“I have noticed that with many writers there is an adjective they will frequently use, a verbal tic even, both in their speech and in their prose, that points, probably unwittingly, to some dimension of their own work. With Geoffrey Hill, for example, it is exemplary; with W.S. Graham it is wow wow; and with Middleton it is abstruse.”
I’ve noticed the same thing, though I never took Kociejowski’s next step and drew a conclusion about the meaning of such repetitions, involuntary or otherwise. With Henry James, of course, the word, a noun, is consciousness. During one reading of The Ambassadors, I noted its stammer-like frequency in this least stammering of writers, wondered if it was intentional, and starting paying attention. Consciousness appears in each of the novel’s chapters, like bread crumbs left to mark the trail by Hansel and Gretel. For Guy Davenport, the adjective of choice might be lucid or archaic; Philip Larkin, grey; Eric Ormsby (a master of invented adjectives found nowhere else – “sphagnum,” for instance), elegant and elemental; Yvor Winters, steady.
I offer impressions, not conclusive critical judgments that would be better handled by computer software. My interest in Kociejowski’s observation is readerly. Most writers, like most painters, work with a definable palette. We wouldn’t expect to find violaceous (another Ormsby favorite) in Hemingway. Reading a writer attentively, across multiple volumes, is an act of trust and partnership. We know our man to be carefully seeding his furrows, but not averse to permitting the odd weed to flourish. He has much to tell us, some of which he knows nothing about. Here is how Kociejowski proceeds after identifying Middleton’s abstruse:
“It is important here to note that the dictionary defines the word as not only `hard to understand’ but also `profound.’ This is precisely where Middleton diverges [a word forever owned by Robert Frost] from so much poetry being written, in which despite its claims to newness the seemingly abstruse is merely obtuse.”