When I first started writing poetry, I really wasn’t aware of what I was doing, or why I was doing it; other than the fact that I was bored out of my wits in the middle of an engineering lecture. At the time, I hadn’t heard of the “spoken word” scene, I’d never picked up a book of poetry to read, and I had no idea there was such a thing as the national poetry slam. I was just passing time in lectures.
It’s fair to say I wasn’t very passionate about being an engineer, and I certainly had no ambitions of performing poetry or publishing a book. But as it turns out, and without even realising how it came to be, that’s exactly what happened. Little did I know a pathway of service was beginning to show itself to me.
It all started with an open mic one Friday night, where I nervously read a poem I had typed into my phone. One thing led to another, and before I knew it, I was performing spoken word on an international book tour and doing festival gigs. In my poetry, I would cover themes of spirituality and social justice, nature, gender equality, animal rights and service to humanity.
All of a sudden, I found myself with a purpose. This new twist in my life not only allowed me to speak about things that were close to my heart, but also helped me to learn a little about the power of the spoken word, the impact it can have on people and how to work with words to craft an experience.
When you’re involved in the spoken word scene anywhere in the world, as a performer, an event organiser, or even just an avid fan, you start to develop a deeper appreciation of the words: “The pen is mightier than the sword”. At first, my understanding of its influence stemmed from the feelings I was left with after watching other poets perform. Sometimes I felt healed, other times I was left broken, but more often than not, I would leave poetry events on fire and with a renewed desire to become a better poet, and a better person.
As time went on, I would hear from people who had seen me perform, sometimes months or even years later, telling me how much my words had impacted their life. It began to dawn on me that these words really were making a difference in the world, through the effect it had had on the people in the audience.
Ever since then, the words “a kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men” took on a whole new meaning for me. I decided to look further into the Baha’i writings to deepen my awareness on what was said about the power of the spoken word, and I realised just how much capacity and responsibility we each have been given with this gift of speech.
In relation to the power of words, Baha’u’llah has said in the Tablet to Siyyid Mihdiy-i-Dahaji:
We have ordained that complete victory should be achieved through speech and utterance…1
So important is the power of words, that it is linked to the very first words of the Baha’i Revelation, as received and recounted by Baha’u’llah:
One night, in a dream, these exalted words were heard on every side: “Verily, We shall render Thee victorious by Thyself and by Thy Pen.”2
I believe that the victory referred to in both these quotations is the unification of the world, where everyone has a deep understanding and irrevocable conviction of the oneness of humanity. With regards to our responsibility to champion our oneness, Baha’u’llah has said:
Open, O people, the city of the human heart with the key of your utterance. Thus have We, according to a pre-ordained measure, prescribed unto you your duty.3
In reflecting on these quotations, it is clear to me that the Cause of Baha’u’llah will be made victorious through His pen, and not by force, violence or coercion.
This sets us all up with the invaluable opportunity to create change in the world through the dynamic interplay between the writings of Baha’u’llah and the power of our speech and utterance.
I realised that this process makes all of us “spoken word artists”, in a sense, with an immense capacity to create positive change. Not just through writing or performing poetry, but in all the moments in which we have an audience; whether we are teaching a class, giving a speech, or in conversation with friends, with every word that we speak, we have a chance to open the “city of the human heart”.
Reflecting on this, I am filled with a feeling of awe and excitement, and admittedly a little bit of nervousness. For if words truly are this potent, then I should be very vigilant with how I use them, which ones to use, and even when and where to use them. Again, I found guidance in the writings on this thought:
Every word is endowed with a spirit, therefore the speaker or expounder should carefully deliver his words at the appropriate time and place, for the impression which each word maketh is clearly evident and perceptible. The Great Being saith: One word may be likened unto fire, another unto light, and the influence which both exert is manifest in the world. Therefore an enlightened man of wisdom should primarily speak with words as mild as milk, that the children of men may be nurtured and edified thereby and may attain the ultimate goal of human existence which is the station of true understanding and nobility.4
There is so much richness to unravel in that quote, and I often re-read it to remind myself. The part that rings loudly in my ears are the words, “primarily speak with words as mild as milk”. I consider all the words I have written and spoken, all the poetry I have ever performed, and I wonder how many of those sentences might have been made more effective if I had kept this quote in mind at the time; if I had taken a gentler approach.
I think of how we might all become better poets, so to speak, if we were able to discuss the difficult and challenging times and issues we face with gentleness and equanimity. Perhaps then, when we speak about issues of social justice and the changes we so urgently need, we could impart an even greater positive impact on the world.