4/24/16

On Donner, On Diction

In which the working poet asks a question of the wind.  

On a Saturday morning at 3am the winds began.  So fierce were they, and so long in duration, one couldn’t help take it personally.  Become entirely discombobulated.  Consider putting a gun to one’s head.  I canceled my plans for the day, having heard the gusts were at 60 MPH all over the valley.  The howling was incessant.  The cats began attacking one another.   The dog sunk into a deep depression.  Chimes and chairs and birdhouses flew past the windows.  Food sounded awful, drink even worse.  I paced the perimeters, watched from the bedroom as a metal piece of yard art split  in two.  Our yard- umbrella, its pole staked and buried into the hard ground months ago, was finally upended.  As it somersaulted across the yard and down the ravine, it knocked over our beloved cast iron bench.  

I recounted the horrors to the husband, who was secretly glad to be enjoying the temperate air in San Francisco.  I was, too.  During the call, several sirens blew past on his end.  The howling winds in the city never stop.  It’s just a different kind of crazy-making. 
This morning I woke to the sound of stillness.  I crept outside to inspect the damage, and opened my arms to the warmth of the day.  The wind had left the building.  Recovery efforts ensued.   Strewn across the deck and yard were broken ash trays, shattered pots, a cracked table, wind-chimes in heaps.  After a while I was distracted by the sight of some weeds in the garden, and began pulling them in earnest.  Pure joy.  Warm sun.  Stillness.  A day with nothing to do.   Later I would write, I assured myself.  For now, I shall forget the time and all deadlines or pressing matters.  Scrub jays.  A couple of quail.  The aspen sapling which had miraculously survived the winds.  Paradise.  
By early afternoon, I’d moved up the hill, and, having flipped the bench back over, sat to rest.   A warm breeze.  From behind, a sudden rustle, and a fierce little twister presented itself.  A funnel of small stones,  twigs and dust had been taking form, gaining strength as it spun past me and plunged down into the ravine.  

In these parts we call these little pockets of wind dust devils.  This one peaked in a cove about 10 yards down the hill,  just underneath the displaced umbrella.  That old umbrella was forced entirely open.   Each rib stretched to capacity,  it was lifted onto the air, up the slope, and was dropped a couple of feet from where it had stood the day before.
The wind giveth and the wind taketh away.    
*

In which the working poet asks a question of the learn'd professors.

In an essay called, The Genius of American Diction, Tony Hoagland writes:
"We American poets are millionaires; we possess a vocabulary extracted, imported, and patched together from so many tongues and sources, we can write checks with our mouths all day. We inhabit a linguistic landscape so etymologically wealthy that our most minor communications are studded with high and low improvisations. We have tinhorn and yahoo and meshuganah; we have yonder and redneck and hokeypokey, we have lily-livered and bumbershoot and rockabilly. Our diction is already mixed— a mixture of nationalities, jargons, eras, and attitudes. 
The receptivity of English to creative mongrelization may spring from its hybrid origins— from the Norman Conquest, in 1066, when Anglo-Saxon met French-Latin, and Middle English was conceived. Our forked tongue thus includes both work and labor, both dead and mortified, both hungry and famished. As a result perhaps, English, and especially American English, seems never to have taken a puritanical stance toward vocabulary. It has enlarged itself by freely absorbing vocabulary from Arabic, Iroquoian, and Indonesian. Other countries, such as France, have striven to shield and protect the purity of their language. But Americans love coinages and improvisation— linguistically, we don’t mind being “balkanized.”
In consequence, English is fantastically elastic and adroit. We possess so many alternative options for naming that our available expressive range is vast. Each synonym carries different implications, or connotations, of relative high and low, of attitude, formality , distance, and inflection. Thus, a poet can “say the same thing” on a semantic level while spinning the message in any variety of ways: pregnant is also knocked-up, gravid, expecting, bun in the oven, one on the way, great with child , and so on and so on. To use any interesting word is not just to pinpoint one meaning but also to invoke a whole resonating web of vocabularies, contexts, and ideas. In this particular way, diction is very much an instrument of associative imagination, and one of the many modes of intellect that collaborate in the making of a poem.".
In The Trial by Existence, Elizabeth Sergeant writes: 
Robert Frost has said over and over, that in his poetry he did not aim to keep to any particular diction, unliterary, vernacular, or slang.  He said, 
“What I have been after from the first, consciously and unconsciously is tones of voice. I've wanted to write down certain brute throat noises so that no one could miss them in my sentences. I have been guilty of speaking of sentences as a mere notation for indicating them. I have counted on doubling the meaning of my sentences with them. They have been my observation and my subject matter."

