Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Toi Derricotte's Language as Action: The Construction of Individual and Collective Identity

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Toi Derricotte's Language as Action: The Construction of Individual and Collective Identity

Article excerpt

"At the still point of the turning world, " the job of the artist is not to resolve or beautify, but to hold complexities, to see and make clear.

-Toi Derricotte, Tender

As the pope repeatedly apologizes for his comments about those who act according to religious precepts not his own, or as citizens worldwide argue about whether George Bush's phrase "axis of evil" continues to inspire the death of thousands of innocent people at the hands of suicide bombers, day by day it becomes more apparent that modern citizens live in a world or worlds made (and unmade) by language. Susan Miller was right when she worked through poet and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (language is use), as well as poet and rhetorician Kenneth Burke ("there are motives and relationships generic to all [hu]mankind"), to conclude that language (or genre) is social action (Miller 1984,162). The meanings of language involve what Wittgenstein calls language games, or forms of life, which involve rules people share and sometimes do not. These games give rise to different interpretive strategies in different contexts that, in turn, invite reading communities, communities of interest, shared sites of action, agendas, and shared symbolic practices by different readers and writers who use language as action to create worlds they share-and sometimes don't-with others.

By pairing the word "genre," an ancient Greek term for habitas or "habitation," with stanza, the Italian term for "room," poets create worlds out of language, the life forms or shared sites of action that readers identify as poetry. And this act by poets of creating worlds-or nations-in language has been tied, since the inception of human expression, with a pairing of the seemingly unlike through metaphor, a crucial tool of language for sharing and revealing the recurrent patterns of human life. Metaphor's marriage of seeming opposites is often used to portray the interrelationships of the many permeable boundaries or portals of human existence that beg to be entered or crossed-love and hate, war and peace, freedom and bondage, life and death, past and present, the private and public, the personal and the political. And the political, of course, can be interpreted as one of many language games or forms of life within that larger social or communal nexus in which a citizen moves from the singular T to the plural "we," the private to public, to act out common concerns.

When feminists shared the cry "The personal is political," its future interpretations could not be predicted, nor how the words might variously inspire action: a gay man working as an active soldier in the war on AIDS; a teenage woman at the turn of the twenty-first century watching her "feminist" role models on Desperate Housewives or Dancing with the Stars; a black woman writer who must wage a constant battle for that self-evident "truth" of equality and shared "we" that the framers of the Declaration of Independence, this country's birth certificate, managed to get so wrong.

Walt Whitman, Adrienne Rich, and Toi Derricotte all engage in the enormous project of using both poetry and rhetoric (all available means of persuasion) to try to get it right. All employ language as action to help create a nation or nations-to chart an American landscape-in which all citizens equitably can reside. They use different symbolic practices to embody the creative and collective voice, to lay bare the nation's most tender underbelly of inclusivity, the country's most problematic, personal, and plural pronoun "we." Both women poets, from different marginalized groups, perhaps most important, have moved beyond Whitman's self-absorption, his Song of Myself, to find some "lingua franca of inclusion" (Rich 1991, 15). This move is ever more crucial as the United States is touted as a model or promise for transnationalism. In "Trans-national America" (1916), Randolph Bourne already had exploded the myth and metaphor of the country as a "melting pot" and defined transnationalism as a "cosmopolitan federation of national colonies, of foreign cultures," which "only can come when no national colony within our America feels that is it being discriminated against or that its cultural case is being prejudged" (1739, 1740). …

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