Pierre Bourdieu tells us that language is constituted in an intimate relationship with the State, its institutions, and the social milieu in which it is inserted; it includes an erasure of the dialects or particular languages that open the way to a certain unification of the expressions and practices that influence a normalization with which everyone complies, and that entails an attribution of symbolic power within the linguistic market. The artist, the writer, the poet, must use that norm starting from his differentiated use of his linguistic capital. He makes the difference between “good use and “effective use.” In part, his process consists of reclaiming attention for himself, or for his style, to make the millennial artificiality of the linguistic tradition he seeks to “renovate” visible. Nevertheless, the distinction that a writer makes is constructed in the context of the system that he seeks to question; for his contribution does not affect the system except in the subtle instances that the system allows in order to remain functional.
These contributions may be violent (let us think of artists such as: Artaud, Picasso, Huidobro) or subtle (like in Palés, Turner, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz). There is not a definitive opposition between the grammarians and the literati, but a kind of coexistence. The writer, the artist, wants to renovate language from within; establishing the distance between what was a metaphor in its day and the new one that he provides, almost dropped into de void that is tradition. The artist is always a virtuoso, someone that bursts in to destabilize, for an instant, a system that is considered to be closed; someone that inserts a wedge to help it breathe. He reminds the system that his discourse constitutes a contribution that the official language cannot do without in order to subsist and also maintain its effectiveness.
How can we ask an educational system -where the norms of what constitutes legitimate language are dictated- to encourage its ability to question, its playfulness, the inherent risk of the word itself and the archaic deposit of a metaphor? To formulate the question so categorically exposes the limits of Language as praxis. Poetry, however, does not stop being an action. Etymologically, Poiesis means ”to do” in Greek. On the other hand, as Nietzsche has written, language is also a great hardened metaphor that serves the underlying social pact that facilitates survival and, consequently, every word is a lie that is beyond good and evil.
How can we ask schools to try to establish the limits between both spheres or to attempt to iron out the differences between them without succumbing to any of the two? How can we demand that school make such a subtle balance? It is no wonder that when we teach poetry we tend to emphasize the rhythm, as if it were pure mathematics, or rhyme, as if it we were swimming precariously among cacophonies. Unfortunately, the stress falls on the rhyme at the end of the verse in order to extract a pattern, and few times do we pay attention to the internal rhymes. Needless to say, it is there that we face the abyss.
There are already many teachers that have given up teaching poetry, perhaps because they have never been able to master grammar itself. Grammar, the teaching of syntactic rules and their correct transformations, and the teaching of why we have to use this preposition here and not there, or this synonym and not that one because it conflicts with the adjoining word, takes years to learn. It is necessary to incorporate poetry in that process; it is revisiting the first word, imitation, riddles and games. And mainly, it is the only way of teaching a child the value of silence, the place where the purest words flow.
The most basic lesson is to recognize that each word matches an object. The child learns not to cry and grasps the power of words. It is hard to discover why this word works and not another. It simply works. Later on, they will learn to play with them. It is easier for children to do without the use of the word once they make a pact with its sounds. They repeat like parrots; they listen with pleasure, observing the mouth that pronounces them. Then, they sing them and dance to the sounds of instruments: the stick percussion, the metallic sound of the can and the voice. The voice is their source, and hearing, their instrument. Mother teaches them how to listen. Later on, they will repeat what they hear and the imitation itself is more than an exercise; it is a task for life.
The scene in the house prefigures the infant at primary school. There is no purpose: the sound continues, whether it is a murmur or a song. Its opposites are the scream, the gaze, the blow, a world full of negatives. What is the difference between a child mutilated by a prohibiting look and one that sings and learns how to enunciate vowels and consonants to the sound of music? Are the expression and the sparkle of their eyes not different?
How to teach a child what he has always known, but has not been able to verbalize? If the word is a bridge, he is taught that bridges are good for something. A voyage is conveyed from ”I” to ”the other.” Teaching him a poem might be telling him how he we will use a bridge to get to a place, from you to you. It is source of reflection; a silent cenacle; a lost forest within the limits of a great city. How to simultaneously teach a child the value of the absolute present and the incessant course of time? On the subject of the elegy, for example, the Spanish philosopher María Zambrano said that the poem takes us to the sacred time of what was lost in paradise, and that we try to return to “that point, that center where it is possible to possess everything, without losing it anymore. It is, and will increasingly be its illusion.” To posses through words, using them in their own way preserves them in a way, in spite of the loss in the practical sphere of things.
That is the challenge: how to teach in the paradox of thinking; how to tell children to play with words without destroying them or to have them organize words without creating another that was not part of their instructor`s expectations, reassigning their meanings, listening to them, eating them, touching them, emancipating themselves from them, noticing that they live and are a part of their own body, of their most beautiful part, their imagination? A poem is a mold. The mold is its form (the meter, rhyme, structure, and trope that sustains it). The norm is the poem itself, the broad and ambiguous scope of its interpretation. That norm cannot exist unless it is always complemented and renewed by thousands who read it, appropriate it and reinvent it in new and dissimilar contexts. That joy, the continuous renovation by reading, is what must be taught: how to arrive to that which escapes the limits of content. Perhaps it is there where the true life of the poem lies: in the certainty of its present and in the uncertain defiance of its future.
Aurea María Sotomayor
Poet and Professor
University of Puerto Rico- Río Piedras
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: September 27, 2010.
This post is also available in: Español