Once, writing a Passion Play for a church, the only text I felt happy with was the opening line: ‘I can tell you nothing about anything from the time before telling’. The words came out of reflection on the Gospel of John and the opening words of the Bible. It struck me that Genesis is not so much an account of creation, as an act of creation. When people took to their hearts a shared narrative of their beginning, they ceased to be individuals and became a community bound by a story. Even as the words were spoken, shared and ingested, the shape of a nation was being fashioned. Genesis may not be the account of creation so much as an active (and ongoing) process of creation and renewal.
I’ve written previously about the power of stories to mediate our understanding of the world in which we live. In particular, the way a story can help us make sense of calamities and begin to find a way to cope with events. As the twentieth century demonstrated, the power of our stories can also be used to generate horrendous division and destruction. Not all stories are good. Like the discoveries of science, the way we connect events and interpret intentions, can be used in ways that are profoundly damaging. Language is technology, and probably the most useful skill humanity has developed.
The moment I became aware of the power and capacity of language was in primary school, aged 7, rummaging in a corner of the classroom. Goodness knows what I was supposed to be doing! I came across a book of poetry byTennyson. One in particular struck me then and the memory of its impact has remained with me ever since. Called simply The Eagle it is the briefest description of an eagle’s plunge towards its prey. Yet in its six lines something was switched on in my brain and I saw how words could bear the impress of reality. Words which, arranged in a particular way and rising out of a depth of feeling, carry within them a visceral sense of experience.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls, He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls.Alfred, Lord Tennyson The Eagle, 1851
Over the years my appreciation of poetry has changed, but I owe something to those few lines which inspired a passion. The poetic use of language can shake us out of the tram lines of prose and jar us into startled attention. It allows words to be placed in unexpected associations, often with a hint of playfulness mixed into the experience, all of which lends itself to creative thought.
In recent months I have been reflecting on the way our choice of words reveals a lot about our response to the pandemic. Among the swath of texts about the new virus are signs that say much about our evolving thoughts. Countries where people spoke warmly about how well they had weathered COVID-19 now find that the virus has returned. There was an assumption made to see this as a single event passing around the world, whereas we now see a picture which is more complex, dynamic and repetitive. By now we know it would be wrong to think COVID-19 simply arrives and leaves. The language used a few months ago reveals how our understanding has changed.
In the early days of the UK’s experience Simon Armitage wrote a poem featured in The Guardian, and this weekend there is a piece published by Barbara Kingsolver in the same paper. Entitled How to Do Absolutely Nothing it’s a ‘shape’ poem capturing in its form the gradual loss of things, concluding with the word leave standing alone. As we all continue to face restrictions in response to the virus this poem resonates with different experiences of loss. In the life changes enforced by COVID-19 we may all be trying to ‘Find out what’s left’, and see with a new sense of value what we once took for granted.