Category Archives: Language

About words, rhetoric, doublespeak, maybe elegance on occasion

I Know Your Name

woman in sunglasses


A piece of writing from ancient Egypt describes one of the pharaohs in mythological terms, saying he is so powerful that “even his mother does not know his name”. It’s a striking—even weird—phrase, and it must have been just as strange in ancient Egypt. Children’s names normally come from the mother, and if his own mother didn’t know his name, what was going on there?

The story illustrates something about ancient Egyptian belief. In aggrandizing the pharaoh, the story might have said how much gold he had, how many slaves he controlled, or how much grain was in his storehouses. These physical signs of power would be expected. But the ancient Egyptians believed that knowing someone’s name carried a certain amount of power over that person. Thus the pharaoh was compared to the gods themselves, able to keep his name hidden. That’s how powerful his was. Even his own mother didn’t know his name.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve thought about several completely unrelated instances of naming in our own society, and what they say about us.

Empty names

Surprisingly often, you can find poems that the poet has titled “Untitled”. If you think about it, that is not a poem with no title. A poem with no title would have a blank space at the top where the title is missing. Instead, such poems have been given a title, which is centered at the top, probably in bold font, reading Untitled.

Are those poems supposed to be a literary equivalent of an Egyptian pharaoh? “This poem is so great, even the poet does not know its name.” What is that nonsense about? I believe this is an example of a lazy poet. I know how hard it is to come up with a good title, and sometimes I will have a work completely finished (poem, short story, or novel) and still can’t think of a title I like. I know it’s hard. So I work at it, the way anyone who claims to be good with words should. If you just don’t bother, and instead use some stupid pretense of a title, what does that say about you?

Grovel names

You may have heard the phrase “civic pride” even though we said goodbye to that foolishness long ago. A century ago, large public projects, such as theaters, stadiums, or train stations were considered to be embellishments to a city, something people took pride in for the place where they lived. Here in our modern age, however, we have become frantic to the point of psychosis to avoid paying for public facilities, so we engage in ubiquitous groveling before large companies in naming public entertainment facilities.

Here in the Atlanta Area, for example, we have an electric power company called Cobb EMC, and in exchange for their financial support, the electric company was given the opportunity to disgrace an arts center by naming it after themselves, as the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center. Isn’t that charming? Doesn’t it evoke art and beauty? I might have said the city embarrassed themselves by doing this, but of course modern cities are not capable of embarrassment. The kind of gray drones who thought this was a good idea probably really and honestly cannot tell the difference. We can easily find hundreds of examples of municipalities stooping to debase themselves in this way. It’s what we do now.

Considered names

I have a friend who wants to open a business in Puerto Rico. He’s thinking that a store selling eye glasses might be lucrative and is considering this seriously. When he told me about the idea, I asked if he had thought of a name for the business, which he had. In fact, he had given it quite a bit of thought. As he explained it, he thinks good glasses come from Italy (or perhaps he just meant good sunglasses), so that people associate Italy with a quality product in eye glasses. Therefore he made up an Italian name for his store. The idea, of course, is that when people in Puerto Rico see the name, they will almost unconsciously think “Ah, yes.”

My friend told me about the process he used to think of the name, considering various names and how they sound, what they seem to connote, even taking pieces from different languages and putting them together. I respected what he did, as I use a similar process when I name things, including characters in the novels. Coming up with the right name isn’t simple, and it isn’t easy. But if you take pride in what you create, you do the work.


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What Are Those Sounds?

colored rosesLike most people, I do not come from a village where everyone is thoughtful, wise, and tolerant. That doesn’t mean everyone is especially bad, but humans have their limitations. It seems to be our true nature that we are at least wary of what is different from us. And that’s the good version. At worst, that natural feeling runs to the forest, bares its fangs, and we get intolerance, fear, and hatred.

Fortunately, the worst is no more common than the best, yet the big gray middle carries a plenitude of anxiety about The Other. One way the “otherness” of other people is manifest is in the language they speak. This is so obviously true that even very slight dialect differences within the same native language can set people apart. And what if they speak a totally different language? That’s nothing but noise! That’s spooky.

I’m a language lover, however. When I lived in New York Ciy, I liked to go to a section of Brooklyn called Brighton Beach, as it was filled with Russians, which was cool for me as a person who had learned the language. I don’t know that I really tried to speak the language much there, but I just liked that it was all around, with many of the signs in Russian: книги (books), ресторан (restaurant) овощи (vegetables). Of course if you crossed over to Manhattan and went to Chinatown, you got exactly the same thing, but in Chinese.

