Saturday, July 21, 2007


Thanks to a poem by Kenneth Fields, I have learned a new and very silly-sounding word: fipple. I’ve seen this rhyme with “nipple” and “triple” before, because I’ve read Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts, one of the great poems of the last century, but it never, despite its baby-talk silliness, stuck. Here’s Fields’ “Poetic,” the last poem in his 2005 collection Classic Rough News. The poem is preceded by “with a line from Basil Bunting” and the unattributed sentence “It might be from a handbook on recorders”:

“For one thing, its on the air, you can hear music,
Knowing inflected by the ear. Not wood,
Not even mouthpiece, but the lovely fipple
(“Hey, that’s like nipple,” my little daughter laughs),
And the conveyor of this joy’s a player,
Whose breathing tunes the hollow that she fills,
Empties and fills again. I am caught up
In the roll and the hull, this ecstasy of naming,
This gathering up of more than fifty years
In a wide harbor, a life made of words,
All of them here before we finally heard them,
And consolation rolling upon the tide:
As the player’s breath warms the fipple the tone clears.
Ardor, attend us as our stars descend.”

The italicized line come from Section IV of Briggflatts:

“As the player’s breath warms the fipple the tone clears.
It is time to consider how Domenico Scarlatti
condensed so much music into so few bars
with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence,
never a boast or a see-here; and stars and lakes
echo him and the copse drums out his measure,
snow peaks are lifted up in moonlight and twilight
and the sun rises on an acknowledged land.”

Bunting, too, condenses much music into “so few bars.” To a significant degree, poetry was music to Bunting’s acute ear. Here’s what he wrote in 1966, the year he published Briggflatts:

“Poetry, like music, is to be heard. It deals in sound – long sounds and short sounds, heavy beats and light beats, the tone relations of vowels, the relations of consonants to one another which are like instrumental colour in music. Poetry lies dead on the page, until some voice brings it to life, just as music, on the stave, is no more than instructions to the player.”

Back to fipple: The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the plug at the mouth of a wind-instrument, by which its volume was contracted.” The first citation, from 1626, is drawn from Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum; or a Naturall Historie. I looked it up, so here's the lovely passage it’s drawn from:

“Let there be a recorder made with two fipples, at each end one; the trunk of it of the length of two recorders, and the holes answerable towards each end; and let two play the same lesson upon it at an unison ; and let it be noted whether the sound be confounded, or amplified, or dulled. So likewise let a cross be made of two trunks, throughout, hollow; and let two speak, or sing, the one long-ways, the other traverse: and let two hear at the opposite ends; and note whether the sound be confounded, amplified, or dulled. Which two instances will also give light to the mixture of sounds, whereof we shall speak hereafter.”

The OED’s second definition is identified as “northern dialect”: “The underlip in men and animals, when it hangs down large and loose….to look disappointed, discontented, or sulky; also, to weep.” The third definition, dating from 1892 and attributed to “Northumbria” and “Gloucestershire”: “After stooks of corn remain standing for a time, the bottoms of the sheaves become naturally longer on the outside than the inside, which is called their ‘fipple.’” These latter meanings may be relevant to Bunting who was born in Scotswood-on-Tyne, in Northumberland, now part of Newcastle upon Tyne. Briggflatts and much of his other work is a celebration of Northumbrian dialect.

As to etymology, the OED suggests we compare fipple to the Icelandic flipi, meaning “lip of a horse.” As an intransitive verb, fipple is described as “Scottish” and “obsolete,” meaning “To whimper, whine; to slaver, dribble,” and we are instructed to compare it to the Swedish flipa,” to weep with distortion of the mouth.” William Dunbar, in the musically titled The tua mariit wemen and the wedo, used it in this sense in 1508: “He feppillis like a farcy aver, that flyrit on a gillot.”

Wikipedia says fipples are found in flagelots, gemshorns, ocarinas, recorders, tin whistles (or penny whistles), diples (or dvojnice), fujara, and organ pipes – more new words. There’s even a web site dedicated to tin whistles called Chiff and Fipple. But back to Fields: He’s new to me, one of the “Stanford poets” who studied with Yvor Winters. Among the others were Edgar Bowers, J.V. Cunningham, Thom Gunn and Donald Justice – distinguished company. I like his phrase “this ecstasy of naming,” which reminds me that a tour of the universe can begin with a single word. I also like “a life made up of words,/All of them here before we finally heard them.”

Like fipple.

No comments: