Reason to Learn to Write is to Reason and Inspire


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

At the Arizona Inn last night, the man to my right at our round dinner table is a well-known attorney. We were there to hear a talk by a mutual friend, a retired headmaster of the most prestigious prep school in our area, whose topic was Samuel Johnson, reputedly the most-quoted English pundit, and the creator of the first English dictionary (1755). The charming lawyer, who was an English major at Williams College before he went to Yale, expressed his opinion that to learn to use the language is the most important knowledge we need for any kind of work. My husband, on my left, started to vocally grieve concerning the decline of: (1) the English department (where he teaches), (2) respect for liberal arts, and (2) higher education-as-we-once-knew-it. I interrupted to remind him that the previous day’s newspaper had contained a Letter to the Editor along the lines of what our table mate had just said. “Yes, but he’s a teacher,” Roger retorted. He complained that all people care about any more is “job training.” Yeah, well, now, maybe.

Perhaps we’ll never hear that Barack Obama was an English major , but who would rather have had an accountant give the Inaugural Address that morning?

Obama is a reader. You get to be a good writer or a good speaker by reading well-written works. Books that speak to you and make you believe in something. Of course we know Presidents and other CEOs have lots of help writing their speeches and making up their book lists. I have thank you notes from several of my superiors to prove it!

The Yale man and I agreed on the value of poems: Poetry is a wonderful way to come to understand the real meaning of words (his basic professional need) and trying to make a poem is a good way to learn how to communicate (my goal as a writer). Specifically, poetry communicates feelings, but specific feelings, using specific words.

Poetry should inspire specific feeling that might then lead to specific action, hugging your wife for example.

Take Richard Blanco’s Inaugural poem, which, due to my Midwestern upbringing, I recognized as quite Sandburgian. You can find it on the CBS Internet site. Unlike blogs and texts and tweets, poetry has traditions as well as rules. As Hector Tobar wrote for the Los Angeles Times, “Blanco built his poem on a foundation of the concrete and the everyday.” Morgan Hoover commented in The Advocate that the poem was like “a colorful collage of bits and pieces of our lives…and with magnificent imagery and full of meaning and significance.”

What specific words will we remember from Blanco’s nine-stanza verse? One. One sun. One light. One ground. One sky. One moon. The idea is that we all share the same basic experience of living in this country. One sun rises, and then there are the many different particulars that occur within the experience of this “one” thing that binds us together. He mentions many of them that may not describe ourselves, but we are familiar with them as “American” experience.

The last word of the poem is “together.” He leaves us looking at the stars hoping to find a new constellation and then naming it –together. “One” (though very different in the particulars), and “together” (a word needed because of those differences). And these invoke his one-word campaign slogan: Forward.

Many commentators remarked that there is more excitement in the air today than there was after President Obama’s first Inauguration  in 2009.

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