Words. It occurred to me that in using words to determine the value of words I’ve created quite an impossible fix for myself, one which will be difficult to find my way out of. What are words, exactly? I’m no linguist so I can’t use that kind of terminology to determine their value. Here, these words are no more than pixel bits, lines and loops, dark dotted shapes and shadows of thought illuminated on the face of a plasma screen. I do not know how this plasma screen works. I don’t even know what the plasma consists of, yet I can push some buttons on my keypad and by some force completely foreign to me, the things I think become the words I type and these sentences you now can read.
Reality demands that I acknowledge the fact that words themselves are pretty worthless—
marks on a page, blips on a screen. You can’t smell them, taste them or touch them. I have heard it said many times and have read in several places that “words are food” and “poetry is bread” (for i.e. See Mary Oliver’s Poetry Handbook, which I quoted from in an essay I wrote for NYQ issue 65). They are not. I once thought this was true, but words actually have no nutritional value. You won’t find a calorie count on the back of any book. Words can not sustain a body. You can make a sandwich out of bread. You can spread peanut butter on bread. Try spreading peanut butter on a word. It’s not going to work very well.
So what makes them valuable?
And, at what point does a word obtain its value? Is it in the mind, in the way we construct meaning, how we think in words and images? Does a word only obtain value when it is spoken, or do words become something of value only when they are commoditized or written down? Perhaps (and it may be obvious to some) it is not so much words themselves which have value or not, but what determines their value is the use of them in communication, their role as the nuts and bolts of language
So now let's consider what it is about the nuts and bolts in the machinery of language which gives words their value--
A few days ago I was sitting and crocheting at my son’s baseball practice when an elderly Latino woman approached me. This is the second year her grandson and my son have been on the same baseball team, and although I’d smiled at her and said hello each time I saw her, it was clear from watching her interactions with her grandson that she was not very fluent in English and so we never really had a chance to strike up a conversation beyond “hello.” She stood over me and pointed to my sad attempt at a scarf and said a word in Spanish, then used her hands to mimic the act of knitting.
I smiled, and shrugged my shoulders to indicate I wasn’t sure what she was asking.
“Crochet?” I asked.
“Crochet?” She repeated.
When she repeated the Spanish word for crochet she made the motions with her hands again so I attempted to repeat the word back to her. Her face brightened and she giggled as if I’d told her a funny joke, or maybe my pronunciation was so awful that I said a dirty word and didn’t know it. She sat down right next to me, and my Spanish is very bad, but I did remember this at least:
“Hola’ me llamo Melanie, como te llamo?”
Her smile widened even further as she told me her name and then I think she asked me if I spoke Spanish.
“Porquita, me espaniol es muy mal.” I answered.
“My English, too, very bad. We help each, you, me?” She asked.
“Sure!” I replied, “Si!”
I tried to find a way to communicate with her, scanning my mind for what little Spanish I could remember, knowing somewhere rattling around behind a door with very rusty hinges there had to be a word or two I could use. Ding! Te gusta? Me gusta? Found two.
“Te gusta baseball? What is baseball in espaniol?” I asked.
“Baseball.” She answered.
“Yes baseball, in espaniol?”
“Baseball is baseball.”
“Baseball is baseball?”
Ah ha!! “Okay! Baseball is baseball! Te gusta baseball?” I repeated
“You love baseball?”
“Love? Encante is Love?” She asked.
“Si, encante, love. You love baseball?”
“I love baseball, si” she replied.
The next fifteen minutes I found out her English is much better than my Spanish. She asked me if I studied Spanish in school, I managed to pick out a few words I knew: escribe, libro, la professora, escula. It was humbling to become such a handicapped communicator, forced to use words that a two year old would use. We went over body parts, eye-oho, nose- narisa, mouth- boka, hands- manos. It was wonderful, miraculous even, how simple it was to form a connection…just the naming of body parts enabled us to relate to each other in a way that would not have been possible without the use of words. We giggled like fools as I kept mixing up the body parts, calling fingers hands and hands fingers. Near the end of our conversation she held her shoulder and grimaced dramatically, I did not understand a word in the sentence she spoke to me then but I understood quite clearly that she was telling me her shoulder was troubling her.
Language is more than words, obviously, but without words we simply do not have the tools to survive in this world. Words may not have nutritional value for the body, but at the end of our conversation my new amigo patted her hand over her heart and told me,
“Thank you. Is good— for here.”
I imagine the first spark in the first man (or woman’s) skull when a mark in the dirt or an etching on a rock wall became a symbol of something else. Evolution happened when man began using tools, yes, but this moment, to me, is the true mark of evolution—when man desired to share his thoughts and feelings using the tools of language, words, to project his thinking outside of himself.
Words are what make us human, and it is the way in which we use those words which proves if we are or are not.
But how does this relate to poetry, and what value it has beyond commodity?
Stay tuned for part 3 (Sea turtles and Eliot forthcoming)
Here's a preview of where we will be going on the next leg in this journey: (Thanks to the delightful Richard Bausch for giving me permission to use his quote. He credits Conrad for the premise.)