Friday, March 30, 2007

`Decay with Imprecision'

Good writers distrust words as they revel in their music and power. Eliot embodied this ambivalence in the “Burnt Norton” portion of Four Quartets:

“Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.”

The tendency of language to “Decay with imprecision” – willfully or through indifference – accelerates with each commercial and press release. On Thursday I received an e-mail from somewhere in my university consisting of a single sentence: “This text is part of the internal format of your mail folder, and is not a real message.” This text, which you and I have just read as though it were real, is a symptom of our madness. The great slang-collector Eric Partridge wrote in Usage & Abusage:

“The more a person studies the subtle variations in the meaning of common words, the more he will be convinced of the dangerous nature of the tools he has to use in all communication and arguments; the more careful should he therefore be in his use of words.”

Geoffrey Hill’s poetry hinges on this ambivalence – distrust and exuberance. In “On the Sophoclean Moment in English Poetry,” collected in Without Title, he writes: “Words are never stone/except in their appearance.” Used well, with devotion to clarity and truth, words baffle an illiterate age. Beckett said it: “All writing is a sin against speechlessness. Trying to find a form for that silence.”

3 comments:

The Sanity Inspector said...

“The more a person studies the subtle variations in the meaning of common words, the more he will be convinced of the dangerous nature of the tools he has to use in all communication and arguments; the more careful should he therefore be in his use of words.”

Irregardless, most people probably could care less.

/ducks/

Joe (new york) said...

T.S. Eliot:"Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion."

This was quoted to Walker Percy by his life long friend Shelby Foote.
Foote continues:It's[the quote] profoundly true. Without the excitment this communicates, writing is not worth a grown man's time.

Kurt A. Tasche said...
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