Wednesday, April 07, 2021

'A Kind of Collection of Flies in Amber'

Some people collect stamps, first editions or grievances. I collect words, phrases and sentences, and have since I was a kid. While in high school I read that Hart Crane, a fellow Ohioan, kept lists of words that attracted him as a magpie is attracted to shiny things. Some words, absent meaning, mesmerized him by their sound: words as music. He resolved to find a home for them in future poems – and did, sometimes to the detriment of the poems. I remember findrinny, a word he eventually rejected, though Yeats and Joyce had used it. A fine word if pinned in a specimen case, but not for use in more prosaic settings, especially if you are not Irish. 

Virtually every time I read a book, especially one from the pre-Hemingway era, I find at least one or two words new to me, or familiar words used in a novel sense, or words so striking in sound or sense that they ought to be preserved. So I write them down. Some are recycled into whatever I happen to be writing. English is so rich in vocabulary, to the point of glorious redundancy, that a writer would be ungrateful not to mine it. In her foreword to A Marianne Moore Reader (1961), Moore writes:


“Verse: ‘Why the many quotation marks?’ I am asked. Pardon my saying more than once, When a thing has been said so well that it could not be said better, why paraphrase it? Hence my writing is, if not a cabinet of fossils, a kind of collection of flies in amber.”


Some readers will decide Moore’s collecting instinct – and mine – is yet another form of showing off: “Look what I’ve read and you haven’t!” Rather, it’s proper etiquette and sometimes even a humble, generous gesture: “Look what I’ve read! Isn’t it wonderful? So wonderful, I wanted to share it with you.”  

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