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..."