Monday, June 07, 2010

`Infidelity and Confections and Persiflage'

Persiflage I learned from Mencken or W.C. Fields (or Mr. Micawber). Fittingly, we take it from the French persifler, “to banter,” in turn from the Latin sibilare, “to whistle,” “to hiss” (thus, “sibilant”). Persilflage is what it sounds like – frivolous talk, light-hearted raillery, first cousin to “bullshitting.” The verb is “persiflate.” Kay Ryan seems to know all of this and more in “Persiflage” (from Flamingo Watching, 1994):

“Garden serpents
small as shoelaces
are found in
side lots and
grassy places.
Green coat
striped with yellow
makes the garden viper
a dapper fellow.
Birds mock
and children chase
our minor adder
thinner than a pencil.
Born sans puff or rattle
he counts on persiflage
in battle. Before
his flippant tongue
children stiffen,
dogs fall like beef cattle.”

Ryan is our wittiest poet and her wit is rooted in sound: “viper,” “dapper,” “minor adder,” “thinner.” “Born sans puff [adder] or rattle [-snake].” Let’s remember “hiss” in the etymology (“flippant tongue” brings to mind Alger Hiss). The “rattle”/”battle” rhyme reminds me of Robbie Robertson lines in “It Makes No Difference”: “Since you’ve gone it’s a losing battle, / Stampeding cattle, they rattle the walls.” Like a poet, Ryan’s garden snake “counts on persiflage / in battle” – a wittier way of saying the pen is mightier than the sword, or writing is fighting, at the same time suggesting that writing poetry is a species of bullshitting. Ryan has an ally here in Walt Whitman, of all people, who uses “persiflage” in his preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Referring to “the great poet,” his American ideal, Whitman writes:

“If the time becomes slothful and heavy he knows how to arouse it . . . he can make every word he speaks draw blood. Whatever stagnates in the flat of custom or obedience or legislation he never stagnates. Obedience does not master him, he masters it. High up out of reach he stands turning a concentrated light . . . he turns the pivot with his finger . . . he baffles the swiftest runners as he stands and easily overtakes and envelops them. The time straying toward infidelity and confections and persiflage he withholds by his steady faith . . .”

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