The key, you know, is emphasis. English
is a stress-toned language, and we listen
for the punch, in a word, in a sentence,
and that extra oomph, that little flex,
is all we need to make sense of a thing.
There is an exercise for this—to convey
that where we stretch a syllable matters,
gives resonance, expression, and that's
why I am singing, my voice meeting
those of my students, visitors here,
people who have been misunderstood
by cashiers and taxi drivers,
the lilting mismatch of Arabic, Polish,
Yoruba, Japanese, but today in class
we layer vowel over vowel, and we sing,
no hesitation, all voices present and clear
from the first "Hey Jude." I tell them
they can swallow most of a word,
but if they nail the stress, we'll get them,
we'll know where they come from.
When I was a child, I watched
the black record turn, green Apple
rolling over and over, and I knew
every word, and I sang them all,
and I tried to understand—the movement
you need is on your shoulder, what
did that mean? Even Paul thought it
a bit of nonsense, and he planned
to revise, but John said that was the best
line in the song, and it's in there still,
and we sing it together, and it means
something, some fluttering by the ear,
apple rolling, rolling down a hill.
Don't you know that it's just you,
hey Jude, you'll do, and we do know,
we feel it, we punch each key word
to drive it home, into our heart,
then we can start to make it better.
I think I’m drawn to Karen Craigo’s “The Movement You Need,” first, for the situation it offers: a teacher using music in order to connect with immigrant students trying to find their own way with "our" language—these immigrant students who are “people who have been misunderstood/by cashiers and taxi drivers.” The poem asks us to imagine other people’s struggles to enter fully into a language not their own. The poem asks us to think about misunderstanding, about foreignness, about what we “stress,” about whom we "stress," and about how to include as opposed to how to exclude.
In a way, these immigrant students can be seen as trying to “take a sad song and make it better.” We think of America as a place others pursue for the opportunity to make their lives better, more prosperous, more free, etc. Being on the outside of a language, though, and attempting to learn a language not one’s own, must inevitably be full of mistakes; and the speaker of the poem knows the unforgiving world to which the students are bound, one in which if they get the "stress" wrong on a word, they will be nailed, excluded, seen as other. The students are trying to give their lives “resonance, expression,” just like anyone else; and I value the teacher’s attempt to help these students. She represents a kind of humanity that enlarges not only language but any speaker seeking to understand its vowels, its meaning.
I see the use of the Beatles song as a way to be inclusive within the context of a world that is normally looking for any opportunity to draw a dividing line. As the poem says, “The key is emphasis.” I like that idea for how it frames the logic of the poem. In other words, what do we emphasize about immigrants who get the stress wrong on a word, and in what way might our emphasis on a mistake also stress the wrong thing, especially if what we end up doing then is excluding them from our group, from our society, from our conception of what this life or language "means"? Even the part about the line Paul thought nonsense—“the movement/you need is on your shoulder”—proves the point of the poem. That line, as John Lennon thought, actually "makes" the song because of its apparent strangeness. Likewise, what if the person, the outsider, we think doesn’t “fit” actually, in fact, stretches, or enlarges, society? After all, the poem says that “where we stretch a syllable matters,/gives resonance, expression.” If everyone could recognize that simple fact, then we might “start to make it better”—the society, the language, the “heart” that allows us to imagine our own voices meeting the voices of others.