Tuesday, January 24, 2017

`I Am a Splurger by Nature'

Not counting the title, I detect seven words in Eric Ormsby’s “White Phalaenopsis” that might be judged rare, exotic, used in an unexpected way or, in the lexicon of some readers, high-falutin’. For Christmas we received a potted orchid – a petite spotted phalaenopsis -- that sits in judgment on the window sill over the kitchen sink. It’s a snooty flower, delicate and demanding, and we were instructed to water it with melting ice cubes. The damned thing won’t die. Like Chesterton, I’m more of a dandelion man. I favor that working-class hero among flowers over its high-born cousins. But Ormsby is right to use a baroque vocabulary when it comes to orchids, which are synonymous with hot-house exoticism. Amy Clampitt uses a similar strategy in “The Smaller Orchid.” Plain talk wouldn’t do unless the intent was satire. Besides, Ormsby is blessed with a lush vocabulary and loves deploying it. In a 2005 interview, he defends his libertine love of language:

“I’d like to think there’s no English word I couldn’t conceive of using in a poem somehow. And why not? The world is full of fantastic beings – why should our lexicon be any less so?”

This might be read as Ormsby’s endorsement of linguistic self-indulgence, the blather of a show-off, but I read it as a Shakespearean embrace of the world’s bounty, including words. If Ormsby were interested in tortured personal confessions or life’s precious little epiphanies – the focus of most contemporary poems -- a purposely stripped-down and colloquial language might be appropriate. But this poet’s eye is on the world, not on the poet. He continues in the interview:

“But I have to admit too that this besottedness with words, this playing the ringmaster in menageries of vocables, can be a self-indulgence.  I am a splurger by nature but one who doesn’t fully approve of splurging; as a result, I binge on words but then repent myself. This is one reason why form is so important for me; not because I’m a formalist – I loathe that label – but because form is the only way I have of reining in my own extravagance. In the end, it’s the tension between exuberance and form that is interesting.”

Form as an end in itself is sterile, as is the strictly formless. Ormby’s poems are pleasure-driven (for poet, for reader), and his interview with Robyn Sarah is the most revealing I have read. For instance, I never knew he only began writing essays in 1998, and that he saw them as a way to say things he was unable to express in poems:

“. . . you fashion a different authorial voice when you write prose; you can be casual, digressive, a bit offhand or even genially banal, you can make various forms of small talk – all gambits that doom a poem. (By the way, I don’t think my poems are hermetic; if anything, they suffer from excessive transparency, there’s nothing to explicate in them, they are what they are about, a starfish or a grackle or a childhood recollection.)”    

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