Wednesday, May 14, 2014

`The Trance That Art Exists to Provide'

A friend now dead once guiltily admitted to having a favorite word: landsend -- not the clothing retailer with the catalogs. The OED judges it two words – land’s end – meaning the “extremity or furthest projecting point of a country.” The latest citation is from 1793. Mike served in the Navy in the late nineteen-fifties and associated the word with San Diego, the westernmost reaches of the continent, on the margins of the places mapmakers once left blank. I say “guiltily” because he was a pragmatist almost immune to whimsy. He had a lively sense of humor but it was sharp like Occam’s razor, never sentimental. The notion of having a favorite word would have seemed childish to him, but he savored the feel of landsend and the happy associations with his younger self it carried. 

I’ve never had a favorite word; rather, I’ve had too many, and they fade with time. Some I’ve treasure for their music: scaffolding. Some for the thoughts and sounds that suffuse them: zygote, zaftig, scrim and scree. Some are just amusing to pronounce: molybdenum and polydactyly. Les Murray’s poems are written in a dialect (or idiolect) within a dialect of English – that is, Murray-esque Australian English. His word-soup is almost as rich and savory as Shakespeare’s. In his Paris Review interview Murray says:  

“Favorite words of mine are legion and ever-changing: cobble, cullet, solar wind, liftoff, king parrot, jink, mirrory, watermelon, shofar, curd, burnished, halo, biplane, trance, pomander, asperge, Bildschirm, Eingeweide . . .” 

His list mingles the familiar and arcane. Murray uses cullet in “Words of the Glassblowers” (Dog Fox Field, 1990). The OED defines this metaphorically rich word as “broken or refuse glass with which the crucibles are replenished.” Jink is “the act of eluding; a quick turn so as to elude a pursuer or escape from a guard,” especially in soccer and aeronautics. From it we derive high jinks. Sad to say, the OED cites Sylvia Plath for mirrory: “This is the surgeon: One mirrory eye.” Pomander has several meanings, all related suggestively to “a mixture of aromatic substances, usually made into a ball, and carried in a small box or bag in the hand or pocket, or suspended by a chain from the neck or waist, esp. as protection against infection or unpleasant smells.” Of possible interest to Murray is the usage deemed “rare”: “a book containing a collection of prayers, secrets, poems, etc.” 

Asperge, most recently cited in the sixteenth century, is “a sprinkling of holy water.” Murray is a serious Roman Catholic who has dedicated most of his books “to the glory of God.” He also has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, and he mingles his faith and his diagnosis in “The Tune on Your Mind” (The Biplane Houses, 2006). The last two words on Murray’s list, both German, mean “monitor” or “screen,” as of a computer, and “intestines,” “guts” or “viscera,” respectively. 

“Poet” and “poseur” are too often synonymous. In Murray we have an original, a legitimate eccentric with an imagination usually large for poet. He uses obscure and recondite words because he loves them and they get the job done, not because he’s an “elitist” and wishes to cull his readership. He says in the interview: 

“Readers would be rightly insulted if they felt I’d assumed they were less smart or less sophisticated than I am. That would be unbearably condescending. And anyway they like some puzzlement, some baroque, perhaps, and certainly some material that doesn't release all its savor at a first lick. Really, writers and readers alike, as you know, we work beyond our own intelligence; necessarily so. That’s the raison d’etre, the road to the trance that art exists to provide. The significances in a poem ought to be latent as well as patent: You find them as a matter of pleasure as you are reading; you don't need a critic to tell them to you.” 

This sounds remarkably like the thinking of one of Murray’s contemporaries, Geoffrey Hill, another faith-minded, word-drunk poet, who said in a 2002 interview: “In my view, difficult poetry is the most democratic, because you are doing your audience the honour of supposing that they are intelligent human beings.” 

Murray is also good on the convergence of language and politics: 

“I would never place myself on any left-right axis. That’s `bullet in the back of the head’ language, gulag language. To hell with it. That is the terminology of those who are out to co-opt art and prevent it from moving on. It's the currency of those who fund our weak poets on condition that the baby boomers will never be superseded. One of my ideals is to get to the places beyond argument—I don't like conflict: of ideals, of values. . . . I’m a dissident author; the deadliest inertia is to conform with your times.”


Denkof Zwemmen said...

It might be an apocryphal story, but T. S. Eliot is supposed to have replied to a questionnaire sent out by American high school students somewhere that, by his lights, the most beautiful word in the English language was “cellar door.”
I quickly checked Google and couldn’t find any solid provenance for this story. Some people ascribe the ennobling of “cellar door” to Tolkien (whom no one I knew had ever heard of, when I first heard the Eliot attribution).
It was obvious to me, when I first heard this story, that what attracted Eliot to “cellar door” was its resemblance to “stella d’oro,” but I can’t remember whether I’d thought of that myself or it was suggested to me by someone else.

Dave Lull said...

Here's Michael Gilleland on "The Euphony of Cellar Door":

George said...

Cellar door calls to mind the story in Iris Origo's Images and Shadows of the Italian classicist who was waiting for the pot to boil for his dinner, and said "Pentola, pentola, pentola, bolli. Pentola, bolli!", then said to a friend "What beautiful hexameters", for it was in the classic patternn of dactyls and spondees of epic verse.

Denkof Zwemmen said...

Thanks for that link, Dave Lull. After reading it, I thought: well, cellar door worship couldn't be all that ancient a persuasion; cellar door must be a relatively modern term. Wrong again! The Online Etymological Dictionary says it was used as early as the 1640's. It would be interesting to find out when the phrase first struck someone as beautiful, and who that someone was. (I still think that "stella d'oro" is the germ of the attraction of "cellar door.")