Saturday, June 28, 2008

`Words are Sounds'

In A Backward Glance, Edith Wharton reports her friend Henry James saying:

“Summer afternoon -- summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”

Whenever I hear James’ charmed pair I think of the opening of The Portrait of a Lady, particularly this sentence:

“The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon.”

Somewhere, Faulkner said the most evocative English word, if not the most beautiful, was twilight. A friend whom I haven’t seen in more than 20 years said his favorite words, because they set off in him a mysterious reverie, were Land’s End. This was long before the catalog, and my friend’s sensibility was not poetic. When I knew him he managed a Lane’s drugstore in Bryan, Ohio, and he later worked as a tour guide in Washington, D.C. But as a young man he had served in the navy and was stationed in San Diego. For him, Land’s End suggested the terminus of the continent, the sun setting on the Pacific. I can’t say I have a favorite word, though the one I most enjoy pronouncing is molybdenum.

In a 1929 entry from The Notebooks of Robert Frost, the poet writes a brief dialogue between Boy and Man. Boy asks Man to choose his favorite word and Man says he doesn’t have one. Boy replies:

“My favorite words are silver and twilight. Some people think pavement is the most beautiful word in the language. Pav-e-ment – pav-e-ment. A boy at the Poetry Society last night had a set of poems all full of the words silver and twilight and frosted. I never heard anything I liked better.”

Man says: “The first thing frosted taken alone brings into my head is cake.”

Boy says: “Don’t!”

I like Frost punning on his own name and puncturing Boy’s romantic swoon. The editor of The Notebooks, Robert Faggen, gives a useful footnote for “pav-e-ment,” from Arnold Bennett’s Literary Taste: How to Form It (1909):

“When you read a book there are only three things of which you may be conscious: (1) The significance of the words, which is inseparably bound up with the thought. (2) The look of the printed word on the page – I do not suppose that anybody reads any author for the visual beauty of the words on the page. (3) The sound of the words, either actually uttered or imagined by the brain to be uttered. Now it is indubitable that words differ in beauty and sound. To my mind one of the most beautiful words in the English language is `pavement.’”

That the author of Riceyman Steps, the poet of the ordinary, is moved by pavement is no surprise. I like it, too: A trochee that starts with a buzzing nothing and ends incisively, like Dr. Johnson kicking the stone. By their sounds alone, words are powerful medicine, as Eric Ormsby suggests in “Poetry as Isotope” (collected in Facsimiles of Time):

“Poetry is made up of words and words are sounds. Poetry is sound before it is anything else. This is easy to forget. Indeed, this little fact is more usually forgotten than remembered by poets themselves, and it is why much of our contemporary poetry is so unmemorable.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like "rickets." It's a bad thing, but it sounds like a charming lawn game you'd play on a summer afternoon.