“It matters what you call a thing,” writes Solmaz Sharif in her poem “Look.” Sharif was a participant at this weekend’s Split This Rock Poetry Festival, and in the hours since attending the festival, I’ve been reckoning with the ways in which talking about poetry parallels the events of last spring’s Uprising. “It matters what you call a thing”—a simple declarative statement, and yet an idea that is full of subversive, dangerous potential—it matters how we talk about things. Our vocabulary has consequences. This is especially true for poets, who, more than the average citizen, are acutely aware of the precise impact of every choice of language. Poets can argue for hours about the placement of a comma, about the multitudinous divergences that can arise from choosing one synonym over another. Poets, in short, believe in the power of language. It matters what you call a thing.
Reginald Dwayne Betts explores this profound truth in his poem “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving,” which he read as part of Saturday’s Featured Poets reading and which can be found in the April 2016 issue of Poetry. Again, parallels—Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray; Cleveland, Baltimore; the pervasiveness of police violence in both instances, violence that supersedes differences in geography, age, dreams, education. What we talk about when we talk about the killing of a black boy. “Taboo,” writes Betts: “The thing that says that justice / is a killer’s body mangled and disrupted by bullets / because his mind would not accept the narrative / of your child’s dignity” (24-27). Ultimately, he argues, our avoidance of giving things accurate names is a manifestation of our cowardice, of our inability to take the responsibility necessary to change systems and society. Calling the Uprising a riot creates personal distance, removes any sense of ownership from creating the climate that made such a response not only possible, but necessary. “This American dance around death,” as Betts succinctly puts it, is one that sees the source of the problem, but stubbornly calls it by the wrong name.
Poetry, above all else, is a form of protest. Its very nature breaks every rule of polite conversation. It is at times uncomfortably reticent and intimidatingly eloquent, frequently refusing to give clear answers when the safety of clarity is most desired. Poetry challenges—assumptions, habits, the tools of communication. It matters what you call a thing, and the act of writing poetry is the pursuit of pursuing the most precise representation of reality as is possible. Which is why writing this blog post, publishing it in such a public setting, makes me nervous and uncomfortable. As a poet in training, I worry that my vocabulary for talking about Freddie Gray, and about poetry in general, is incomplete. Claiming expertise of a subject about which you are not equipped with a proper vocabulary is dangerous and the worst form of arrogance, and I know for certain that I lack the authority to make any claims about reality. These insecurities are compounded by the plain fact of my racial/socioeconomic/educational background. As an audience member of Split This Rock, I saw for myself the pitfalls of what can happen when one substitutes technical mastery for empathy and humility. (I do not wish to name this poet publicly, for I am sure that they are a lovely person. However, several audience members who I spoke to were equally unsure of how to feel by this reading, and the poet’s race (white) vs. the race of their subject matter (black) created a strange, depersonalizing dynamic that was hard to reckon with.) It matters what you call a thing, and this extends to how one should properly analyze a poem or a phenomenon. Misrepresenting reality can have far more pervasive and destructive consequences than simply saying nothing at all.
Much like poetry, I want to resist concluding with any firm answers. Language is such a fickle entity, always vulnerable to failure, or at least to imperfectness. At Split This Rock, we heard a thousand answers to the same question, and yet I left with more to think about when I arrived. I do, however, want to end on a conversation I had with one of my fellow festival-goers. After Dominique Christina’s earth-shattering performance, as we streamed out of the auditorium on unsteady feet, I remarked to this woman that Christina’s poetry had left me hollowed out. “Me too,” she said. “But that just means when we get filled back in, we’ll be a little bit better off than before.”