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“A major challenge for activists is to acknowledge that they need to develop a sense of language, a feeling for words. One needs to become acquainted with their shape, their color, and their flavor. There are three easy ways to do this: extensive use of the dictionary, extensive reading and — of course — listening. Activists at the barricades are not really listening to their comrades these days. Rather, they are mistakenly grouping them with themselves in a rush to label the enemy in superficial solidarity. Revolution must be more layered than that.” Howard Zinn

The person using language to convey information is largely indifferent to the sound of his words and is hampered by their connotations and multiple denotations. He tries to confine each word to a single exact meaning. He uses, one might say, a fraction of the word and throws the rest away. The poet, on the other hand, tries to use as much of the word as he can. He is interested in sound and uses it to reinforce meaning. He is interested in connotation and uses it to enrich and convey meaning. And he may use more than one denotation.

The purest form of practical language is scientific language. The scientist needs a precise language for conveying information precisely. The fact that words have multiple denotations and various overtones of meaning is a hindrance to him in accomplishing his purpose. His ideal language would be a langugage with a one-to-one correspondence between word and meaning; that is, every word would have one meaning only, and for every meaning there would be only one word. Since ordinary language does not fulfill these conditions, he has invented one that does. A statement in his language looks something like this:

SO2 + H2O = H2SO3. [The numbers should make use of subscripts, of course, but my typewriter doesn’t permit me to do so.]

In such a statement the symbols are entirely unambiguous; they have been stripped of all connotation and of all denotations but one. The word sulfurous, if it occurred in poetry, might have all kinds of connotations: fire, smoke, brimstone, hell, damnation. But H2SO3 means one thing and one thing only: sulfurous acid.

The ambiguity and multiplicity of meanings that words have, then, are an obstacle to the scientist but a resource to the poet. And, I would add, to the activist (as per my final paragraph below). Where the scientist wants singleness of meaning, the poet wants richness of meaning. Labeling is generally verboten for the poet, if it limits mental exploration, or precludes authentically visceral responses. Black, for the poet, is rarely desirable to describe a category if it limits the imagination of the reader or listener. Ditto for white and all other colors. And yet such black and white language is typical for activists on the front lines, where pigeon-holing is the clear preference.

Where the scientist needs and has invented a strictly one-dimensional language, in which every word is confined to one denotation, the poet needs a multi-dimensional language, and creates it partly by using a multi-dimensional vocabulary, in which, to the realm of denotation, he adds dimensions of connotation of sound.

The poet, we may say, plays on a many-stringed instrument. And he sounds more than one note at a time. [Or… she does.] The activist must always have her/his eyes on the prize of an entire band playing in solidarity. Which requires interaction that does not impose a template on communication. Does not insist upon politically correct slogans. Does not exclusively sing the words that last week’s choir sang either.

Activists need to embrace poetic language; they are at present, for the most part, far too literal with their words. Once their language becomes somewhat poetic, they will have a chance at thinking lyrically. And once they are in gear respecting dithyrambic cogitation, they will have a shot at making optimal use of their singular imaginative powers. That can lead to acknowledgement of the Mystery of the Universe. Which is what’s necessary for proactive concerned citizens, if they’re going to bring about a transformation of consciousness in others, lasting institutional change, and a healthy degree of personal satisfaction.

Personally unhappy scientists, poets and activists tend to curse colorlessly and harshly. And not much good for the Collective Good can come of that.

Work toward honoring the sacred Mystery of the Universe.

Rachel Olivia O’Connor is a freelance journalist. She can be reached at She is indebted to Laurence Perrine for his words on the sound and sense of poetry.

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    A scientific expression depicts ‘ reality’ of universe. The scientist explains the terms and conditions. A poet also explains ‘ reality’ through imagery and power of language. Poet provokes thoughts and scientist directs actions. The goal is the same in both – humanity!