In the last twenty years or so, the city of Atlanta has become remarkably diverse in ethnic and cultural terms. That’s not to say all that interesting ethnicity holds much power, but it’s here. I live near a road in the city that is famous for the multitude of immigrants, and you can drive along seeing signs in Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese for mile after mile, with a tiny bit of Ethiopian thrown in.

As you know, there are people here in America who feel threatened by cultural changes, and their lurch into fear often gets expressed as a reaction to language. In some places, the change has been dramatic. In my hometown of Gainesville, an hour from here, there has been a massive Hispanic influx, and a road I remember as small-town southern white is now lined with signs in Spanish. I mentioned this fact to a family member, who had an instantaneous negative reaction, along the lines of “They need to learn English if they’re going to come here!”

And of course, over time they do learn English (not that actual facts are part of this anxiety). A little over a hundred years ago there were towns in this country where German newspapers were published, because so many people there spoke mostly German. Now the great-grandchildren of those people probably don’t know ten words of German. New immigrants obviously speak the language they know the best, and I have observed the process—with more than one language—where immigrants speak to their children in the native language, and the children understand but reply in English.

Still…fear of The Other, you know. Plenty of people in this country, based on nothing much more than their own anxiety, declare as a fact that “The Hispanics don’t want to learn English.” Last week when I was in Miami, I took a bus tour that went through the famous Cuban section of Miami, called Little Havannah. Surely if you can live in this country speaking nothing but Spanish, it would be there. As we rode through on the bus, down the main street called Calle Ocho (which means Eighth Street, but in Spanish!), I was noticing how many signs I saw in English. Yes, I saw Spanish, but English signs were everywhere I looked. Clearly, people in Little Havannah are not speaking only Spanish.

I want to be sympathetic to people who feel anxious and afraid of change. I know their uneasiness is natural, but when it comes to language, I love languages so much that I think “ah, the more the better”. I would love to step outside my door and see signs in Polish, hear people speaking French, and walk down to stores with names in Ethiopian. That sounds beautiful to me.

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Many Thoughts From the Same Words

Greek pottery with a laurel wreath

Rewarded with a laurel wreath

On a warm sunny afternoon this past Saturday, I went with my girlfriend to Emory University, where I ignored a sign saying “Lot Full,” drove around it, and pulled into a parking garage where there were, in fact, empty spaces. Ha, lot not so full after all.

While I’m still parking the car, you’ve no doubt heard the phrase “poet laureate,” a phrase with an interesting etymology. It’s odd in English to have the adjective “laureate” come after the noun, but we just think of the whole phrase now as a type of poet. The adjective refers to a wreath made from the leaves of the laurel tree, something started in ancient Greece as a way to recognize people who won contests, such as the Olympics.

So technically, maybe “poet laureate” means a poet wearing a wreath made from the leaves of the laurel tree. Or nowadays, it means the official poet of some place, such as the United States. This past Saturday, we were at Emory because my girlfriend had heard that the Poet Laureate of the U.S., Tracy K. Smith, would be giving a reading, and we wanted to hear it.

Thus we found ourselves at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, an impressive building with an extremely high ceiling, whose purpose appeared to be creating grandeur, although there could be an acoustic purpose as well, I guess. The building does have a two-story high organ against the far wall, behind a stage.

We had assumed we’d have to arrive well ahead of the event to be able to find a seat, so we got there at 3:00, an hour early. When we arrived, only five or six people were in the lobby, and I wondered if the place could be filled already. In fact—the doors had not yet opened. Those five or six people, plus us, was who had arrived that early. So my girlfriend and I sat and talked, and that was good, because we can both do that.

People drifted in gradually, and about twenty minutes till 4:00, the doors were opened, and we hurried to get seats, but we need not have hurried. We looked around and wondered whether the light turnout would be embarrassing to the poet. I said, however, that if the poet had reached the status of Poet Laureate, she had spent years going to small events, hoping to read her poetry to someone, and lucky if twenty people showed up. By the time the reading started, the auditorium actually looked quite full, though seats were still available.

Before that afternoon I didn’t know Tracy K. Smith, as I don’t really follow contemporary poets. There was something about her manner when she spoke that made her very appealing to me, a sort of calmness and intelligence. I found the reading interesting, and I was very glad to be there, but she only read for about thirty minutes, so I didn’t feel like I had been exposed to her poetry enough to say much about it.

