October, and perhaps for you, like me, a month in which certain poems make their annual return to memory. The weather, no doubt, the chill of one’s mortality. Not that this phenomenon is confined only to its season – not at all. Monica Youn’s “A Parking Lot in West Houston”, for example. is summer to me; Issa and Tony Hoagland’s “A Color of the Sky”, spring. Stevens’ “The Snow Man’, of course, and Larkin’s “The Trees”. But autumn… already in this new month I have wafted into sleep beside the ghostly reverb of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “October is the treasurer of the year”, and risen with Keats’ “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” shouting through the windowpane. But the two fall poems that have remained my most consistent companions over the years are from Rilke — the well-known “Autumn Day” (I chose the Stephen Mitchell translation) — and Jean Follain, his “October Thoughts” from Merwin’s translation of Transparency of the World, which I have read probably a hundred times and offer to you below.
How one loves
this great wine
that one drinks all alone
when the evening illumines its coppered hills
not a hunter now stalks the lowland game
the sisters of our friends
seem more beautiful
at the same time there is a threat of war
an insect pauses
then goes on.
Ah – “the sisters of our friends/seem more beautiful” – what angel delivered that? And what poem is now knocking at your door?
Anyway. Let’s turn now to Brian Culhane’s thoughts on poetical diction in general, and Louise Glück’s most particularly.
Words, Common and Uncommon
All summer long, I’ve been thinking about words, especially the palpable division (gulf, chasm, crevasse, bergschrund) between common and uncommon ones. My interest was sparked by an observation Louise Glück makes about diction in her essay “The Education of the Poet” (originally a lecture delivered in 1989 and reprinted in her Proofs and Theories: Essays in Poetry). There she notes that “The axiom is that the mark of poetic intelligence or vocation is passion for language, which is thought to mean delirious response to language’s smallest communicative unit: to the word. The poet is supposed to be the person who can’t get enough of words like ‘incarnadine.’” Whether Glück’s right about people generally thinking that, “having a passion for language,” poets are drawn to unusual words, what intrigues me are two things: what makes Glück favor simple language, and why does she choose that particular adjective, “incarnadine,” as representative of people’s false notions of poetic interest?
The answer to the first question isn’t difficult to find, but it’s difficult to unravel. Glück’s essay explores her own education as a poet, her own passion for the language, which she says arose from a youthful predilection for the simplest vocabulary: “What fascinated me were the possibilities of context. What I responded to, on the page, was the way a poem could liberate, by means of a word’s setting, through subtleties of timing, of pacing, that word’s full and surprising range of meaning. It seemed to me that simple language best suited this enterprise; such language, in being generic, is likely to contain the greatest and most dramatic variety of meaning within individual words.”
Glück here is drawing a distinction between simple words and those generally seen as more “poetical,” (i.e., recondite, fancy, remote, abstruse), much as Wordsworth did over two centuries ago in “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” when he announced his desire to reform artificially elevated poetic diction (“the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers”) and turn instead to “a selection of language really used by men.” Such a selection, he tells us, can best be found in “incidents and situations from common life,” especially from “humble and rustic life.” Now Glück doesn’t link her early preference for simple language to a concomitant interest in everyday incidents and situations, rural or not (in fact, her poems often invoke classical mythology); rather, she emphasizes that, given the right setting or tone, simple words, as opposed to their arcane brethren, may offer a more full and surprising range of meaning. This paradox makes sense, as any glance at the OED confirms the depths of meanings in everyday words—see the entries for set, make, put, and run (the last being the longest entry, with 645 discrete senses).
On the other hand, when Glück describes such simple words as being “generic,” she gave me pause. Hadn’t generations of writing teachers called students out for using words that broadly referred to an entire class, type or category? Precision required specificity, clarity, detail. What might distinguish this poem’s image of the moon from some other? Generic language describes, well, the moon in general, and any old moon will do. Can generic language possibly offer a poet more variety and complexity, however such words are set, spun, tossed or dangled within a phrase, whatever the pace or tone of the line?
