Words grow like they are alive: The ballad of Orange and Grape by Muriel Rukeyser

Here is a poem from Muriel Rukeseyer (The ballad of Orange and Grape) where the meanings of words has been changed.

Sometimes we say words we don't mean.  Not because we don't understand them, but because its a habit.  Or we don't think it is worth fighting for the cause of changing the name.

"Khalsa" means pure and for centuries while the Mughals were there in India and following Guru Gobind Singh creating a "Khalsa" force to fight the forceful conversion of Indians to Islam, it had a positive connotation; following violence in Punjab in the late 80s and early 90s -- at least in Delhi -- "Khalsa" and "Khalistan" got a negative connotation.

Before I came to America, I didn't realize that "negro" had a negative connotation.  I would have thought black has more a negative connotation.  My dad said there was a professor who used to call all his students "Taliban" in his university in India.  After all the word "Taliban" means student. But following 911, the word "Taliban" has been scarred for life.

In some ways, I think words can grow.  And many times they grow old and senile.  Sometimes they grow benign (I think that is happening to "Fuck" now).  And then we pass them to our kids.  But is that right?

This poem questions that, and actually takes a stance.  Some analysts would complain about this poem taking a stance about maintaining the meaning of words and pontificates that we should not do it.  I think it is ok for the poem to take a stance. But, it is equally OK for us to question the stance.  Isn't it OK for words to grow?

Here is the poem:

The ballad of Orange and Grape
- Muriel Rukeyser

After you finish your work
after you do your day
after you've read your reading
after you've written your say —
you go down the street to the hot dog stand,
one block down and across the way.
On a blistering afternoon in East Harlem in the twentieth century.

Most of the windows are boarded up,
the rats run out of a sack —
sticking out of the crummy garbage
one shiny long Cadillac;
at the glass door of the drug-addiction center,
a man who'd like to break your back.
But here's a brown woman with a little girl dressed in rose and pink, too.

Frankfurters, frankfurters sizzle on the steel
where the hot-dog-man leans —
nothing else on the counter
but the usual two machines,
the grape one, empty, and the orange one, empty,
I face him in between.
A black boy comes along, looks at the hot dogs, goes on walking.

I watch the man as he stands and pours
in the familiar shape
bright purple in the one marked ORANGE
orange in the one marked GRAPE,
the grape drink in the machine marked ORANGE
and orange drink in the GRAPE.
Just the one word large and clear, unmistakable, on each machine.

I ask him: How can we go on reading
and make sense out of what we read? —
How can they write and believe what they're writing,
the young ones across the street,
while you go on pouring grape into ORANGE
and orange into the one marked GRAPE —?
(How are we going to believe what we read and what we write and we hear and we say and we do?)

He looks at the two machines and he smiles
and he shrugs and smiles and pours again.
It could be violence and nonviolence
it could be black and white      women and men
it could be war and peace or any
binary system, love and hate, enemy, friend.
Yes and no, be and not-be, what we do and what we don't do.

On a corner in East Harlem
garbage, reading, a deep smile, rape,
forgetfulness, a hot street of murder,
misery, withered hope,
a man keeps pouring grape into ORANGE
and orange into the one marked GRAPE,
pouring orange into GRAPE and grape into ORANGE forever.