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WORDS

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Dick Cavett once remarked that he read road signs backward. I didn’t think anyone else did that; but ever since I was a kid, I would reverse words on stores, street signs, people’s names, anything printed on the highway. It can get you into trouble, as well as amuse you in a dull situation. When I was asked to perform the role of Charles Goodnight, the legendary Panhandle rancher, for an Oklahoma Chautauqua tent show, I greeted my host at the airport by telling her that Tulsa backward spelled “a slut.” She was not amused. Smut is tums, of course. Dallas Wiebe, the novelist and my teacher of modern literature at the University of Cincinnati, observed that reversal before I could get it out. He wrote Skyblue the Badass back in 1969, which is still in print. There is something closely associated to writing in this habit to reverse, palindromatize, if that’s a word, or otherwise mess up the usual orthography (correct spelling).

The modern master of word play and scrambling was e.e. cummings, who saw language as a painter might – as things to be freely rearranged on the page for their visual impact. (He was an abstract painter among other things.) Take his poem “Loneliness,”

1(a le af fa ll s) one l iness

The poem separates loneliness from “a leaf falls,” thereby expressing a thought about autumn and death by a very simple means. The process of splitting up words is called tmesis, and he uses it a lot. So did Gertrude Stein. My favorite moment of tmesis is in her little book, Tender Buttons, on the matter of eating:

eat ing

Students found everything in Stein impenetrable, but when I asked what they did when they ate, they responded, we chew. After a moment, the laughter broke out across the room. She bit the word in half to eat it. To see words on the page is in part what we have lost as readers of poetry, and of fiction. We don’t experience language anymore, we process it for the information. But half of language involves the experience of words themselves – as in James Joyce’s repetition of “Yes” in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. Each time the word becomes more erotic and charged with her inexhaustible sensuality. She is, after all, Aphrodite in this Homeric tale, and her thighs welcome all lovers. Her yes is the cosmic affirmation of love itself. But the continuous incantatory recurrence makes you feel the word, ingest it, turn it over in the mind each time, until it becomes more important than sense or what tiny quantum of information the actual word might possess.

Eliot said that typos from the printer were often better words than he had written, and he kept some of them. The French word for couch is chaise longue; by the time it got to the U.S., it got muddled into lounge chair, and the word lounge spun off to represent something slightly un-Puritan and sinful. The “Austin Lounge Lizards” clearly want to exploit that meaning in their satires on all things cowboy and religious. The mistake is important – as Robert Duncan, the California poet, observed – the mistake is the second layer of linguistic imagination, and when it breaks through the boundary of common sense to insinuate its collective dream stuff, better keep it. That’s Jung all over. Allen Ginsburg told me once that he regretted overstating his mantra, “First thought, best thought.” It justified Peter Orlovsky’s insistence on keeping the misspelling in “Frist Poem,” published in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry in 1960. Ginsburg was caught in a doctrinal dispute with himself, but he stood by Peter, his long-term partner.

When Denise Levertov saw Orlovsky’s poem published as is, she dropped her affiliation with the Beats in her essay, “Some Notes on Organic Form,” and went her own way. Poems on envelopes and typos were not her thing, she said. Some decorum couldn’t, shouldn’t go. She was speaking for England when she said that. The English poets of the 20th century were loath to alter the integrity of the poem too much; their heritage of Shakespeare and Donne and Browning made them stick to their conventions, whereas Americans, with Whitman and Dickinson as their ancestry, were free to break with any rule, especially those from Mother England. A colonial society could express its new freedom by throwing out a lot of the piety and orthodoxy of the mother country, hence Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” and Dickinson’s slant rhyme, and “tell the truth, but tell it slant.”

Maybe that’s why every ethnic group and oppressed gender in the modern age has taken hammer and tongs to language itself – Ebonics, so-called “black English,” jive and rap, all seem to point the way toward an appropriated second English; the raid on masculine pronouns and the subject-verb-object sentence paradigm of male hegemony were assailed in the 1970s by pioneering feminists looking for a new way to express themselves without being imperialized by the male regime. But language is heavy, like boulders in the stream, and they don’t much change their character over a few decades. When Shelley said he put the comma in in the morning, and took it out again in the afternoon, he was wrestling with the difficulty of altering the nature of speech. But commas fly like crows down the page of a cummings poem, and disappear altogether in much free verse of the post-WWII era.

For the reader to skim in a hurry a poem’s surface, or the prose of Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, David Foster Wallace, the information is really quite paltry from such word grinding. The real substance of the language lies in its own repose on the page, the gaps, the leaps, the tongue-curling phrasing, the beautiful slithery grace of s-driven epithets. Who would stop to think that the r in English is motion, and so is the l – so that you miss altogether the beauty of a word like river, which is all about motion, and the glitter of its rolling water, which allows nature to burst through the surface of the artificial medium of language. As Pound once noted, when a poet is good, in any language, you can hear the landscape in its sounds, no matter how foreign the words are.

When I told my host that Tulsa spelled backward read “a slut,” I didn’t know how religious the town was, with a church on every corner in the downtown, and the raised and prayerful hands at the gate to Oral Roberts University. Backward, like a Satan pun, stood the word a slut, and forwards was the prim, buttoned-up propriety of Tulsa. Beware, readers, the devil lurks in every word and phrase, and the music of the gods is always just under the surface of mundane information. The game of golf, after all, is a flog; god is a dog; live is evil; or as I noted in a short story, “Water,” the phrase In God We Trust has an anagram, I Turn God West, which may explain our present crisis in the Middle East.

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