It’s a shameful admission but I’ve taken to talking to myself, and my sons have caught me at it. No hallucinations accompany such speech, no imaginary friends or prime directives to “get the bastards.” I’ve always sung, whistled and hummed as forms of one-way expression, and as a writer I read my copy half-aloud, moving my lips to gauge the sound – a practice I often encourage young and inexperienced writers to adopt. I’ve tried to remain conscious of this newly observed behavior, and have concluded that the driver behind it is simple and entirely non-pathological: pleasure. Most often I’m repeating flavorful words. I suck on them the way some people suck on hard candy (on the cover of Blue Train, John Coltrane sucks pensively on a lollipop, not a reed). When a good word or phrase comes along, I savor it, reluctant to let it go. I’m greedy for word-satisfaction. I’ve never thought of words as exclusively utilitarian. That would be like watching a televised symphony with the sound turned off.
Eric Ormsby, a sybarite of sound, suggests in his essay “Poetry as Isotope: The Hidden Life of Words” (Facsimiles of Time, 2001): “Poetry is made up of words and words are sounds. Poetry is sound before it is anything else. This is easy to forget. Indeed, this little fact is more usually forgotten than remembered by poets themselves, and it is why much of our contemporary poetry is so unmemorable.” Who can imagine sucking the toothsome marrow from the lines of such poets as Robert Bly or Gary Snyder, whose words are oatmeal – possibly good for you, but appallingly flavorless. In his same essay, Ormsby rhapsodizes his medium:
“In poetry the immediate pleasure is physical. Recurrence, repetition, pattern, design, account for much of the pleasure we receive from poetry; these returning patterns correspond to something in ourselves, to something in nature. They correspond to the rhythm of things. They echo the beat of our hearts, the pulse in our throats, the cadence of our breath. They reflect larger sequences of recurrence: the alternations of night and day, the succession of the seasons, the elemental speech of natural processes; the voices of rivers or of oceans; the various dialects of the winds; the articulated and recurrent cries of birds.”
The other day my fifteen-year-old son, who plays trombone, asked me the origin of gig in the context of jazz. The OED is disappointingly blunt: “Origin unknown.” Its first citation dates from 1926, in Melody Maker, but like Topsy, the word seems to have jes’ grew. Over the next day I would find myself experimentally repeating the mysterious little monosyllable, a word at once moist and nugget-like, a juicy stone. For a while I couldn’t squeeze enough pleasure from it. Then I spit it out like a watermelon seed. Shakespeare turned solitary talk into sublime expression – the soliloquy: “Words, words, words.”