Tuesday, May 13, 2014

`The Invention of Words That Last'

Of necessity, much of what we read amounts to spent tissue or gum wrapper – crumple it up, throw it away. The internet is like a stiff wind in the alley, blowing all the refuse, dust and still-born words into our eyes. This has always been true of advertising and newspapers, and we’ve made our accommodations, but now we have Tweets, spam and monitors droning commercials on top of gas pumps. Polonius asks, “What do you read, my lord?” and the prince answers, “Words, words, words.” 

From late 1989 to spring 1992, Clive Wilmer interviewed fellow poets on BBC Radio 3. At least as edited in Poets Talking: The ‘Poet of the Month’ Interviews from BBC Radio 3 (Carcanet, 1994), the conversations are less polite and more substantial than most bookchat. Reading them today is sobering, as ten of the twenty-one poets Wilmer interviewed are dead, including Thom Gunn, Czesław Miłosz and C.H. Sisson. Sisson (1914-2003), an English civil servant who worked for the Ministry of Labour for more than thirty years, speaks in 1989 of Lucretius and his rendering of De Rerum Natura: The Poem on Nature: 

“What I like about Lucretius basically is what I think Dryden said: he tells the reader nothing but what he thinks. There is this great directness about him, as indeed there is about Dryden himself…the tone is not that of somebody talking down to a dumb pupil; it’s very much someone who lives through discoveries for himself and must communicate it to somebody.” 

Cool urgency in language, coupled with acuity of vision, is rare. Elsewhere, Sisson writes with counterintuitive precision: “the avoidance of literature is indispensable for the man who wants to tell the truth.” He means language as ornament or palliative. “It needs a poet rather than a mathematician,” he writes, “to realize vividly the shadowy and elusive connection between word and fact.” Sisson admired Swift and Wyndham Lewis. His understanding is almost as savage as theirs, and he has no time for happy talk or soothing words. His calling is ancient and difficult. He tells Wilmer: 

“…we’re all the servants of language. One hears so much about personality and people, but these things matter so much less. The service a poet does is not to his blessed personality or to any other minor cause. It is to the language. It is what he has done in the end for the language, which is not an abstract thing: it is the invention of words that last.” 

Wilmer commiserates with Sisson, contrasting “casual opinion” with “an attempt to say something fundamental about the human condition in the language of poetry.” The reader remembers that Sisson also translated Virgil, Catullus, Horace, The Song of Roland, Dante, du Bellay, Racine, La Fontaine and Heine, when he says: 

“I believe less and less—and this may be just a symptom of old age—in the ability of one person to understand another or in one’s own ability to find words which in any way capture what one sees in the world around one. And there are poems in which I go so far as to say one shouldn’t be writing these poems because language is not up to it. But of course, it’s all we have, and I would say that poetry is the nearest thing to human speech we have. That is to say, if human beings can marginally manage to speak to one another, they surely do that in great poetry as nowhere else.” 

Around the time of the interview, Sisson was writing “The Trade” What and Who (1994): 

“The language fades.  The noise is more
Than ever it has been before,
But all the words grow pale and thin
For lack of sense has done them in. 

“What wonder, when it is for pay
Millions are spoken every day?
It is the number, not the sense
That brings the speakers pounds and pence. 

“The words are stretched across the air
Vast distances from here to there,
Or there to here:  it does not matter
So long as there is media chatter. 

“Turn up the sound and let there be
No talking between you and me:
What passes now for human speech
Must come from somewhere out of reach.”

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