Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Rare Words

One of the collateral pleasures of reading Geoffrey Hill’s poetry is the sheer volume of rare words he brings to us. A new word is a new world, after all, and one of the poet’s jobs is creation of worlds as yet unsuspected, or a new way of seeing the old world, which amounts to the same thing. A concordance to Hill’s work would dwarf any living poet’s, and probably rival any since – who? Crane and Hopkins are notable for dazzling word-hoards, but both left relatively small bodies of work. I’m being cautious here, and Joyce’s bounty comes largely in prose, but scholars armed with computers assure us that Shakespeare used 31,534 different words in his plays and poems, and 14,376 of them only once. Linguistic profligacy on this scale is unimaginable today, or rather imaginable only in Hill.

“Wild Clematis in Winter” is from Without Title, and written “i.m. [im memorium] William Cookson,” the English poet and longtime editor of the journal Agenda. Its eight lines contain one word new to me – probably a typical ratio for Hill:

“Old traveller’s joy appears like naked thorn blossom
as we speed citywards through blurry detail –
wild clematis’ springing false bloom of seed pods,
the earth lying shotten, the sun shrouded off-white,
wet ferns ripped bare, flat as fishes’ backbones,
with the embankment grass frost-hacked and hackled,
wastage, seepage, showing up everywhere,
in this blanched apparition.”

Poem as music, a joy on the tongue (“frost-hacked and hackled”). Shotten, the past participle of shoot, is new (to me) and old (to English). The Oxford English Dictionary gives five principal definitions, plus variants, most of them obsolete. The first reported use is 1225; the last, 1886:

1.“Of an arrow: Shot from a bow.”
2. “Of a wound: Produced by gunshot.”
3. “Of tin.”
4. “? Crystallized.”
5. “Of a fish (esp. a herring): That has spawned.”
6. “In shotten herring, applied to a person who is exhausted by sickness or destitute of strength or resources [archaic] Hence [generally], Thin, emaciated; worthless, good-for-nothing.”
7. “Blood-shot. quasi-[archaic].”
8. “[dialect] Of milk: Sour, curdled.”

Hill’s usage is closest to six, though he describes not a person but the hard winter earth. I hear an echo of Chaucer, the “Prologue,” but “aprill with his shoures soote” is far away. The landscape is grim, infertile, unforgiving, his pilgrims are aging, and there’s an other-worldly hint – “sun shrouded off-white,” “blanched apparition.” Hill spins a new use for shotten, following the lead of Shakespeare, who used it three times, all related but nuanced away from the others. In King Henry IV, Part I (Act II, Scene IV), Falstaff says: “A villainous coward! Go thy ways, old Jack; die when thou wilt, if manhood, good manhood, be not forgot upon the face of the earth, than am I a shotten herring.”

In The Taming of the Shrew (Act II, Scene II), Biondello describes Petruchio, in an extended tour de force of mockery, as “swayed in the back and shoulder-shotten.” And in King Henry V (Act III, Scene V), Bourbon rages:

“Norman, but bastard Norman, Norman bastards!
Mort de la vie! If they march along
Unfought withal, but I will sell my dukedom,
To buy a slobbery and a dirty farm
In that nook-shotten isle of Albion.”

Shotten, in Hill’s context, comes close to the American idiom shot, meaning spent, used-up, broken. It also sounds like stage-German, the sort of thing Sid Caesar used to spew: Shotten Sie, Schweinhund! I mentioned Hart Crane, and another poem from Without Title, “Improvisations for Hart Crane,” contains the unfamiliar (to me) sortilegist and sordor. The OED defines the first as “One who arranges the drawing of lots,” and cites only one use, from a newspaper in 1865: “This college sortilegist pretended to be much annoyed at the result he had taken such pains to procure.” Sortilege, however, seems fairly common, at least into the 19th century. It means: “The practice of casting lots in order to decide something or to forecast the future; divination based on this procedure or performed in some other way; sorcery, magic, witchcraft,” and “An act or instance of divining, choosing, or deciding by the drawing or casting of lots.” All of this helps deepen our understanding of Hill’s Crane:

“Slumming for rum and rhumba, dumb Rimbaud,
He the sortilegist, visionary on parole,
Floor-walker watching space, the candy man,
Artiste of neon, traffic’s orator,
Gaunt cantilevers engined by the dawn
Of prophecy.”

Later in the poem Hill writes:

“Unwise these thoughts high-spanned. A shade too much
Library of America, liberty
safe on the list, shiny-electric-gated,
sordor its new-old mansions.”

This is dense, and I’m not certain knowing the definition of sordor is helpful. Again, the OED: “Physical or moral sordidness.” Clearly, that describes some of Crane’s shenanigans. What’s more interesting are the OED citations, including Byron, Emerson (“The sordor and filths of nature.”), and T.S. Eliot from After Strange Gods: “The sordor of the half-dead mill towns of southern New Hampshire and Massachusetts.”

Most of the rare words Hill employs I’m unlikely ever to use or even see again, though I have high hopes for sordor, which sounds like the name of a character in Tolkien. So why does Hill bother? It’s no coincidence he’s obsessed equally with history and language, because etymology recapitulates history. Hill wishes to super-compress meaning into words. His poems rewritten in the manner of, say, Tony Hoagland, whose language, thought and sense of history are gruel-thin, is unthinkable. Rare words, like all words in the hands of sensitive writers, carry echoes and whispers, which are at least as important and useful as trumpet blasts of denotative meaning. Consider how in his essay “Poetry as `Menace’ and `Atonement’” (collected in The Lords of Limit) Hill glosses atonement, and how his gloss intensifies the way you listen to the word:

“…my theme would be simple; simply this: that the technical perfecting of a poem is an act of atonement, in the radical etymological sense – an act of at-one-ment, a setting at one, a bringing into concord, a reconciling, a uniting in harmony…”

Finally, just as important for this reader is language with a thick, allusive, musical texture. That’s why I return so often to Shakespeare, Donne, Hopkins and Berryman. Minimalism has its place (is J.V. Cunningham a minimalist? Samuel Beckett?) but, on balance, William Carlos Williams’ influence on American poetry has been baleful. I say that as a qualified admirer of William’s best work, but the pleasures he gives us are small. Hill sees his work in a moral context, as a corrective to the accelerating entropy of language. He summons every linguistic strength to his cause. In the Tanner lectures he delivered in 2000, Hill quoted with approval these lines from the commonplace book of Ben Jonson:

“Wheresoever, manners, and fashions are corrupted, Language is, It imitates the politicke riot. The excesse of Feasts, and apparell, are the notes of a sick State; and the wantonnesse of language, of a sick mind.”


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