Emily Dickinson tells us, Tell the truth, but tell it slant ! 

Marianne Moore speaks of real toads in imaginary gardens.  
So, I said, given that we are here to discuss idiomatic speech as it pertains to poetry, it occurs to me that diction, or word choice, or the turn of phrase, if you will, is instrumental in creating tone, or tone of voice.  Tone is perhaps the weather that blows through the poem, orienting our perceptions, forming our shifting attitude toward the subject at hand, the speaker on hand, the poem at hand.   

It also occurs to me, I continued, (sensing I was going on too long, or about to make a leap that would meet with some serious resistance), It also occurs to me that perhaps some of our greatest poets are masters of tone.  Would you agree with this, I ask of of the three learn’d gentlemen gathered on the panel.  
One learn’d gentleman took issue with the word greatest, another took issue with the word tone, (too 'squishy', he later  explained), and what followed was a fascinating discussion between these two concerning the reason English is so diverse in the first place.  Neither agreed with Hoagland’s cursory explanation.  One argued that the reason the English language is so diverse is because of its unique linguistic structure, which allows for all manner of inclusion and bastardization.  The other countered that the language of empire will naturally dominate, whatever its linguistic structure. 

We were given lessons in history, political science, tasty little morsels of linguistic knowledge, tidbits on the Chines language, the Navajo language, and lots of stuff I wish I could remember about Latin.
I had prepared for this.  In the event that one learn’d gentleman should veer completely off course or dominate the conversation, (who, poets ?), I was prepared to begin slowly waving my arms back and forth.  Or spinning like a dervish round the room.  I had all manner of impossible-to-ignore interventions planned, for I have, as we say, been to this rodeo before.   But, so interesting was the discussion, I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt, save for a couple of conventional verbal interjections.  
After a while, the third learn'd gentleman leans in toward me and and says, This is fascinating... I speak three languages, and I’m just now beginning to realize I know nothing about language.  I think they’re both brilliant, and both right, he whispered, and I’m thrilled they’re going on like this, as I only had about five minutes worth of material.  
Me, too, I said, laughing. Indeed, the conversation was stimulating, and erudite and lively, and I was entirely interested in hearing it through.  Still, I couldn’t help notice that even when the... tone of the discourse shifted between the two, briefly, from congenial to pique, and back again, (for we are all old friends, and know one anothers' buttons and triggers and interruptor-tolerance) -- yes, even when the tone changed, and the weather in the room shifted, nobody wanted to talk about this thing we call tone.  

Which of course made me think of the volta, as it pertains to tone.  
I’m not even sure what to say about tone, myself, or perhaps it'd be more accurate to say I’m even not sure what I wanted to learn about tone that day.  I suppose such things are too subtle for explication, or deconstruction.  I only know what I scribbled into my journal soon after the conversation had ended and my head was still spinning.   

Don't look at me in that tone of voice ! 

Dear Tone, 

It seems we have a bone
to pick with you.  

Whatever, 
replies the letter.  

What
ever,  
replies the feather.  

Whatever 
the weather, 
what
ever the measure,

murmurs the vellum and
the volta, 

it's not
the font, 

it's not
the phonics, 

and neither is 


it just for sonnets.  
*

Next up:  Tone, Koan, and Atmosphere, Through a Glass Darkly, Out Through a Sphere