Tuesday, January 31, 2006

When Words Lose Their Meaning

Today from the always insightful (and beautifully written) Body and Soul:

Many years ago, in a college poetry class, I heard a professor, and a good poet in his own right, struggle to keep William Butler Yeats from being seriously misunderstood. He was reading Lapis Lazuli aloud -- a firm believer that the only way to read poetry is aloud. There's truth in the sound, even the taste, of a word. You have to give him credit for reading these words aloud to a class of freshman:

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.
Of poets that are always gay,

A few random snickers from some guys who apparently shared the antipathy to gay poets....

The poet says that he's afraid that word has been lost to us. And it was such a good word, too. Gay. There's nothing to replace it. Cheap and transitory happiness can't compare to lost gaiety. He says he may have to give up teaching Lapis Lazuli for awhile. WBY is long buried, and the "hysterical women" (mostly frat boys, actually) prevailed. Poets could no longer be gay -- at least not in the sense that Yeats meant.

Yesterday's New York Times put me in mind of that old class. I'm afraid we're losing another good word -- democracy -- and I remember that thirty-year-old sense of loss. There's nothing to replace it.

Sunday's Times carried on its front page a wonderful article on Haiti, one of the best things I've ever read in a mainstream paper. It focuses on the role of the International Republican Institute -- and when they say Republican, they mean Republican -- in overthrowing Jean-Bertrand Aristide....

The meaning of the word "democracy" was pretty dicey even two centuries ago, and it's gotten kicked around especially badly the past five years. But at this point I don't think it's left with even a shred of meaning.

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