3. Poetry: the language of ordinary people

 In my younger days in the ministry, in the sixties and seventies, it was one of the theological commonplaces of the time that in worship the church had to use "the language of ordinary people."  Now we take that so much for granted that we need not say so any more.  For it seems so obviously true; the language of ordinary people is fairly mundane and matter of fact a lot of the time, whether they are about to do the shopping or go to the beach - all pretty plain stuff.  So to us, living in the prose age, it is quite "obvious" that poetry is not the language of ordinary, real people.  We are likely to think of poetry as a bit "arty," but be untroubled by the pretension of some modern prose - of which more later.

 However, part of our language use is not only what we say, but the language we can understand, reflect on, and respond to its nuances with pleasure, pain, or whatever.  That is just as much language use, linguists would assure us, as is speaking.  Talkers and writers are not the only ones using language.

 Accordingly it is worth noticing that, while ordinary people may not often actually construct metaphors, they will certainly respond to them with surprise and pass them on with delight.  As an only-partly-turned-on football supporter, listening recently to the car radio when a player in my team (Essendon, of course) took a brilliant high mark in a pack of players, I rejoiced, both at the mark and the metaphor, when the commentator said, "he bobbed up like a cork in the ocean."  I think it is part of the job description for footy commentators to entertain us with a new metaphor every so often in order to keep us glued to the commentary (another metaphor now a bit worn out).  And, of course, I passed on the metaphor to my ageing tennis mates who enjoy an earnest footy talk between sets.

 And, because metaphors engage us in a fairly subtle way, we all pass them on, usually without even thinking.  I am not being terribly inventive when I complain that I have been "dragged kicking and screaming" into the computer age by my wife and well-meaning friends.  I am just using someone else's not-quite-worn-out metaphor, and helping to pass it on before it does wear out.  But some of them stick.  Linguists tell us that well-used metaphors are one of the greatest influences on language change: new words or at least new meanings for words appear.  I wonder who was the first parent to tell the children to "contain yourselves."  With a little imagination we can hear the burst of laughter from other adults nearby.  I wonder who was the first wife who told her husband not to get "carried away" - presumably on a tidal wave of enthusiasm.  (Not a tsunami - please.)

 The point of all this is that people love metaphor.  They may or may not be able to tell you what metaphors are, but they love them.  Does anyone remember the highfalutin patois of the early computing days?  Probably not; techno talk is not very memorable. And ordinary people tended just to ignore the not-very-veiled pretension of it all.  But then, suddenly, computer folk discovered that they needed to sell the things to real people.  And surprise, surprise, metaphor became de rigueur.  We were all urged to get on to the information "super highway."  You would need a computer with a "mouse" (a wonderful metaphor actually - works on several levels).  For information you could search the "web."  For recreation you could "surf the internet".  If you stopped using it for a while it would "hibernate."  And if it "crashed" there would be a great shambles in your organization.  Real people love metaphor; they respond to it with pleasure, and pass it round with delight - even if they do not know what a metaphor is.

 And it is not different with other aspects of language which we think of as being "poetic" - rhythm and rhyme, assonance and alliteration.  We responded to such language play as children when we heard A.A.Milne or Dr Seuss, and we are responding as grown-ups when we share it with our own children and our grandchildren, and that with something like the same delight.  It was sitting there on the kindergarten floor when we chanted rhymes or played word games.  We revelled in it when we played with our friends' names to make nicknames.  And when our teachers told us that slang is not good language (and perhaps it is not for some kinds of writing) we knew that it was not bad language, just language play; because, even as kids, people love their language; they love to play with it; and they have not quite forgotten the play when they become adults.  And as adults it is still there when we reach out for the formulaic phrase to help us when we must make a speech, or when we reject the formulaic phrase in a desperate attempt to say the right, unique thing for some special now - which is why, for example, the world of pop never runs out of love songs.  And at worship we hope for it in a sermon, either as preacher or listeners, and still sing with unexpected abandon the poetry of Watts or Wesley.

 Why this delight in words, and the search for delight in words?  Because there is within us a great yearning for language not to be too mundane or matter-of-fact.  But whence comes this yearning?  It comes from our deeply human love of language: this system which is more than system, of amazing complexity, which we mastered by age six.  Buried deep within us, pre-dating our conscious memory, it comes to us as sheer gift, satisfying on one hand our earthly need for predictability and control, but engaging on the other our very human desire for delight and play.  Of course we love our language, though we may only catch up with the love on occasion.  But it's us. Of course we do not want it to be too mundane or matter-of-fact.  It is the language of ordinary people indeed.  Sharpen it, refine it, and it is the gift of poetry.  And still poets tell us it comes to them with the surprise and delight of gift.  I'm sure Maarten could, and perhaps will, make a similar case for music.  And put them together, add real people, and you have communal song.  Kathy Galloway has told us that there are few places left in the Western world where people can now actually have communal song - except for the church at worship singing hymns together.  Bless our hearts.

 Let us be quite clear that people who say that they prefer the traditional hymns are not necessarily just being old-fashioned and resistant to change.  Apart from saying something about music, they are also certainly saying that they do not want the language of hymn - or, indeed, of worship generally - to be too mundane or matter of fact.  They want it sometimes to surprise and delight, though it may take years for the whole surprise and delight of a hymn to break through to our weak hearts.  They want, with T.S. Eliot, to risk enchantment.  So it is for me anyway.  With old age no longer impossibly distant, I still on occasion find new surprise and new delight in a word or a phrase I've sung for years.  There remains a place for that kind of hymn.  We ought not, as Peter Blackwood says, let it get lost.

Posted on April 25, 2008, 5:31 pm by Don
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