News & Opinion

The Possibility of Language

Sally Haldorson

August 10, 2011


Today, Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Levine was named the new poet laureate of the United States. NPR's story on Levine describes his work this way: "Born in Detroit in 1928, Levine has used his poetry to examine blue-collar life, often embroidering everyday events with a sense of myth. " He has been described as the "Whitman of the industrial heartland" and commonly as 'the working man's poet'.

Today, Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Levine was named the new poet laureate of the United States. NPR's story on Levine describes his work this way: "Born in Detroit in 1928, Levine has used his poetry to examine blue-collar life, often embroidering everyday events with a sense of myth." He has been described as the "Whitman of the industrial heartland" and commonly as 'the working man's poet'. These two articles from the New York Times do a wonderful job of teaching us about Levine. Levine's poetry isn't glamorous or 'arty' in an over-worked manner. Don't let the fact that it is "poetry" deter you from digging in. His work is, instead, day-in-the-life stuff taken to a profound level. Here, you can listen to Levine read his poem "What Work Is" (this poem also appears in the hardcopy edition of the New York Times today) which presents a snapshot of men waiting in line, sometimes pointlessly, to get a day job at a factory, but is also a snapshot of what might go on in the mind of a waiting man, where his mind might go as he waits for work, and how work might be something altogether different from riveting metal. The NPR article also includes this key section from one of his poems titled "The Simple Truth" that, even if you eschew poetry, you may enjoy, as well as come to an understanding of why we are having a discussion about poetry on a business book blog.
Some things you know all your life. They are so simple and true they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme, they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker, the glass of water, the absence of light gathering in the shadows of picture frames, they must be naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
Here, Levine is telling us that words matter, and the way that we use words matters. That simple language is important when discussing simple things. Using simple language is a way to show respect for the things we all know, the things we know that connect us to one another, the things that are actually often the most complex due to their simplicity. Because sometimes things speak for themselves and adornment just obscures the true essence. Perhaps that snippet from his poem also explains to us what his goal is in his poetry: to showcase the truth, in simple language, for all of us to understand. There are certainly people who enjoy abstract poetry, but Levine's work is not that kind of poetry. His work is accessible, relate-able, sometimes rough and irreverent. A lot like he himself seems to be (watch the video at the end of this post to see what I'm getting at.) Which is not to say it doesn't convey deep meaning or doesn't capture beauty. The way he manipulates language does all of those things. Now, if someone asked you what your work--your books, your blog posts, your emails, your letters to the editor--is like, how would you reply? What kind of language do you use? And what does that language say about you? While there is an awful lot of discussion revolving around the evil/genius of e-readers, the death/rebirth of (self)publishing, the convenience/inconvenience of physical books, books really are just words on a page in any form, and it's the content and the language that is really the important thing, no matter how you consume them. So it is important how you write them! Who you are is conveyed in the language you use. Whether you are writing a business treatise or an invite to the annual company picnic, whether you are giving a TED talk or telling a story about your weekend adventures. I've previously recommended the book Notes on Teaching, not only for people in education, but also for leaders. (In fact, every day this month we're dispensing a new quote from the book on Twitter #NotesOnTeaching.) The authors, Hendricks and Reich, advise on the issue of language with insight that is as applicable for the classroom as it is for the boardroom.
Students sometimes think it's a burden to make every single word and punctuation mark mean something. After all, we speak the same language, don't we? And as long as you can gather the meaning of...2Bornot2B, then spelling, grammar, punctuation, and actual sentences seem like leftovers for suckers. In any subject, celebrate precision of expression. Demand accuracy. Applaud clarity, originality, and concision. When people have excellence pointed out to them, they often aspire to achieving it themselves.
The message has obvious application to anyone who wants to, or wants their employees to, communicate ably. "[M]ake every single word and punctuation mark mean something." That should be a commandment. John McWhorter, a renowned linguist, and prolific New York Times best selling author of >Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, has taken a broad look at human language with his new book, What Language Is (And What It Isn't and What it Could Be) -- now that's a LOT of possibility in that title! McWhorter's book will take you all over the world and deeply into history, to learn lessons about language, and he very much wants you to be in awe of it. And while the discussion of each culture or community does indeed contain very detailed linguist analysis, McWhorter writes with such a fascination and verve that you are hardly deterred from continuing. In a section about the Akha language that is spoken by some 600,000 in Asia, he raves that "to fully understand the marvel that all human speech is--that, to put a spin on Dr. Seuss, language is language, no matter how small--we might take a little lesson in this language."
One of my favorite other ways Akha is intricate is how it handles very. We might assume that having a single word very is all one might need. Maybe you can get a little more expressive and say really or seriously and then there are the slang versions (wicked, mega, hella, mad) that change every ten years or so, but very will always do, and what more do you need? Well, if you're Akha, a lot more: individual adjectives have their personal words for very, and you just have to know them. Now, that's grammar!
But, no worries, you needn't be a grammar-freak to enjoy the ride with McWhorter; you just have to tap into that part of you that believes that a better understanding of language means that you will be a more proficient user of language. (If you are a grammar freak, download June Casagrande's ChangeThis manifesto, Beyond Snobbery: Grammar Need Not Be Cruel to Be Cool. It's an oldie, but a goodie.) But if a deep analysis of language world-wide isn't your thing, there is still value in being cognizant of your use of language. Though not available until October, the new book, Word Hero, by Jay Heinricks, author of Thank You for Arguing, will inevitably get you excited about crafting a turn of phrase, establishing your own style of language. Heinricks' book promises that "Yes, it's true: you can learn how to be a verbal wizard!" Because, the author says, every true master of language relies on simple, traditional techniques, and not in some innate and unlearnable genius. For example, introducing the Pith Method. Or, "Let the Pith Speak." Which is not to say that Heinricks is advocating bumper-sticker-speak. (Though he does express an affection for cleverness of "whirled peas.") Instead, he encourages us to believe in a principle of 'less is more'.
You can express a lot in a few words, and those few words can help direct your thinking into greater complexity and originality. Focus on a few words or so, and you focus your thoughts as well. When you prepare to argue with someone, or present a proposal, or give talk, this kind of focus helps frame your point. Coming up with those few words also makes for a first-class exercise in rewriting, a skill that schools should teach more. You might find pithy writing useful if you're on Twitter...but this book isn't about short writing for the sake of short writing either. Nor am I talking about writing, exactly. I'm talking about a way to think.
And isn't that what Philip Levine does in his poetry? He expresses a lot in a few words. Just as all poets try to do and, of course, some are better than others. As business writers, we all can take a lesson from poets (whether they are anthologized or on Twitter), from linguists, from mind-bogglingly efficient and meaningful bumper stickers. Reading is a writer's best tool for learning how to write. Watching TED presentations or author readings on YouTube can have the same impact on how we speak. All in all, it's about understand that the words we choose to say, and the words we choose write, represent us in the world. And it is never to late to begin to choose carefully. "Meet" Philip Levine, our new United States Poet Laureate, here in this short piece from The Cortland Review:

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