Between word and world
''The frog hops lazily in the sun. The water laps softly at the banks of the pond.'' Unremarkable prose; no reason to take any special pleasure in these words. But Adam didn't need a reason for his delight. The beauty of the words lay in the simple fact that he could read them.
My six-year-old friend has learned to read. I don't mean that he can merely decipher the coded patterns we call words. For years he'd been amassing quite a large vocabulary-arsenal: milk; boy; breakfast; poem; love; Mom. On several occasions, while driving with his mother, he'd volunteer an astute reading of our lettered world: ''You can't stop here, Mom. It says No Parking.'' I'm not even referring to the terse sentences that limp across the page of a school primer. ''See Bob run. Bob jumps up. Jump, Bob, jump!'' This is little more than problem-solving, a verbal arithmetic where the calculations add up to a simple, recognizable figure, correct but lifeless.
What I am talking about is the precarious moment when the language calisthenics finally bring the boy to the threshold of a breathing, full-storied sentence - and he can read. I couldn't quite remember the explosive magic of that first understanding until Adam allowed me to eavesdrop on his secret discovery.
''The frog kicks his legs and swims across the pond. Mayflies hatch on the green water.''
He is supposed to be sleeping. It is half an hour past his bedtime. The small incandescence of his goose night light is barely able to reach the page. A crooked finger paces along beneath the line as if to hold the sentence in place or prompt a reticent word to pronounce itself. His eyes screw up and his brow arches in an effort to focus and recognize. Aloud, in a quiet even voice, he reads himself the story of the frog.
Adam had always devoured storybooks; the invitation to be read a story was as powerful an attraction as ''Sesame Street'' or his Star Wars toy figures. Books - any time of the day or night; for as long as your voice could hold out; sometimes a favorite story for the fifth time in a week. But now, in a way that is indescribably valuable, the books are his. He can choose one from the shelf and retreat to his quiet corner. Even the difficult ones about dinosaurs and astronomy contain occasional lines that he can master. More each day, I can sense his gradual taking-possession of our world of words. ''I can read. And those books I cannot read today, I will soon.''
And then, as if one revolution were not enough for December, I began to find other signs of Adam's new estate. Shuffling through the papers on my desk, I discovered the rough draft of a poem I'd been working on. Across the back of one sheet I found a small wild scrawl: ''The boy flyd in to space. Good BY. Here I GO.'' What a dizzying power, these words! Sitting idly at the kitchen table, waiting for his breakfast to arrive; a small pencil stub and a sheet of paper; words in their slow procession. Suddenly worlds begin; dreams trail wildly after the soft gray marks. There is a look in the boy's eyes that I struggle to decipher. It's been there all along, this secret. Store windows; newspapers; cereal boxes. And now I understand.''
It was then I began to worry. An irreversible process, begun years before, had finally carried Adam to the first fruit of a mature mind. The links had now been hammered together: the mind that makes the word that finds the world; the tree that burgeons with a name that falls to the mind. But what else occurs at this first crossroad of adult consciousness? The focus of our experience slowly begins to shift: from our acute sense of the lived-moment, to assigning words that both name and record that life. Before long, we find ourselves up to our ears in language - a glut of words, devalued and disguised. We read them for comprehension, not clarity; our priority is placed on facts and figures, not magic. Perhaps without ever intending this, we are soon an extra arm's length away from both world and mind. Intoxicated on our lifeless speech, we watch passively as words pile up around our lives like trash.
No matter what style, what method he or she may use, one of the poet's primary tasks is to burn the refuse of language. The art of language is aimed at making the marriage of thought and act a challenging relationship: graceful, athletic, surprising, even dangerous. The word, in its finest state, makes us responsible for the world and our minds. It amounts to the human work of homemaking in an alien landscape.
So now I find myself greeting Adam's newest verbal revolutions with a mixture of emotions. I am both thrilled by his conquests and anxious in foreseeing the ultimate prize. As I watch him take a book passage on his next literary exploration, I'm wondering whether the new words help him to see more clearly or weigh down his imagination, mere baggage. The unique sensation of each day, and the delicate grasp of language, are both such precious possessions, I'd hate to see either one diminish or counterfeit the other.
Home from school today, Adam steers straight to his mother's workroom. ''Please, Mom? I need to use the typewriter!'' Over an hour has passed and he is still sequestered behind the closed door. I can hear the faltering staccato of the keys as he searches for the right letters. Spelling - a creative and idiosyncratic operation - is the least of his worries. He has a story to tell. He wants the words on paper.
When he returns to us, he brandishes a slightly creased typescript. He seats us at the kitchen table for his first performance. It is a story about the field trip his class has taken. The plot is peppered with ''juglrs'' (who juggle colored balls) and ''clounz'' (who tease out our laughter). Adam reads the lines with a juggler's aplomb, as if he were suspending the dazzling words in the air above his head. I can see the bright verteces of the triangle: from his voice to the page to memory, and back to voice again. ''Do you know what that is?'' I ask him when he's finished and looking at us with questioning eyes. ''Pure poetry.''