And yet. I felt the justness of her point, too. Many of my favorite poems use common words in uncommon ways, something Auden may have been thinking of when he noted that, in “Mending Wall,” Frost “dropped to a level of diction that even Wordsworth kept above” and that the poem contains just two words of more than two syllables. (No incarnadines there!) “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” is about as plain and common as one can get, but the opening inversion of normal syntax puts a curious spin on the ordinary, the generic. I can’t imagine one of Frost’s neighbors leaning over his stones to say it. Or take the opening of Bishop’s “One Art”: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master; / so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster. Can’t get more generic than “so many things” or, in the following stanza, “the hour badly spent.” But who would want such phrases any more precise? Somehow, magically, the common is made unique. Indeed, it doesn’t take long to find numerous instances in Glück’s own work to see how uncommonly common her diction tends to be. Take the opening of “Noah’s Dream,” the third section of “Four Dreams Concerning the Master”: “Where were you in the dream? / The North Pole. // Were you alone? / No. My friend was with me.”
Certainly, Glück’s work has taken many different forms throughout her long career, as she’s experimented with new formal concerns, themes and narratives. As she says in the same essay, after her second book, “I wanted to learn a longer breath. And to write without nouns central to that second book….” Why? Because “I had done everything I could do with moon and pond.” If she gave up using some nouns, she never strayed from working with simple, common diction. Yet far from impoverishing her poems, as Helen Vendler notes in reviewing The Wild Iris, “Glück’s language revived the possibilities of high assertion, assertion as from the Delphic tripod. The words of the assertions, though, were often humble, plain, usual; it was their hierarchic and unearthly tone that distinguished them.” Here I’m reminded that in his Preface Wordsworth did not merely describe drawing on words “really used by men”; he went on to say how he wished at the same time “to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect. . . .” However straightforward and plain her words, Glück lends her language a mystical, magical cast, a certain dark coloring, that brings out the striking depths within her commonplace diction, as in the opening of “The Red Poppy”:
The great thing
is not having
a mind. Feelings:
oh, I have those; they
govern me. I have
a lord in heaven
called the sun, and open
for him, showing him
the ﬁre of my own heart, ﬁre
like his presence.
Which brings me to my second question: why does Glück land on incarnadine as illustrative of the kind of diction most people think poetical? I suppose she chose it because, by being mysterious and rarefied, it can stand for a host of words whose meanings lie outside the ken of most readers, which sets it against her preference for simple, generic language—common words uncommonly told. Nevertheless, I find it’s a strange choice, since that word has a famous pedigree, dating from Macbeth’s use of it in one particularly vivid outburst:
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
“To make red” is the verbal form of the adjective, first used here by Shakespeare in 1605. And yes, admittedly, the word is, if nothing else, highly poetical (and by now, of course, archaic and probably just the province of trivia enthusiasts). But look at how it’s set as a red gem of Latinate origin within the great green ocean of common words of Old English derivations (wash/wascan, blood/blod, clean/clæne, hand/hond, sea/sæ, one/an), words that would be highly representative of the diction, five centuries later, of Glück’s own lyrics. If we dig further, we’d also find “incarnadine” rooted in the flesh [L. caro (flesh)], etymologically linking it to a wide range of related words: carnage, carnal, carnation, carnivorous, and incarnate. (Fun fact: carnival too is related to “flesh.”) Clearly, this excursion into that uncommon word’s history makes clear how rich, various, and wondrously multivalent are such words’ meanings and lineage. Ultimately, I think there are no easy divisions to make between common and uncommon, generic and specific words, plain and “poetical.” Indeed, the very assumption that certain words can be “generic” is one that’s best tested by a rereading of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, but that’s a topic for another kind of essay. In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying a rereading of Glück.
Also, this month: A final reminder, while a few remain — free books! We still have copies of the Plume Anthologies 7, 8, 9, and the most recent, Plume 10 — and they are yours, if you like. Just email Mary Bisbee-Beek at firstname.lastname@example.org and let her know the #, your address, etc. She’ll fill you in on the details.
Our cover art this month is Man Ray’s Departure of Summer. For more on the artist, perhaps a good start might be made here.
Finally, as usual, a few recently published/forthcoming books from Plume contributors: