Monday, January 07, 2008

`Articulate Creatures'

It took more than a month but the mailman on Saturday delivered Time's Covenant: Selected Poems, by Eric Ormsby, two weeks earlier than had promised. I won’t rehash the details but I’m pleased to own a book that has already set up shop in the sustenance and pleasure districts of my mind. As Ormsby writes of a similar reading experience in “Time’s Covenant (2006)”, “The Psalms had colonized my own brain-pan/Eons before.”

His work is rich and calorie-filled in an age of poetry-as-ricecake, and calls us to celebrate the supreme human gift -- language. With few exceptions, the work likeliest to attract us and sustain the attraction is actively written. Great writers are never passive amanuenses, holding buckets and catching what pours from the stream of consciousness. Music and thought shape words. Bill Bryson, in his just-published Shakespeare: The World as a Stage, writes:

“It is often said that what sets Shakespeare apart is his ability to illuminate the workings of the soul and so on, and he does that superbly, goodness knows, but what really characterizes his work -- every bit of it, in poems and plays and even dedications, throughout every portion of his career -- is a positive and palpable appreciation of the transfixing power of language. A Midsummer Night’s Dream remains an enchanting work after four hundred years, but few would argue that it cuts to the very heart of human behaviour. What it does do is take, and give, a positive satisfaction in the joyous possibilities of verbal expression.”

Bryson’s brief biography is based on the few unassailable facts we have about Shakespeare’s life. Speculation is blessedly sparse and judicious. What that leaves us is a portrait of a hardworking playwright, a professional rooted in a competitive, unforgiving world. Bryson musters the evidence that Shakespeare wrote with admirable speed, like any pro. For these reasons, the sustained splendor of his words seems even more miraculous. In his essay “Poetry as Isotope” (collected in Facsimiles of Time), Ormsby might be writing about Shakespeare when he revels in our linguistic legacy:

“With all the misuses and the perversions of language to which our tongues are prone, it is still a privilege to be a creature in whose mouth language has grown, and an honor to give utterance in these puffs of air which assume coherence and significance in a receiving ear; to partake of shared speech and discourse and conversation and colloquy. So much so that at times, almost overwhelmed by the sense of this privilege and its signal strangeness, we could imagine that all the bronze and granite columns we raise up to our pride mean less in the end than these momentary monuments of sense we erect not only when we read or write or recite poetry but also when we converse or teach or simply speak. Maybe it is just in the evanescence of our words, in their transient intricacies, that our ultimate dignity as articulate creatures resides.”

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

You can say that again!