At least from this reading, the main idea I got was Smith’s interest in history and for using that in her poetry. The use of history was not as simple as writing poems about events in the past, but rather writing with a sense of history, which might even form a kind of “substory” to a poem that takes place in our own time. I don’t know if I’m getting her exactly here, but maybe I have some sense of what has influenced her.

Smith also read some poems written with a technique I’d never heard of, using the original words from historical documents to create a poem. To me this felt a bit like pushing the envelope for what a “poem” is—though I’m in favor of pushing the envelope in art (maybe in life). She had one poem, for instance, that seemed to consist entirely of quotes from the Declaration of Independence (which I recognized), quotes that were pulled out and read to create a new sort of work from the fragmentary phrases.

I came away from this reading thinking about the concept of a poem, and more broadly, thinking about the concept of any kind of literary work. We had sat in an auditorium listening to the poet speak, and speech itself is, after all, just sounds. As those sounds reached us, our brains turned them into thoughts, then took those thoughts and went where they would go.

Every person in the auditorium was creating different thoughts based on the sounds of the speaker. Tracy K. Smith read us poems consisting of her words, or words from other documents, giving us the sounds to send our minds in multiple directions. Many thoughts from the same words. I suppose that’s part of what poetry does.

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Magical Words

surface of the sunIs this an English word: dkimbi?

I’m pretty sure it’s not. I don’t think any English word begins with those two consonants. It’s just a combination of sounds, a noise.

How about this one: stick?

Now that’s a word. Or a more interesting one: ribald. Words are so strange. Both stick and ribald are also combinations of sounds, but in both cases—if you know those words—the sounds bring a meaning to the mind. Every word in reality is just a noise, like “dkimbi,” but when we know them, they’re like magic spells that put thoughts and dreams in our heads.

And if we allow them to, the magical spells of words can take us places, so that inside our mind, where all our sensations are processed, we really are there. Assume, for instance, that you’ve never been to St. Petersburg, Russia, and therefore you’ve never been to a little café called Жили-Были (which might be translated as something like “Once Upon a Time”). The café is on the main boulevard downtown, Nevsky Prospect, so crowded with people and with bridges across the Neva River. If you go into the café, you find a small space with tables where people already sit eating and talking. Obviously the Russian language is all around you, so pretend you speak it. Then you can walk up to the glass case containing dishes of salads and other items, looking to see what you want. “What is that one, with the white?” you can ask the young woman waiting on you. She has black hair cut short, three silver earrings in each ear, and a tattoo of Mickey Mouse on her arm. Seeing what you’re pointing at, she says, “Спаржа,” and since you know Russian, you think to yourself that you’ve never seen asparagus that looked like that. Then you order an apple tart and a coffee and sit down at a small table to look at your phone.

Finishing your apple tart, what if it were now possible to get on a bus, close your eyes for a few minutes, and when you open them to get off, you’re only one block away from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland? If that happens, you can enter the enormous cathedral and stand in the wide nave looking down the aisle at the high ceiling, the pointed arches along the sides, and the distant altar. When you finally look down, you’re just as struck by how exotically the floor is decorated with patterns of colored stones. And at that moment, a tourist standing near you, someone with an American accent, says, “Wow, look at this floor!” It also occurs to you that you never before thought about the fact that there’s such a thing as an American accent, but it’s pretty obvious that woman in the red T-shirt and straw hat is an American. As you continue to look around, near the door where you entered, you find a grave in the floor and—holy moly!—it’s Jonathan Swift. Jonathan Swift is buried here? A few minutes later as you walk around, a choir begins to practice, and the sound of their voices in that stone space is ethereal. You sit down, unable to leave, listening to them.

There seems to be literally no limit to where we can go and what we can do with words. I was thinking of taking a stroll across the surface of the sun, because I just crazy love the sight of those vast mountains of fire that rise up higher than the Himalayas, then collapse again. And there’s that strange crackling feeling from so many atoms being disrupted by the incredible energy. But I need to go get another glass of wine. When I do go walk on the sun, you can come, too.

That’s what writers do.

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This Is Not Rhetoric

angry little boyIs uninformed, emotional spewing of fleeting thoughts rhetoric?

The deliberate study of how to use language effectively, to my knowledge, has only been invented once, by the ancient Greeks. When the Romans began absorbing Greek culture and Greekifying themselves, they fell in love with rhetoric. The Romans thought of rhetoric more in terms of speaking than writing, and the ability to be a good orator was very important.

