Sunday, November 15, 2009

`Geology's Favorite Fal-de-Lals'

Some weeks ago a reader served me a savory slab of language, much of which I don’t understand, by the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid:

“All is lithogenesis — or lochia,
Carpolite fruit of the forbidden tree,
Stones blacker than any in the Caaba,
Cream-coloured caen-stone, chatoyant pieces,
Celadon and corbeau, bistre and beige,
Glaucous, hoar, enfouldered, cyathiform,
Making mere faculae of the sun and moon,
I study you glout and gloss, but have
No cadrans to adjust you with, and turn again
From optik to haptik and like a blind man run
My fingers over you, arris by arris, burr by burr,
Slickensides, truité, rugas, foveoles, …”

In 12 lines my spell-check software fails to recognize 18 words, or 1.5 words per line. There’s a density to the language, a palpable pleasure in the arcane and archaic, that has more in common with Basil Bunting, say, than Hart Crane, to cite two contemporaries of MacDiarmid (born Christopher Murray Grieve, 1892-1978) who also relish the music of words. One can hardly imagine a style more in contrast to the thin gruel of most contemporary American poetry.

The lines above are from “On a Raised Beach.” My reader, Andrew MacGillivray, says MacDiarmid’s lines “amount almost to an incantation and make obsolete hackneyed allusions to haecceity. The words themselves have just as much haecceity as what they describe.” True enough, though I’m not certain how so useful an idea as haecceity, perfected by another Scotsman, Duns Scotus, can be judged “hackneyed.” The lines quoted include 12 words, not counting those unrecognized by the computer, new to me. “Cyathiform,” for instance, which means cup-shaped, slightly widened at the top. “Glout” is to pout or stare – related to “gloat.” “Cadrans” is an instrument used by gem cutters to measure the angles of stones. “Truité” I particularly like – “having a delicately crackled surface – applied to porcelain.” I recognized the phenomenon immediately – an effect of imperfection that heightens beauty --and another hole in my world is plugged.

Readers might object that such data-mining interferes with their enjoyment of poetry. They prefer to skate over words, not to stumble, and I can sympathize. I’ve been reading MacDiarmid’s Collected Poems (Macmillan, 1962) with mingled excitement, bafflement, boredom and disgust. He’s a wayward Scottish descendent of Pound – and a Communist. In 1935 he published Second Hymn to Lenin and Other Poems. The title poem includes these lines, written in part, like much of MacDiarmid’s work, in Scots dialect:

“Wi’ Lenin’s vision equal poet’s gift
And what unparalleled force was there!
Nocht in a’ literature wi’ that
Begins to compare.”

Odious stuff, a paean to a tyrant and mass murderer – and bad poetry. We can all think of writers who diluted, compromised or destroyed their gifts with politics and moral idiocy. It’s a shame with MacDiarmid, some of whose poems are gorgeous. He loved language, even though he sometimes debased. Consider “Stony Limits,” dedicated to the great English writer Charles Doughty whose Travels in Arabia Deserta and The Dawn in Britain I read at the urging of Guy Davenport. Here’s a sample of MacDiarmid’s elegy to Doughty:

“Let my first offering be these few pyroxenes twinned
On the orthopinacoid and hour-glass scheme,
Fine striae, microline cross-hatchings, and this wind
Blowing plumes of vapour forever it would seem
From cone after cone diminishing sterile and grey
In the distance; dun sands in ever-changing squalls;
Crush breccias and overthrusts; and such little array
Of Geology’s favourite fal-de-lals
And demolitions and entrenchments of weather
As any turn of my eyes brings together.”

ADDENDUM: I'm grateful to a reader in England, Harry Gilonis, who writes of MacDiarmid:

"By the by, he once said of his own work that he never saw it as his job `to lay a single perfectly-formed tit's egg, but to erupt like a volcano, emitting not only flame but a lot of rubbish.' So you do have to winnow. But as he also said `there are prodigies there!'

"(Potential) readers of MacDiarmid might like to know that his favoured dictionary was Chambers (Scottish!), not the Oxford *ENGLISH* Dictionary. All the unusual words in the opening and closing sections of 'On a Raised Beach' can be found therein. 'On a Raised Beach' really is a great poem; and if it manages to mimic 'It Pays To Increase Your Word Power', well, now the `Readers Digest' is defunct we must look elsewhere..."


Eric Thomson said...

