If I could write poetry—and if poetry mattered culturally beyond trite pop music—I’d start with a poem called “Everything is Shitty and I don’t Think Words Matter Anymore.” You can almost feel the essential poetic elements oozing out of that one, right? Ironically, it would require words, and it’s no coincidence that lately I find myself listening to music without lyrics more than ever before.
I buy poetry books regularly because I want to be challenged to dig deep into words used metaphorically, to find the snapshot or vignette the poet is describing that lies beneath the layers of meaning, all of which are constructed by lived experience that differs from mine in substantive ways, such that I can never really read the same poem the poet created. That is the beauty of poetry done well—the expanding vistas of a shared life, but one shared with different lenses: same shared moment or circumstance, but different interpretations, different impacts, different understandings.
Poetry in that sense is not truthful, but it is truthy; it is rich in meaning, but short on shared referents. The poet is not—as a rule—describing what ought to be, but what is; her task is usually descriptive, not proscriptive. The language is meant to be loose, to be open to different perspectives, to be intentionally oblique. That is why poetry is for poets, and it’s why poetry points back to a shared lexicon of words we all understand (How else do you write comprehensibly?), and it’s why the best poets don’t tell us what to think or believe or do, but they encourage us to practice those things. The form serves a particular purpose, and that purpose is the encouragement of wonder, awe, imagination, delight and despair, hope and, yes, faith.
I’ve been teaching in various contexts since 1989, and central to my pedagogy is the idea of clarifying what we mean when we say things. This became even clearer to me in grad school, where I discovered Ludwig Wittgenstein and his therapeutic approach to meaning. Words mean something, not in some innate sense, in which the meaning comes with the word—as if there is some cosmic dictionary, a holy book of definitions, so to speak—but in the sense of how they are used in a particular community. The community determines the meaning, and then uses the word according to that grammar. It’s slippery, but it’s not as inconsistent as people suppose, and it has the added benefit of being easily demonstrable when language is deconstructed.
The key component in this therapeutic approach is recognizing what kind of communication is happening: poems, commands, requests, stories, aphorisms, etc. The rules of language are applied contextually. This present moment reminds me of the end of a Scrabble game, when players turn over all the tiles on the board and then swirl them around to destroy whole words, to reduce the tiles to singular phonic elements. Imagine that each of those tiles is a way to use language, a rule or a set of rules that make language comprehensible, and imagine that we are swirling those tiles around, dumping them in a bag, pouring them back out on the board, and then inviting our fellow citizens to construct a grammar of meaning with the scrambled tiles. The tiles all look familiar; we can even sound them out, but applying them to a context and understanding the rules of that particular form of speaking are lost to us. They are literally scrambled.
This is where we are. Jesus says this nearly indecipherable simple thing in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, and throughout this little deep dive into the state of meaning in America, I’ll keep referencing that text, because it ought to be a controlling text for my Christian friends, but it isn’t. I almost typed, “…it seems not to be,” but there is no seeming; it is not a controlling text. An entire series of ethical commands from God made human—God given a physical voice and breath and meaning and the time to use them, and Christians believe he wasted his time to deliver utter, unvarnished bullshit—and the rules are piously ignored as if the speaker is the greatest ignoramus in history, an idealistic fool who either had too much faith in humanity’s ethical potential or a saccharine savior who had no faith in it, and so wasted thousands of words, rather than simply say,
“I’ll be dying on a cross soon, so just try not to be dicks, but if you must grab women by the pussy, make sure you know how to cite a Bible verse or two.”
That simple thing he says, though? Let your yes be yes and your no, no. Why? Why that? Why in that discourse? It’s an odd emphasis amidst all the other more complex theological wrangling he’s doing, much of which consists of making Moses look like an asshole. The emphasis is important because it’s in the context of oaths, and the point is clear-ish. If you have to add extra guarantees to your words, you’re not following Jesus. If you say you are going to do something, that is your word; it’s literally the authority behind your own name, and it’s the guarantee of your character. If I can’t trust you to say a simple yes and follow through, then there are no grounds for me to trust your “I promise.”
The extension of this rule is pretty simple. Speak truth plainly, even when it works against your side. Politics is not poetry. Civil government is not poetry. The philosophical underpinnings of republican forms of government are not poetry, nor is journalism or intelligence reports or definitions of illegal behavior. They need to be made plain. The poet wants us to work to infer meaning from the poem; our different lives bring different meaning to the experience of the poem by different people. The meaning changes because it’s meant to, but that is for a specific context. To try to apply those rules outside of that context is the death of meaning. When necessary, speak truth plainly, and if someone is not, then the “deconstructionists” taught us to look behind the speakers’ words for their intentions. That has never been more important than now in this country.
If you can’t say hebephile (Roy Moore) with a straight face, if you can’t call a predator a predator, if you can’t not vote for a demagogue because your weak faith in God leads you to distrust God with SCOTUS, if you will call evil good, if you will insist that one man whose ideology is different than yours is evil but a lecher and robber baron is a lower-case messiah, then you are liar. Your speech is not plain. Your truth is not manifest. You are following an ideology, not that ignoramus of a savior who might just have believed in your ethical potential. The only way back from the edge of the cliff is to return to speaking the truth, even when it cuts against your personal politics and preferences, and that this is where we are with American Christianity—that we have to say “you should love the truth”—means that the cruciform life is as dead a concept in churches as it has ever been.