The Poet's Words
Esther Altshul Helfgott
Within the word poetry are the words poet and try. I take that to mean that as a poet and as a writer I need to try, always, to use words judiciously, fairly and with a sense of belonging to a community that is part of a whole, a whole that extends not just from the New York Islands to the Redwood Forests but to the outer rim of our globe and to the concentric circles within it. Although we're not all in a position to travel around the world helping to improve the quality of peoples lives, as wordsmiths, as people who work with words, who mull over and ponder the written word, some would say incessantly, we can help the world situation on a daily basis -- in our writing and in our speech.
On the one hand, I'm not for censorship; on the other, I feel it's my responsibility as a writer who knows the power of words to use non-violent language in conversation and in writing. When we discuss or write about peoples of other countries and cultures; when we speak and write of the differences among us - differences in religion, politics, lifestyle and habits of mind, I think it's a good idea to remember that words can be aggressive angry, annoying, assassinating and abusive. They can be awe-filled, banishing, boring, cruel and culturally-defined. Words can be used carefully or callously.
Words are beguiling and beautiful or they are devastating, deafening, defeating, difficult and even-handed. They are eloquent, elevating, fanciful, funny or forced, foolish, hateful, heavy and hard. Words can also be humorous, inclusive, lifting and inviting. A person who uses words is learned, light, lilting, loving, level-headed, mushy, musical, mild or loud, manipulative, opinionated, mean. Words are meaningful, moldy, melodious, oppressive, ordinary and odious. They're syrupy, silly, sensible, sensual, nonsensical and soft. Words can be shaming, silencing, terrible, taunting and toxic. They can be touching, threatening, troublesome, vindictive or valuable or telling and warm. Words can be wicked, xenophobic, willful and zany. Words are not just abstract ideas that have nothing to do with reality or feeling. We know as writers, that words are things. They have meaning and they can damage or they can heal.
It seems that I am forever learning and re-learning how to substitute a quiet word for a loud one, a peaceful word for an angry one. I am forever learning and re-learning to know that when I choose to use an angry word, the motivation for that choice often has more to do with my inherent fears than it does with anger over this event or that, though current events can cause the best of us to choose war-like words over peaceful ones. On the other hand, at this time especially, when our president and the people around him, choose to use words that incite feelings of war, when leaders throughout the world are using words that incite rather than heal, we as poets can grab onto this time in our history and use it as an opportunity to cultivate those parts within ourselves that work at choosing productive rather than destructive language in our communication with others.
The word poetry directs the poet to try, not just in the area of words, with respect to sculpting a poem, but in all circumstances and especially when looking at the relationship of self to society. I believe that poets see themselves as social beings. However alone we may feel when constructing a line or a stanza, however much we want to present ourselves as being different or outside, we write not only to become free of demons and fears and aloneness or the desire to express inner feelings, but also to be in touch with the world. The thirty poets reading tonight have a great sense of doing and being part of a whole; they use their voices with a sense of longing for a universal harmony. In this spirit, I wish to dedicate tonight's reading to the memory of Danny Pearl, and to writers and poets everywhere who use words in the spirit of peace.