The pressure to find a context in which I could use the word ‘propinquity’ appropriately has been building up for quite some considerable time and your post has given me an opportunity not to be squandered. The geologist Hugh Miller (1802-1856), whose shamefully neglected autobiography ‘My Schools and Schoolmasters’ was one of Carlyle’s favourite books, was born and lived in the same Scottish town as one of the language’s greatest wordsmiths, Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty (1603-60), whose shamefully neglected The Jewel (Ekskybalauron) (1652)tells the life of the polyglot James Crichton (‘The Admirable Crichton’). A latterday avatar of Crichton was the lexicographer Sir James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, who was born in Denholm, a stone’s throw from cognate Langholm, birthplace of Christopher Murray Grieve. Murray was in fact the first to describe the dialect Grieve grew up speaking (in 'The Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland' (1873)) though Grieve/MacDiarmid wrote for the most part (and problematically) in ‘synthetic’ Scots. As your post makes plain, he mined the OED no less than the likes of Auden and Davenport. The relationship between geology and word history is one of literal and figurative propinquity. In Friday’s post you wrote ‘“Fossil poetry,” yes, but also fossil history and fossil biography’. The same was being said in 1851, in a book that was to influence Thoreau: “And implying the same truth, a popular American author has somewhere characterised language as “fossil poetry”. He evidently means that just as in some fossil, curious and beautiful shapes of vegetable or animal life, the graceful fern or the finely vertebrated lizard … are permanently bound up with the stone and rescued from that perishing which would otherwise have been theirs - so in words are beautiful thoughts and images, the imagination and the feeling of past ages, of men long since their graves, of men whose very names have perished, these, which might so easily have perished too, preserved and made safe for ever. … Language may be, and indeed is, this “fossil poetry” but it may be affirmed of it with exactly the same truth that it is also fossil ethics, or fossil history’. (R.C .Trench in his shamefully neglected ‘On The Study of Words’ (1851)). Dean Trench famously mooted the dictionary on historical principles which Murray was to edit. For Trench, geology and the Bible disastrously collided but their concerns were never less than – well – propinquitous.

William A. Sigler said...

One of the last remaining legacies of Pound’s Modernism within Contemporary American Poetry is an interest in the quality of individual words--their sounds, eccentricities, capacity to shock. British poets (Hill comes immediately to mind), being collectors more than entrepreneurs, have always had that gemstone word in their pockets waiting for the right moment to use it. But the task in British poetry is using the word in context, to make interesting sounds in combination with other words, preferably imbedding it deep within the form to make it seem as natural as speech. The American cousin seems to me too often the “look at the word I just found” variety.

A recent, well-worth reading comparison of contemporary British and American poetry by Hannah Brooks-Motl (a British poet), available online, dissects some of the philosophical differences between sides of the Atlantic. She suggests the American tendency toward MFA programs (rather than non-literary jobs for poets as in Britain) encourages a sense that everyone is equally valid as a poet, leading to a slackening of standards overall. She stops well short of condemning American poetry to irrelevance, however, coming across in this a bit like a judge in a criminal trial where everyone knows the defendant is guilty but the judge has to bend over backwards to be fair in order to avoid a rationale for an appeal. At one point, she imbeds some sample stanzas that combine the so-called styles of British and American poets and asks the reader to guess which one is American and which is British. It would be a hard exercise if one did not already know that the crappy one would be American and the good one British!

She also talks about the incompatability of the Gaelic traditions, of which MacDiarmid is an exemplar. As Eric Thomsen notes, MacDiarmid mined the OED as well as the Scottish lowlands, but this, I believe, is part of the Scottish rebellion to the English language (or at least the posing of an alternative dialect/language/reality). This tradition asserts, essentially, you’ve made yourself so flexible as a language you’ve brought in the world, but yet you have no time for your neighbor up North. He and Sorley McLean may be the 20th century leaders of this but the movement traces it roots from Burns to contemporary poets like Kathleen Jamie. As Pound understood, poems like this work best if read with a brogue, preferably with a fermented beverage nearby.

Steven Fama said...

New Directions' edition of MacDiarmid's Selected Poetry inlcudes a primo vocabulary for "On A Raised Beach."

You might also have mentioned that the "On A Raised Beach" vocabulary is taken from the English language. That your "Spellcheck" doesn't help is merely a reflection of the lousiness of that computer-based thing. All the words can be found in the OED.

That the words in "On A Raised Beach" are in English is an important point because in most MacDiarmid poems the challenge is with the Scottish vocabulary. As another commenter here has alluded too, MacDiarmid sometimes resurrected totally obscure Scottish words, words unfamiliar to native speakers of that language. Of course, for English speakers almost all Scottish words seem obscure. But the three books of 1920s lyrics, almost entirely in Scots, well reward the diligent reader-"translator".

By the by, the 1962 Collected is in my opinion a woefully incomplete collection. In particular, i doesn't have his poem to James Joyce. That's one that'll drive you crazy. I can't remember, but I also don't think the 1962 book includes the totality of MacDiarmid's "The Kind of Poetry I Want." Other, more recent collections, including the late 1970s two-volume put out by O'Keeffe, are far superior.