their very syllables. I don’t know how much of the ideas the words represent can be salvaged.

My attempts to speak about racism are blind and uncertain. Every time I type the word “we” I have to stop. Who is in my “we”? White people? Almost always yes. Who isn’t in my “we”? Almost always, people of color. If I always label my we, “white,” do I reinforce the problem?

Poets are my prophets and my hope. Nikky Finney reminds me to be precise and to trust in the power of metaphor. A metaphor is a figure of speech which “carries over” meaning from one image to another, often dissimilar one. So if we have a problem of say, Black not meaning American, then possibly we need a metaphor, like, for example, the photo of Obama in the Situation Room, to help us out.

Metaphor reminds me, too, of the power of Spirit, by which I mean the Holy One who made all things. Holy One comes into my language when I read metaphors, because in the gap between the words, in the carrying over, Spirit stirs. Ask any poet or writer and they will tell you this is true.

“You cannot keep messing with a sweet-looking
Black woman who knows her way around velvet.

A woman who believes she is worthy of every
thing possible. Godly. Grace. Good. Whether you
believe it or not, she has not come to Earth to play
Ring Around Your Rosie on your rolling
circus game of public transportation.

A woman who understands the simplicity pattern,
who wears a circle bracelet of straight pins there,
on the tiny bend of her wrist. A nimble, on-the-dot
woman, who has the help of all things, needle sharp,
silver, dedicated, electric, can pull cloth and others
her way, through the tiny openings she and others
before her have made.

A fastened woman
can be messed with, one too many times.

With straight pins poised in the corner
of her slightly parted lips, waiting to mark
the stitch, her fingers tacking,
looping the blood red wale,
through her softly clenched teeth
she will tell you, without ever looking
your way,

You will do what you need to &
So will I.”                              —  Nikky Finney, “Red Velvet (for Rosa Parks, 1913-2005)”

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