My generation and perhaps every generation that followed was weaned on a distrust of words. But a nation of laws is premised on words, some of which have taken us more than 200 years to put into action -- that nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
Negotiators use words too, when they aren't flailing their arms, packing their briefcases in a show of temper or scowling in disapproval at their bargaining partners' intractability. In fact, using our words is the great achievement of civilization to date: forming and professing beliefs, organizing support or opposition, voting, and, in the justice business -- making opening statements, eliciting testimony, submitting documentary evidence, making closing arguments, seeking jury instructions and, at long last, receiving the written verdict of the justice system's intestinal tract -- the decision of 12 men and women good and true.
I believed in words from the first, sitting on my grandmother's capacious lap, following her finger under each printed rune, hearing Genesis from the King James version and attending to Longfellow's tear-jerking narrative poem Evangeline from the safety of her presence, the sound of her voice, the lamplight that encircled us, the arms that held me firm. From my beginning, words meant love, which is likely the reason I am a writer, a poet, the editor of a literary journal, a literature major and later a law student and lawyer, for whom words had become not simply the way to express human connection, but a means of exercising power and resolving conflict if not precisely ever looking for or ascertaining the "truth," trembling naked in its hiding place. We still need poetry for that -- the truth.
I lost poetry in law school and later in practice - the pleasure of words for their own sake and in the service of love - the love spoken in word-breath to a child on her grandmother's lap. In law school and later, they'd become implements of analysis and then weapons to bring my adversaries to their knees. It rarely worked like that -- victory -- righteous and right, but still I soldiered on.
I found the poetry inside of me again, my grandmother's heritage, in UCLA's creative writing extension program where I first studied under one of the most lyrical memoirists of our time - Bernard Cooper. He reassured me that my words were still good after two decades of legal practice. I could justly take pride in my sentences and paragraphs and the courage it takes to express one's own idiosyncratic imagination. But Bernard warned me that "anyone can write a great paragraph. Putting those paragraphs together like Frankenstein working on the monster of his novel or memoir, that's a quite different discipline, with the emphasis on work, not talent."
So I wrote a little, published here and there and finally decided to simply publish the literature of others here. I did not, finally possess the lonely discipline of the long-distance writer. But it is enough to have added a few words to the river of poetry Mary Oliver says we are swimming in the minute we open a collection and begin to read the broken lines within.
Below are the words that open Evangeline. The closing lines of this long, sentimental poem, brought tears to my grandmother's eyes - shocking! for one who had never seen her cry before and never would again, even as she lay thin and wasting in a nursing home, bone cancer taking her away from me far too soon. But she left me this (and lives on in me because of its expression).
- THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
- Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight
- Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic
- Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
- AS Donald Hall, that famous contemporary poet, reminds us, when we read poetry aloud, we are physically expressing the pleasure of being human.
Poems, Hall tells us, (.pdf)
- are pleasure first, bodily pleasure, a deliciousness of the senses. Mostly, poems end by saying something (even the unsayable) but they start as the body's joy, like making love. Sometimes a poem remains a small pleasing sensation:
Bah, bah, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir. Yes, sir.
Three bags full.
Maybe these words once referred to taxation, but we hear them now without being
tempted to paraphrase. Instead,we chew on them, taste them, and dance to them.
This banquet or ballet starts in the crib, before arithmetic or thought. Everyone
was once an infant who took mouth pleasure in gurgle and shriek, accompanied
by muscle joy as our small limbs clenched and unclenched.
- Poetry starts from the crib; a thousand years later, John Donne makes lovers into compasses, T. S. Eliot contemplates the still point of the turning world, and Elizabeth Bishop remembers sitting as a child in the dentist's waiting room; but if these poets did not retain the mouth pleasure of a baby's autistic utterance—pleasure in vowels on the tongue, pleasure in changes of volume and pause: Bah, bah, black sheep—we would not hear their meditations and urgencies.
The body is poetry's door; the sounds of words—throbbing in legs and arms; rich in the mouth—let us into the house.
- When we speak to one another - when we listen - when we attend to the words and their feeling - we are moved in the direction of another, toward the collective good. It just works like that. We are infants first, disappointed and suspicious adults only later. I do not advocate letting down our guard in the presence of those who seek to deceive us. I recommend only being open to those we know are speaking the truth of our species, the truth we can feel when another human being puts aside the words of discord and blame, stops making "demands" and speaks in the voice of another creature on the planet making meaning: a voice that will always urge us toward unity, liberty, generosity, accountability, forgiveness and reconciliation.
- Those are the words that set men and women free.