MLK Day and Words
CNN showed King's “I Have a Dream” speech in its entirety this morning, a speech I sometimes show to my American literature and composition students, and the word that stuck out for me was surprising. “Curvaceous.” Yes, as in “the curvaceous slopes of California.” This time I heard the big words. By that I don't mean the important words necessarily, but the really big ones, like “nullification” and “interposition” and “prodigious” and “promissory”--the words that pack more than a couple of syllables. It reminds me that MLK has always been associated in my mind with words, and with the meanings of words.
I was in the car with my mother one day as a small child. I asked her (out of the blue of my memory this leaps) if there were any black people who were famous. She said yes, there's Martin Luther King, who goes to jail for his principles. What? I thought laws were just, though I didn't yet know that word either. How could you go to jail and be good (or famous, as I confused my terms all around)? So she told me about how some laws are unjust, that, by breaking them and suffering the consequences, you can get them changed. That is my first memory of Dr. King.
My parents listened each week to Meet the Press on a large wooden console radio in the living room. My mother always noted the way King used language. She liked big words, too.
One of King's speechwriters was on CNN this morning. He must have been a very young man in 1963; he still looks middle-aged. In his his left ear an Ed Bradley loop earring. He had noted Obama's use of the phrase “the fierce urgency of now” from King and thought, “that's one clever brother.”
I had an old record of King's speeches. The last one, as it was the last, was his “I have seen the mountain top” speech from Memphis the night before he was killed. Parts of that speech, when it has left the page and gone into preaching, occur in rhyme.
I wonder who will have the better poem tomorrow, Obama or Elizabeth Alexander.
Children pronounce the name, Barack Obama, as if it is a poem.
Obama, like King, is a strict constructionist of the American dream and its lexicon. He does not ask for a new definition of the word, whether it is “citizen” or “dream,” he asks for one more strict. To peel back the word to its first principle. WCW wrote of Marianne Moore that her words “do not smell"; these orators and poets also ask us to return to words that they scrub down. Bush was the smelly poet; time now for a cleaner one. Consider it a public service, like painting the walls of a teenage shelter.
That is where poets can help, in the return of words to meaning. The simplification of the language. Simplification is a not a simple word. But it sure beats “nullification,” the bad dream of these last eight years.