Banned Words and Erasure Poetry

Caroline Hagood
December 22, 2017
Comments 4

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, among many others, has called the Trump administration’s forbidding the CDC’s use of certain words and terms (transgender, diversity, fetus, vulnerable, entitlement, evidence-based, and science-based) Orwellian, in reference to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Our very own Jerry Harp has even written a clever piece on how he sees shades of George Carlin in this gesture.

For me, part of what’s so horrifying is how the erasure of language functions as a way of remapping the mind and its countries. In 1984, as Syme, says to Winston:

You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words…Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it…Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.

This passage points to the danger of banning words. In the simplest terms, when you eliminate certain words, which are the communal markers of what’s on our minds, it starts to effect what’s on our minds. As O’Brien tells Winston, “Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

Trump’s move also made me think of erasure poetry, or the practice of removing certain words from a given text in order to create a new work of art. Of course, the crucial difference between banned words and erasure poetry, though, is that the former intends to shrink consciousness—doing away with certain words and therefore the concepts that attend them—and the latter intends to expand consciousness—doing away with certain words in order to invent a new work of art from already existing language; the former takes away in order to destroy and the latter in order to create.

Since this administration is so fond of erasing words, I made an erasure poem out of its September 5, 2017 statement on immigration.

4 thoughts on “Banned Words and Erasure Poetry

  1. Marvelous! I love the erasure poem. Maybe for national poetry month this year, we should all compose erasure poems using this administration’s documents and speeches.

  2. Took my college age grandson to see 1984. Now I am seeing 1984 become our reality. I am scared! Thanks Caroline for keeping this issue at the forefront.

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