Tuesday, February 07, 2012

`Where Word with World is One'

"To name is to know and remember."
For some, the appropriate linkage of word and thing is deeply satisfying, like arranging the books on one’s shelves. Learning the name of something comes as a relief. We domesticate the world that way, minimize the alien and welcome something new into our home. Other species and some fellow humans don't bother with such fussiness. For them, perhaps, the world is enough.
This week already I’ve learned that chelonian is an adjective referring to turtles and raith a noun meaning one quarter of a year, three months (how nice that it’s homonymous with wraith). The first I’ll use or at least come across in my reading and recognize. The latter will probably remain suspended but admired, like a bug in amber.
In high-school English I learned the difference between jocose and jocund, and in Latin that celerity is a useful variation on rapidity or speed. Such things make English not redundant but nuanced. Synonyms are wonderful but seldom precise. No one would describe a fire truck as rubicund, and probably not even scarlet. We recognize dullards by their flashy and inappropriate use of synonyms. Deploying them properly, given the bounty of our language, is akin to perfect pitch in music.
The line quoted above is from Dana Gioia’s “Words” (Interrogations at Noon, 2001). The link includes a Spanish translation of the poem, "Palabras," by José Emilio Pacheco. Here is the poem in English:
"The world does not need words. It articulates itself
in sunlight, leaves, and shadows. The stones on the path
are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.
The fluent leaves speak only the dialect of pure being.
The kiss is still fully itself though no words were spoken.
"And one word transforms it into something less or other –
illicit, chaste, perfunctory, conjugal, covert.
Even calling it a kiss betrays the fluster of hands
glancing the skin or gripping a shoulder, the slow
arching of neck or knee, the silent touching of tongues.
"Yet the stones remain less real to those who cannot
name them, or read the mute syllables graven in silica.
To see a red stone is less than seeing it as jasper –
metamorphic quartz, cousin to the flint the Kiowa
carved as arrowheads. To name is to know and remember.
"The sunlight needs no praise piercing the rainclouds,
painting the rocks and leaves with light, then dissolving
each lucent droplet back into the clouds that engendered it.
The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always –
greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon."

The fifth line in the first stanza restates Herman Hupfeld’s immortal “A kiss is still a kiss.” The word-minded are world-minded, and moved to praise daylight and daylight, so close to delight and delight. In the final lines of “Games Two” (Ceremony and Other Poems, 1950) Richard Wilbur writes:

“Silence will take pity
On words. There are
Pauses where words must wait,
Spaces in speech
Which stop and calm it, and each
Is like a gate:
Past which creation lies
In morning sun,
Where word with world is one
And nothing dies.”


Anonymous said...

"heightened as with wine, jocund and boon"

i think Wordsworth also talks about a "jocund din" somewhere, is it the poem about the boy who makes hooting sounds to the owls?

i had to google jocose to find out what it means.

Anonymous said...

"One forgets words as one forgets names. One's vocabulary needs constant fertilizing or it will die."
-- Evelyn Waugh, The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, edited by Michael Davie, 1976

Don said...

"You must remember this,
A kiss is just a kiss,
A sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by."