Thursday, August 25, 2011

On Eloquence and Criticism

Eloquence. The way we package words. (This is the prompt my wise roommates and friends give me as I sit here pondering what to write tonight)

The first word I loved was "essence." I sounded it out loud in the empty fireplace room of the old house of my high school, when I thought no one was listening, and its softness slipped around the room. "Essence" is a slippery word. 

The second word was "child" followed closely by "beloved" and then "gentle" and then "lithe" and then "gossamer." I wrote them down, watched their letters curl together on the page. I said them to myself and wove them into stories, for no other reason than they are rich: the sibilant s, the light and quick l's and i's, and the quiet ch of "child". The words are good words. 

We forget to be choosy about how our words sound. Perhaps we think only the poets concern themselves with syllables, consonants and their counterparts, and the way the word echoes. Maybe we assume that the purpose is to get "to the point" of whatever we want to say, and forget worrying about the sounds we make on our way there. Or maybe it's just more work to think about how we say things, and we'd rather spend our time saying more things. 

But I want words to be beautifully said. I don't want to just say, "amazing" when I think about the fierce red sun over the Atlantic that night coming home from Provincetown. I don't want to just say, "it was really good" when someone shows me a piece of writing they've done. Words are gifts we give to each other. Shouldn't we spend an extraordinary amount of time wondering about how to say it well? 

And this is most important when we say hard things. When I was in my junior year of high school, my poetry teacher taught me the most crucial lesson I have ever learned about criticism. He was talking to our class about how to give feedback on poetry because every class period, we had several people read what they had written and then the rest of the class listened and commented. Charles sat in his pale green armchair around that low slung table in the fireplace room and he looked each one of us in the eyes, and he taught us: You must be honest, but you must also be loving. You must remember that poetry is personal, writing itself is personal, and when you comment on this poem, you are commenting on more than this poem. This is the person who wrote it, too - they are in the poem. So you must be loving while you are honest. Choose your words carefully. 

I hadn't thought about how to say things well before: how to craft words, and sentences, so that they were truthful and kind. How to let the words I love be the words I spoke, and how to temper and shape my comments. How to be quiet, and contemplate the best way to say the first thing that comes to mind, rather than blurting it out just so that I can say that I have said something. 

My poetry teacher taught me that love was as important in criticism as honesty. It was as important, even more so, to learn how to compliment carefully and to improve gracefully as it was to hear the words that stuck out like sore thumbs and the plot points that failed. Being a writer, and then being a critic, means that you learn how to suggest and not demand, to be intentional about saying what could be better in the most loving way possible. If we are going to be lovers of words, we must be lovers of the words well spoken.

From the moment I fell in love with the word "essence" I have realized the importance of the well-placed word, the one that captures and captivates, and sets free. Because words are gifts. Language makes meaning. I want it to be beautiful.



  1. Beautifully put, Hilary. Your teacher was wise to share that lesson with you all and your blog is evidence that his lesson stuck.

  2. This is very well put, Hilary!
    Very good food for thought. Words are indeed a gift that should be used wisely and wonderfully.
    Thank you for inspiring and reminding me with your heart/word pourings on this blogger page.

    It sounds like you have a gifted poetry teacher that truly cared about each student that enter the classroom.


  3. Yes.
    Words are to be cherished, held lightly and set down gently. Each word carries more weight than we imagine. I am captivated by the art of placing words, such that what is truly meant is truly understood. And you're right: we must season our speech with love- love for the words, and love for the listener - because love is what softens and clarifies and builds up and makes more REAL. How empty I would feel without words to enthrall me and fill my hands and voice and ears!


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