"What Words Deserve"

by Victoria Benson Schutter

I once wrote a poem about words, which I titled "God Bless Captain Vere," those being the final words of Billy Budd, Herman Melville's stuttering hero. In this poem I compared the words I attempted to speak to "... Rowdy sailors who seize a ship with few to back them up. ..." I suppose it does a reasonably good job of expressing the frustration I have often felt with speaking. To the more than casual reader, however, this poem might express a good deal more. If one notices the care that was taken with rhyme, syllables per line, and images, one might realize that my annoyance with words is overshadowed by my love affair with language -- a love affair that has been going on since at least my middle teens.

Throughout my life, my parents have always been loving and supportive, and they worked very hard to give their children all the necessities and as many luxuries as possible. It never occurred to them, though, to take us to the theater or the symphony or to a museum. That was for rich people -- not for families of railroad men. So Franco Zeffirelli's motion picture production of Romeo and Juliet was the first Shakespeare I had ever seen, unless you count the parodies that would occasionally crop up on the TV variety shows.

Picture, if you will, a lonely, withdrawn 16 year old girl, sitting in a dark theater and watching as a handsome young man bends over the lifeless form of his beautiful wife and tearfully whispers: "Eyes, look your last! Arms, take your last embrace! And lips, O you the doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss a dateless bargain to engrossing death! ... Thus, with a kiss, I die." I think it was maybe three days later when my feet finally touched the ground again. That was the most beautiful experience I had ever witnessed. The beauty of those scenes and that language was so intense for me that, for a few days at least, it was Verona, Italy, that was the real world, while the drab, dreary school building seemed like a cardboard imitation of life.

I discovered a new language a couple of years later. That was the year that I began to read Dylan Thomas. I will confess that I had no idea what most of his poems meant, and that really bothered me at first. Then I realized that you don't have to understand music theory to enjoy music, so why should you have to understand a writer's mind to enjoy beautiful verses? Read the following words out loud, but don't even think about what they might mean. Just enjoy the sound and feel of them like you enjoy a really good chocolate brownie.

Especially when the October wind
With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire
and cast a shadow crab upon the land,
By the sea's side, hearing the noise of birds,
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
My busy heart who shudders as she talks
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.

After college, I moved to Houston to start a new life in a big city. I had a hard time making new friends, though, so my first six months was one of the loneliest times of my life. Finally, my love for language once again showed me the way. I volunteered my services (which included a total lack of experience) to a theater company, Main Street Theater, and discovered a whole new world of beautiful language and a whole new group of friends. Even better, I was not just sitting in a dark theater listening this time. I was helping -- by controlling just the right lights to just the right levels at just the right moments -- to make all this beauty possible. There, I was working side by side with all the greats, from Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot and from Harold Pinter to Tom Stoppard. Once again I must confess: I have as difficult a time understanding a Stoppard play as a Thomas poem, but oh how that man can play the language! His own love of the music of words comes through in every play, as Henry tells his wife in The Real Thing: "Words don't deserve that kind of malarkey. They're innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. ... I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead."

When I took piano lessons, there would be a beautiful piece of music that I would really want to learn. I would sit at the piano and practice it over and over and over, ad infinitum, ad exhaustum. By the time I would have learned it to a slightly bearable degree, I would be so sick of it that I would think I never wanted to hear it again. That's what I'm afraid those of us who stutter do sometimes. We have to work so hard on the mechanics of our speech that we sometimes forget that language is more than just a means to an end, that end being communication. Language can also be a means of expression, a means of creating, a "thing of beauty." None of us should allow a ridiculous thing like stuttering to rob us of enjoyment and appreciation of that most magical of gifts, our beautiful language.

added July 15, 2014
with permission of the author