Monday, April 11, 2016

`By Bards of Sentence'

“Sloomy of face,
Snudge of spirit,
Snoachy of speech”

No, it’s not Finnegans Wake, Lewis Carroll or a dyslexic’s best effort at poetry. It’s W. H. Auden’s “A Bad Night,” subtitled “(A Lexical Exercise)”, From Epistle to a Godson (1972). English is dense with words that are big, rare, obsolete and funny-sounding, especially to linguistically impoverished contemporaries with a working vocabulary of three-hundred words. An adept of the Oxford English Dictionary, Auden seems, like Shakespeare, never to have met a word he didn’t like. In his biography of the poet, Humphrey Carpenter reports the most conspicuous object in Auden’s workroom in Kirchstetten, Austria, was the OED, and as he got older he pillaged it with increasing frequency. Some lines in “A Bad Night” resemble sub-Edward Lear nonsense verse, but all his rarities are real, and at one time or another came out of the mouths of human beings. 

One might argue that no word is obsolete if a poet can find a use for it. In “The Permanent Auden” (Experiments Against Reality: The Fate of Culture in the Postmodern Age, 2000), Roger Kimball writes of Auden’s penchant for linguistic oddities: 

“How many do you know? [Two, and not knowing the rest is part of the fun. A dictionary is the favorite tool of readers and writers.] How many were chosen because the poet felt he had stumbled upon the one absolutely right word for the thought or feeling he was trying to express? How many did he adopt because he happened to pick them up from yesterday’s trip through the dictionary and they filled a metrical hole? Auden regularly described poetry as a verbal, akin to a crossword. Well, it is and it isn’t. Not all poems are verbal puzzles—not even all good ones—and it should go without saying that not all verbal puzzles are poems.” 

Well put. Some very good poets adopt a variation on the plain style – Ben Jonson, Yvor Winters, Philip Larkin. Others favor the baroque – Milton and Geoffrey Hill. Others alternate at will – Shakespeare and Auden. Good poetry is not a monolith but a lot of little, non-programmatic triumphs. “A Bad Night” is not a great poem but, as the subtitle suggests, it’s a pleasant stunt, a display of Auden’s dexterity, and one feels he could do almost anything he wished with words: 

“To re-faith himself,
He rummages lines,
Plangent or pungent,
By bards of sentence,
But all to his sample
Ring fribble or fop,
Not one of them worth
A hangman's wages.

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