Rhetoric was important in the Roman republic, when elections were held, and the ability to be persuasive could be a factor in gaining office. One of the basic tenets of persuasion is convincing people that you have the truth, but later, in the empire beginning with Augustus, political power was concentrated in the ruler, and all “truth” came from the emperor. Truly free discussions about what was true were dangerous, so public rhetoric became less important.

I studied rhetoric as a graduate student, and my own definition is that rhetoric is the use of language to influence what someone is thinking and to persuade them to agree with what you want. From that point of view, even children use rhetoric, assiduously looking for every possible angle to convince their parents of things. In my definition (which I grant is broad), every person uses rhetoric, because we’re all after something, and using language is part of how to get it.

In analyzing political rhetoric, we can carefully examine what a politician is saying, to see, for instance, what underlying ideas they’re trying to connect with the audience on. Examining the words of a normal politician assumes that a certain amount of thought has gone into what is said, and analysis also assumes that some important things are not said (because politicians want to be elected and are careful).

What if a politician, however, seems to speak like a child, blurting out things that appear not to have been thought about at all? What if a politician also appears to have no foundational ideas that unify what is said, so that his or her speech makes no sense in any consistent way?

We can take a statement from President Trump and examine it in the way we would normally look at political rhetoric, but which statement to choose is like dipping a cup into the ocean. The vastness of this madness creates a problem with attempting to analyze the rhetoric of such a president. Is childish ranting the same as rhetoric?

Let’s look at a phrase Trump has made so common that dictators around the world have gleefully grabbed it with both hands: “fake news”. As we use the word “news” it means “something which has happened”. By implication, news also means something of interest (people went to the store today to buy food—something that did happen—but we don’t call that news).

The word “fake” means false, but the connotation is more than false, implying something that is not merely wrong, but is intended to be tricky, such as a fake designer handbag. For thousands of years things have been reported as news, later to be discovered as wrong. We already have a word for this—we call it a “mistake”, and most news organizations admit their mistakes and correct them. When Trump created the phrase “fake news” he did not mean that a news services had made a mistake. He meant they were trying to trick us with deliberately false information.

Such a phrase could be rhetorical, but what takes this discussion into dark authoritarian territory is that the President only uses the phrase “fake news” for reports that he just doesn’t like, even claiming “fake news” in support of ideas that are widely known to be false. It is difficult to believe that President Trump is actually so stupid or emotionally deranged as to believe things any rational person can see is false (such as the number of people in a photograph).

Thus it seems that he must be lying, and by now we’ve seen many examples of his breath-taking lying, such as claiming he did not call Africa “shithole countries” when other people standing there in the room have told us he did. Is lying the explanation for the “fake news” claims? And yet, incredibly, is it possible he believes what he is saying?

Stupid? Deranged? Lying?

Whatever the case may be, that is not rhetoric, and the emperor does not have the truth.

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Pins and Pens

painting of blue womanIf we stick you with a pin, you will cry out.

If we take away your friends, you will moan with loneliness.

Thoughts: impressions of sensory data, with abstraction and calculation using those data, all of which appears to take place in the brain.

Feelings: more of our animal nature, based on emotions, which definitely seem to take place in the brain.

If we experience both thoughts and feelings in the brain, which seems rather evidently true, another strange fact is also evidently true. If we stick you with a pin, you will make sounds and cry out. If we take away your friends, you will make other sounds, and moan with loneliness.

We might posit an imaginary world in which thoughts and feelings are experienced, inside the brain as now, and yet they stay there. In this imaginary world, there is no external indication of what is being thought or felt. This strange imaginary creature may think and feel many things, but from the outside, that creature is a quiet mystery from birth until death.

Obviously, not like humans. Things that we experience inside our brain must come out through the body. This exiting of thoughts and feelings necessarily requires movements of the body: eyes, mouth, tongue, muscles of the face and legs and arms. Thus we make sounds, thus we have facial expressions, we wave our arms in the air, we jump. Perhaps it doesn’t even matter exactly what we do, only that the body must move to release what is in the brain.

What I’ve just said is true, and anyone will have a hard time to question it. You might, however, question why the body must release our thoughts and feelings. I have thought about this quite a bit over the course of years, and it is an inscrutable puzzle for me. If we’re sad, why do we cry? Why not simply feel sad inside?

As evidence of how true it is that things must come out of the body, if for some reason we do not release thoughts and feelings, we will grow mentally ill and probably physically ill as well. People who have been prevented as children from expressing themselves (to an abusive degree) are emotionally damaged. There are types of therapy for both adults and children that consist of finding ways to encourage them to express themselves, such as art therapy for abused children. And of course, very many people are helped just by talking to a therapist.

