Caring for Words
On the weekend of September 14th, I had the pleasure of attending a retreat sponsored by Ruminate Magazine, a Fort Collins based literary journal that was started by Brianna Van Dyke, a recent alumna of the M.A. in Literature program at Colorado State University. In its 6th year of production and having just released its 25th issue, Ruminate has sustained itself in this difficult market by adhering to a quest of “chewing on life, faith, and art.”
Dr. Marilyn McEntyre, a former professor of mine at Westmont College in Santa Barbara who now teaches at U.C. Berkeley, was the featured speaker for the event. Aaron Stumpel, a musician who is currently serving as Artist in Residence at George Fox University, also participated in leading the weekend and performed music from his newly released CD, January Journal. McEntyre opened up the weekend during a delicious and locally catered dinner at Every Day Joe’s Coffee Shop, speaking on the themes presented in her 2009 book, which can be summed up by its title: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans).
In a season characterized by empty rhetoric, political warfare, and endless dichotomies, McEntyre’s call for the stewardship and renewal of language was both timely and invigorating. The chapter headings of her book describe how one might go about resuscitating words that have been corrupted by misuse in the public sphere. Her first strategy is simple, encompassing the whole project of the book: Love Words. Love their etymology, their function, their meaning, their symbol and their taste. She challenges us who use language to hear words as poets do, “as having vitality and delightfulness independent of their utility” (27).
McEntyre’s workshop sessions that weekend (which were pleasantly conducted at Spring Creek Gardens) reminded me especially of an easily forgotten element of poetry and language: the importance of play. After all, what first attracted me to poetry was the pleasing rhythm of sounds that words could usher forth. How often, McEntyre mused, do we hear children trying out new words, repeating them over and over again until they have fully relished their structure and sound? We too, should remember this practice.
In a culture that is largely concerned with sound bytes, generalities, and reaching the largest demographic with the least specific language, the Ruminate retreat reminded me of the pleasures inherent in precision and the urgent role that the poet must fill in our society if she aspires to heed Dickinson’s counsel to “tell the truth, but tell it slant.”