Sunday, June 15, 2014

An Ode to my English degree

I used to hate poetry. There were a few poems I liked, but I hated it in general – so many meanings and allusions and things beyond and between the text. I liked words simple and straightforward – words that got straight to the point and told me what was what.

That’s how I was raised to believe words. Everything just as it says it happened in the Bible. Literally and concretely – an accurate science and history book.  I never thought to question it, I just accepted it. I rarely, almost never, read fantasy or science-fiction. Things that were outside the realm of reality held no interest to me. I shunned the Greek and Roman mythologies for their silliness, never noting the trace of irony. 

And then, oh you all know this story, I went to college.

I landed in an English degree, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I look back now and say, ”Providential hand of God” because I have never had a fascination with the classic works of literature, grammar often befuddled me, and my strongest subject was math.

In undergrad, my literary theory teacher told me about Derrida, deconstruction, semiotics. Many other theorists and theories too – but Derrida stuck with me.

All of a sudden I’m pouring over many lines of an Elizabeth Bishop poem over and over and over again trying to figure out what it means, not what it says. And I love it. The poem, at a glance, is a young girl in a dentist waiting room reading a National Geographic, waiting as her aunt has a procedure done. But in these new eyes of mine, suddenly everything means everything. Not that it can mean anything you see – there are still right and wrong answers, but things mean more than the black and white on the page in front of you. 

Suddenly words aren't always literal, and when they’re not, they usually mean so much more.  For the third time in my life I am assigned to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – a book I had hated for its darkness – but armed with some tools of critical theory – I find it a rich mine of information about colonialism and our life today.

The next semester the professor who taught me Derrida taught creative writing. I turned in my efforts at poetry and his brow furrowed and he scribbled notes in the margins and pushed me forward.  He told us about literary devices and the difference between latin and anglo-saxon.  In three hour chunks I learned about the beauty of language and how the wrangling of semantics changes things.  

Suddenly there is beauty in poetry and some speaker says that God is a poet and I get what that means – because I have learned in Creative Writing that poetry has surprise endings that suddenly weave all the lines together.

In The History of the English Language I began to understand language and grammar and syntax and diction in a way that goes beyond the “rules” of words. There is a reason we say both cow and cattle, pig and swine. There is a reason “Ebonics” is fraught with social implications. There is a history of peoples and wars, faiths and governments, the conquerors and the conquered that brought me here to a place where my “English” language is German and Roman, French and Cherokee.

And when words are so fraught with connotations beyond the denotations -  when words bring with them lineages of racism and colonialism and oppression and war – how much more do our societies do the same? How much more to the very fabrics that make up our laws and our communities and our deeply held beliefs give evidence to the long history of people?

And those ideas swirled about my head as I learned about racism and sexism and sizeism and ableism. They offered a foundation for how I processed the way that people in Chicago were different than the people in Atlanta and the people in Philadelphia different still. And in my first semester of seminary – when we started talking about literary-historical criticism and highlighting the parts of that ancient document that gave us pause or made us want to rail at the heavens  - my faith was safe. I had a number of years of understanding that words are more than words – that there is life and history and culture behind them. I knew that words could stand a close look, could be put up next to history and genre and age after age and we will still find them worthy to be read and held and pondered. I knew that truth is something beyond literalism – because I sat in a classroom and a read a poem over and over and over again until I realized it wasn't about a little girl in the dentist’s waiting room - - it is about us in the world.  Because of this I know that Genesis is not so much about how God made the world - it is about God in the world.

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