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Rita Dove on Eloquent & Degraded Languages

By Harriet Staff


The always-eloquent, always-insightful Rita Dove talks to David Masciotra at Salon. Their conversation focuses on the power of poetry to illuminate and widen our perceptions of the world, and Dove notes how essential the role of poetry is in an era of double-speak, factual erosion, and the degradation of the language under the leadership of Donald Trump. Dove begins by looking at the power of the lyric:

A good lyrical poem allows us to look around, and feel present in our own skin. That is important today because we are being bombarded by so many shocking things — things that are striking us. We forget to ask ourselves, “I’m a human being. How do I want the world where I live? How do I feel about my neighbor?” That kind of communication is getting lost in the kaleidoscopic barrage of events that are happening. We are being scattered. I think it is deliberate, and now we are getting political. We are forgetting to focus on that which is elemental.

Later on in the conversation, Dove compares Obama’s use of language (rich, eloquent, and inclusive) to Trump’s narrow linguist alleyway, and then brings these thoughts to bear on poetry:

Yes, I agree with the assessment that language is being reduced, especially in comparison with Barack Obama, who was quite eloquent and understood the value and effectiveness of language in all of its registers. He could not only be eloquent, as a leader, in a high, classical speech manner, but he also knew how to get down. That is how you reach people, and make them realize that a leader speaks their language — to demonstrate an understanding of the intimations and syncopations of a common, but elevated language.

Human beings have the language we can write down, which means it can be communicated to other human beings who do not even see the original author. Now, we have this gift, and for it to be reduced, also reduces our capacity to progress and develop. Language is now being reduced to the level of an undeveloped 2-year-old. Everything is “tremendous” or “disastrous.” This drives me mad, because once you have a limited vocabulary for articulation, it blinds your vision. You are no longer able to describe that which exists outside the borders of that cage of language you have put yourself into. What the arts do, especially literature, is to try to push those borders, so that we can always say more, and therefore do more. That expands your consciousness. It sounds hippie to say that, but it is true. If we don’t have a language to describe an experience, it is almost as if we cannot really experience it.

So, we have no real words of communicating helplessness among people who are relatively well-off. When we hear “helpless,” we think of people who are destitute or a child who is orphaned. But, many of us are feeling helpless right now. The poet’s mission might be to articulate how unusual and unique this is feeling right now. I’m not saying that the poet must be political. Each of us are many different beings. I can speak out as a citizen, and then write something about flowers. Poets, however, are sensitive to their surroundings in the world where they live. So, speaking out is almost unavoidable. That can sustain people, because if someone reads a poet’s description of an experience for which they had no words before, it again offers the reassurance of telling them that they are not alone.

Continue on at Salon for all of the goods.

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, February 7th, 2017 by Harriet Staff.