Monday, February 15, 2016

`The Words Are Stretched Across the Air'

I was reading C.H. Sisson’s Collected Poems (1998) on Saturday when I learned of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death at age seventy-nine. Both men were strong-willed, immune to fashion, brilliant and much concerned with language, its power and limitations, nearly to the point of obsession. Both admired and quoted Dr. Johnson. In 2008, writing the court’s opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, Scalia cited the definition of “arms” in Johnson’s Dictionary (1755). In his dissenting opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), Scalia wrote, responding to the majority: 

“`The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality.’ (Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.” 

No one expects such candor, wit and common sense from a public servant. A longtime English civil servant, Sisson returns repeatedly to questions of language, especially in his later poetry. This is “Hola” from What and Who (1994): 

“Words do not hold the thing they say:
Say as you will, the thing escapes
Loose upon air, or in the shapes
Which struggle still before the eyes.
Hola will run upon its way
And never catch up with its prize.”
And here, from the same volume, is “The Trade,”’ presumably a reference to the writing trade:
"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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