The poet, David Whyte, writes, “Poetry is the language against which you have no defenses.” For so long, I loved this quotation. It gripped my imagination, and I repeated it often to friends who didn’t yet share my commitment to the intersection of the humanities and public life. I was captivated by the poetics of this sentence and the ethic embedded therein.
During my final year at Middlebury College, I gave a talk on ‘connection’ as a concept and virtue. I touched on the threads between seemingly disparate topics, including literature and politics, humanities and public life. I cited Whyte’s estimation of poetry as surprising, delightful, honest, and trenchant, connecting this evaluation with activism and political dialogue. I believe this to be true with a few helpful revisions.
Poetry is distilled language. While prose can be thick with description, poetry is limited, its economy of language must convey depth and impact more quickly, complexity more abruptly. Poetry’s stakes are higher and its impact if successful more immediately felt. Single lines can hang with us and float in our conscious minds as we live our lives, the way prayer and song lyrics do.
I remember vividly, after attending a W.S. Merwin reading, how his lines, “Your absence has run through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color,” remained with me for the following decade, rising to the surface when a poignant absence was felt. Or, take William Wordsworth’s call to an enlivened existence in Tintern Abbey, “With an eye made quiet by harmony and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things,” which I carry in my heart throughout all my days. I read his lines on the morning of my wedding. I think about them often, when I need the motivation to refocus and breathe more deeply again.
Brevity is not necessarily good. Poetry, further, is not the only form of language against which we have no defenses. We are inundated with language that, while economical like poetry, does not transform us in a positive way.
Words can harm as much as they heal. Words are like raw clay to be shaped, molded, and dried. In this tumultuous time in our country and world, words have been drained of complexity, reduced irresponsibly for maximal impact. We live in a culture that feeds on information, but is starved for wisdom. Increasingly, it seems people want to use their language less carefully, with attacks on the “sensitivity” of awake individuals and “political correctness” ringing in the air.
Our sentences are limited to soundbites and 140 characters. Our article and video titles, the headlines for ‘news’ stories, manipulate language to grab attention quickly, but never to nourish the mind or soul. I swear, if I see the word “slam” in another headline, I am going to smash my computer screen. Economical language can quickly become undignified; it is not held to the higher standards, whether those be artistic, legal, academic, or scientific. Ironic, isn’t it, that our language online, which is the emerging public commons, is truncated, while the fields are flooded with noise. We can go no where in this country, not a train station or a coffee shop or a vet’s office in silence or peace.
While I once used to wander the Vermont hills espousing the beauty of defenseless language, I have now tempered my view on the inherent nature of distilled language, for you can distill and refine oil. And you can distill and filter water. You would only want to drink one: clean water.
Poetry is like healing balm. It is language that has been artfully distilled with care and consideration. It is language with mission and integrity, either to call your attention toward the intricate or to communicate humane truth.
We have limited time and breath. Employing language that is clear like water, that serves to help others understand something new, that is beautiful to its core, that calls attention to broken and holy places, that seeks to open a dialogue rather than to demean, is healing and more needed than ever before in our nation’s history. Counter the soundbites and Twitter rants with poetry – sacred yet arresting language. May you know the power of your words and use it well.