Singing Us Back to Ourselves
Kathryn Stripling Byer
Writers have this quaint idea that words matter. Quaint because many people no longer
seem to care about using language well. Words are simply advertising or political tools,
used without precision or passion. Hearing the language that they love being violated sets
writers’ teeth on edge. And no wonder! This is the age of media spin, non-stop double-
talk, and giant advertising campaigns. Our writers and teachers are the last defenders in
what so many days seems like a lost battle.
What set me on this apocalyptic train of thought was a recent trip to my childhood home
in South Georgia, during which The Atlanta Journal-Constitution devoted two pages to
the rise of the state’s elder senator, the reprehensible Saxby Chambliss After 9/11, he delivered to a group of law
enforcement officials his suggestion that they arrest every “towel head” who crossed the
Georgia state line. When his comment hit the papers, he said, oh, he was only joking.
Surely everybody knew his words didn’t really mean anything.
This response disturbed me more than the hateful term itself, as if one can say or write
whatever one chooses and it doesn’t matter. But words do matter, and lobbing into the
public sphere a term like “towel head” to describe Muslim Americans diminishes all of
Growing up in the Deep South, I heard plenty of such language aimed at African
Americans, women, Yankees, and Jews. But I also heard another language, the kind that
still nourishes my imagination, the stories and lyrical outbursts of family and neighbors,
the poems memorized, the songs, the lore. My grandmother’s ghost stories, for example,
that kept me and my cousins awake nearly all night. My father’s aunt telling me about my
great-grandmother’s journey into the Black Hills of the Dakota’s after emigrating from
Germany. Moving to the North Carolina mountains in 1968, I discovered a treasure of
stories. They were gifts from friends who had grown up in places named Caney Fork and
Weyahutta (Worry-hut in local parlance), and I soon came to realize the lifeline that these
stories offer. This is the language that will save us, if anything will.
How does poetry matter in the current onslaught against the things that hold us together?
The first Americans believed that words sang the world into being and helped keep its
inhabitants in right relation to each other. Our American Indian poets and storytellers
continue to remind us of this profound reality. Songs and stories guide us, enliven us,
help keep us human. Our poets take the words they love and turn them into maps for
walking into the lives we live. As Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry Magazine, has
remarked, “We go to poetry...so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world
in which we live them, and if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to
The best defense against the abuse of language, whether coming from a neighbor or from
the highest office of the land? Pick up a poem. Read it aloud. Remind yourself of what
language used well, with passion and precision, sounds like and how it makes you feel. If
we let them, our best words can sing us back to our better selves.
Causes Kathryn Byer Supports
Any environmental causes to keep our Southern mountains and our planet from devastation. Conservation Trust of North Carolina Nature Conservancy ADC,com...