In the complexity of human life, we have developed so many symbolic ways of expressing ourselves, that it is miraculous how many people are walking around holding in things that need to be set free. The options for letting it out is a long list—painting, dancing, playing music, cooking cakes, planting gardens, designing clothes, writing computer games.

But of them all, is there a more profound form of expression than writing? If you are dealing with a problem that is pulling you into the darkness, sitting and writing about it can sometimes bring light back into the room. Nothing is more quintessentially human than language, and using the symbolic sounds and shapes of language can let the heart fly like a bird.

I’ve often used writing, even in a fictional form, to deal with things. When the world felt like a hurricane made of knives, when love was only a distant word in a foreign language, when the simple fact of being born felt like a great mistake had been made, I could write, “The world stuck me with a pin, and I cried out.”

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It’s a Poem Because I Say It Is

woman talking about poetryRoses are red,
violets are blue,
anyway, bring me a beer.

I had a conversation with a literary friend this week, and that conversation turned in the direction of poetry. My friend raised a question that came out of something he had been reading, as to how poetry is defined. What is poetry?

I’ll come back to that question, but in addition my friend asked another question that I thought had an easy answer: “How does a poet ensure that the reader will get the point?” The obvious answer to me was that the poet doesn’t, because it’s impossible. No one can guarantee that the reader will get what the writer is after.

Nevertheless, there are things the writer can at least try, based on who the audience is intended to be. A capable writer, poet or otherwise, will try to address their audience. Perhaps that sounds obvious, but I’ve run into plenty of writers who I didn’t feel were trying. Any adolescent poet can pour out anguish or giddy delight in a poem, with great feeling. Spilling your emotions in a hot wash across the page and calling it done, however, is not trying. You could say such a poem is honest, and so it is. A dog biting a cat is also honest, but it didn’t require much effort on the dog’s part.

As to how poetry is defined, it seems to me that in English, we mostly gave up traditional poetic structures in the twentieth century, by which I mean rhyme, repeated rhythms, or predefined structures, such as rhyming every other line. You can still find those techniques in English, but people who write poetry and believe they are sophisticated will sometimes look down their noses at these traditional structures.

From the little I know, I think that Walt Whitman did much to help set us on the path to throwing out the old ways of writing poetry. As we launched on into the twentieth century, more and more poets were writing in blank verse, without the traditional elements of rhyme and meter.

Let’s note something about how we relate to language. Repeated sounds tickle our ear. This might be repetition at the beginning of words (alliteration), in the middle of words (so-called internal rhyme), or at the end of words (traditional rhyming). Why this is so, I have no idea, but it’s obviously true. We use alliteration to name businesses  (Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme), we have a type of joke based on similarity of sound (puns), and if someone says something that rhymes, we pay special notice to it.

For thousands of years, poetry made use of this love of sound, combined with repeated rhythms, to create a sort of musical feeling in language, plus you had meaning. It was amazing. Then in the twentieth century, at least in English, we said, “Never mind, we don’t want to do that.”

So what is poetry? If the lines do not go all the way across the page, is that poetry? In the old days, we could define poetry as short lines, more specifically as lines that rhymed in certain ways, that had certain rhyme schemes, that used various patterns of stressed syllables, and so on. It might have been horrible poetry, but we knew it was poetry, and everyone could agree that it was poetry. It’s more difficult these days to define what poetry is. Most of the rules, at least for now, are gone. I can say what I think poetry is, and another person can disagree with me. Let it be so.

I say that language is extremely important in poetry, with a concern for using just the right word, with finding a phrase with the right sound and connotations. Some prose does this as well, but not all. All poetry, by contrast, is concerned with language. (I’m ignoring the fact that there is vast plenitude of shit poetry that does not do this.)

A second concern of poetry is using language to capture something that is difficult to express. The topic of a poem may be a great social subject, but most often poetry only reaches just beyond the fingertips of the poet. Going back as far as the ancient Greek poet Sappho (in contrast to Homer), poetry has tried to capture the ephemeral moments of an individual human being: I fell in love, I saw a spiderweb, I felt a cold wind on my face and thought of death, I saw the light on a lake and thought of God.

I’m thus proposing two things, and two isn’t that hard to remember. Poetry is very concerned with language (it is not merely a vehicle of communication), and poetry tries to use that language to say things that are difficult to say. I like the traditional structures myself, when done well, but I also note that these things can be done even without traditional poetic elements.

And thus I will wish you a tongue of silver that strives to be gold.

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