There’s more than one way to fly
Ben Jonson says language most shows a man: Speak that I may see thee.
Charles Taylor says people are language animals, something that brings to mind all the Shakespeare characters who pun on their deathbeds, a surge of verbal vitality at the very end.
Hamlet says he unpacks his heart with words, that he reads words, words, words.
Proverbs says words are like a honeycomb, sweet to the soul, health to the bones.
Psalm 64 says bitter words are like arrows.
Norman Maclean says under rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
Edwin Arlington Robinson says crimson leaves—like the ones on the ground in autumn—are full of riddling, dead words.
In his aphoristic way, Nietzsche says we find words for something that is already dead in our hearts, that there is contempt in the act of speaking.
Despite the seeming inadequacy of our words, despite the incongruity between our interior worlds and our speech, it seems we always have a desire to be heard, to share our words.
In our neighborhood is a park about fifty yards long, bounded by a rainwater trough and a small side street. Walking in the neighborhood, I pass along its edge. In the southwest corner is a stand of trees, one of which is the Poet Tree. It’s a crepe myrtle, sylphlike, with riverine limbs, and in its arms are pages of poetry. The rules of the Poet Tree are simple: Take or leave a poem.
I’ve seen the Poet Tree in every season. During heavy wind and rain (like last night), the poems take flight. On the ground, spindrift leaves and scraps of paper. Today there is only one poem in the tree, tattered and rain-soaked from last night’s storm. It’s addressed to “My Beloved.” The speaker quotes Robert Frost and says, “Did you hear that? Miles to go before I sleep.” It’s a ragged message of what? Forbearance? Endurance? In any case, I hear longing in its message to an absent addressee.
My favorite metaphor for language, the one that always comes to mind when I pass the Poet Tree, is from Homer. When someone speaks in his poems, often they do so “with winged words.” Achilles speaks with winged words; Hector speaks with winged words. Even the gods speak with winged words.
Living in a city of half a million, I think of all the words exchanged around me: those on the Poet Tree and others belonging to my neighbors—the chatter at the corner coffee shop, the greetings at the church across the way; my neighbor’s or the mail carrier’s hello; the couple talking and teasing one another as we pass along the sidewalk.
I think too of all the words we carry, the ones we can’t forget, and their power to harrow or hallow: a stranger shouting threats at me in the middle of the street, still vivid in my memory; or my toddler’s laughing words in her sleep, some private amusement wrapped in dreams—my own antidote to worry that passes like a raptor shadow.
Contemporary life requires the forging of community and an answer to the question, To what extent am I beholden to strangers. I think of all the words we share—for good or ill—and Homer’s expression seems truer, better, for all the difference, than just dead letters. Taking flight in our hearts, our shared words seem anything but dead.
Robert Erle Barham is Associate Professor of English at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, GA. He is the deputy editor of Current.