Words matter.

As a freshman at Muhlenberg, I didn't get poetry. I didn't hate it, wasn't offended by it, I just didn't get it. I liked it as much as I liked some classical music; nice background, something towards which you award a certain amount of reverence, but I couldn't unlock it. I didn't have the keys.

My writing assistant took me aside one evening. She brought a photocopy of a poem from English Studies class and a couple of different colored highlighters. "Draw a square around the verbs," she said. "Circle the adjectives that refer to the woman." "Draw triangles around the nouns that are related to nature."

Suddenly my poem was all marked up, visually decoded. The references to nature stood out. Why were there more in the beginning of the poem? Why were the adjectives complimenting the woman's beauty towards the end? I wasn't yet sure what it meant, but for the first time I had a head start.

I was learning to close read.


Yesterday, the Sarahs and Chris and I sat around over brunch in Red Bank, NJ. It was the morning after a wedding and though we spent some of the time discussing the food and the dancing, we moved onto other conversations. Like the importance of close reading. And how Skersh's job as a newly-defended-English-PhD was going to be helping students unlock poems and texts that had previously seemed locked up tight.

"Part of what I want them to get," she said, "is that close reading isn't just for poetry! It's so cheesy, but it changes your life."

She's right. Applying the technique of close reading to everyday situations makes you smarter and hands you the keys. Because for all of the hemming and hawing that politicians do and for all of the eye-rolling coming from those who don't like reading, one thing remains true: WORDS MATTER.

Try this: print out a speech that George Bush made during his presidency. Circle the references he makes to themes like "power" and "pride" and "America." What kinds of words does he use to describe America? Then do the same thing for Obama or Kennedy or Reagan or anyone else you're interested in. What do they do differently? The patterns and adjectives that populate their speech are direct maps to what they're trying to focus your attention on.

Think of the friends you have coffee or dinner with on a regular basis. Imagine a transcript of those chats. Imagine underlining every time he or she talks about being disappointed in a relationship. Circle all of the words they use about not feeling good about themselves. Draw triangles around why they don't like their job. I guarantee you, that's a map to the mega-problems that boil under the surface. People don't talk about what's NOT bothering them. They try to hide it, but it comes shining through. Words matter.


So what? So what that people or poems reveal themselves to be centered around certain themes? Big surprise. Or is it? What if you turned the exercise around on yourself? How often are you talking about escaping something? What percent of the words that come out of your mouth are negative? How many could you circle and identify as money-related or confidence-related?

I think this is a useful exercise when done sparingly (if not, you end up tongue-tied and unable to communicate for fear of letting your "issues" slip). Because often, we don't directly talk about what's really bothering us. People pay a lot of money to talk for hours to a therapist, creating pages and pages of verbal transcripts for someone to decode. They're close reading too. They're mapping all of the things we're not aware we're talking about. That's why therapy can be so useful. We pay someone to hold a mirror up to us and reveal the themes we never knew were there.


I'm not always close reading. I read my books at night before bed, half-asleep, half-page-pushing to get to the end of The Portrait of Dorian Grey or Uncle Tom's Cabin (of late). I have plenty of lunches and coffees and dinners that pass by quietly, no visual map needed. I'm enjoying the presence of someone's company and I've left my pens and highlighters at home.

But when I need to call for them, they are there, my close reading scalpels and other tools to dissect language. When a politician is particularly insistent on one theme or when I feel a friend slipping from who they are because of a confusing relationship, I feel them tucked into pockets and against my skin. When I need a reality check. A sanity check. A poetry check.

Words matter, both the ones you pronounce and the silent ones. I love that I can count on that, some scientific evidence regardless of blurry feelings. The short ones, the long ones, the funny ones, they stand tall. Lovely words: my friends, my challenges, my mirrors to the world.

1 comment:

LK said...

Great Post Jen!!