Thursday, September 12, 2019

'Set to More or Less Lascivious Music'

“Poetry is two quite distinct things, and may be either or both. One is a series of words that are intrinsically musical, in clang-tint and rhythm, as the single words cellar-door and sarcoma are musical. The other is a series of ideas, false in themselves, that offer a means of emotional and imaginative escape from the harsh realities of everyday.”

Clang-tint stopped me. It’s a word that appears to mingle two of the five senses, hearing and sight. The OED supplies one citation, “The quality of a sound, also called its clang-tint or timbre,” from Charles Henry Burnett’s The Ear: Its Anatomy, Physiology, and Diseases (1877). The Dictionary then refers us back to the third definition of clang and this note, taken from the Irish physicist John Tyndall’s 1867 volume Sound:

“An assemblage of tones, such as we obtain when the fundamental tone and the harmonics of a string sound together, is called by the Germans a Klang. May we not employ the English word clang to denote the same thing . . . and may we not . . . add the word colour or tint, to denote the character of the clang, using the term clang-tint as the equivalent of Klangfarbe?”

The author of the passage at the top is H.L. Mencken. It’s the opening of “The Poet and His Art,” first published in Smart Set in 1920 and collected two years later in Prejudices: Third Series. Mencken was an amateur musician (piano), occasional critic of music and an admirer of German culture, and would know a word like Klangfarbe. I like his definition of poetry with its emphasis on musicality. As to the musical quality of certain words in isolation, many of us carry around an anthology of favorites. Mencken is right about sarcoma, though its meaning clashes with its music. Recently I’ve grown fond of sorbet (sore-BAY) and I like the way a Florida-born, longtime Texan coworker pronounces theater: thee-AY-ter. Were I to pronounce it that way, it would be phony and patronizing. For him, it’s natural. Mencken concludes his essay’s opening paragraph:

“In brief, poetry is a comforting piece of fiction set to more or less lascivious music—a slap on the back in waltz time—a grand release of longings and repressions to the tune of flutes, harps, sackbuts, psalteries and the usual strings.”

Just as an aside, sackbut has a certain amusingly musical quality about it. In “The Poet and His Art,” Mencken – who elsewhere lauds Walt Whitman, the poet who did the most to blur the distinction between poetry and prose, and not in a good way – cites Shakespeare as his chief example of a great poet. Again, he emphasizes the acoustical element – the sound – over the sense. Mencken is a contrarian not a vulgarian:

“The content of the Shakespearean plays, in fact, is often puerile, and sometimes quite incomprehensible. No scornful essays by George Bernard Shaw and Frank Harris were needed to demonstrate the fact; it lies plain in the text. One snickers sourly  over the spectacle of generations of pedants debating the question of Hamlet’s mental processes; the simple fact is that Shakespeare gave him no more mental processes than a Fifth Avenue rector has, but merely employed him as a convenient spout for some of the finest music ever got into words.”

Mencken was born on this date, Sept. 12, in 1880 and died on Jan. 29, 1956.

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