essay

The New Vocabularic Life of the English Poet

murray

In English one can find hundreds of languages distilled, word by word, into something accessible for the poet. French has something to offer, as does Spanish, and certainly German. You will come across a Russian Samizdat or an Arabic bazaar, and many other words have been so assimilated into our common repertoire as to have lost all any timbre of foreignness to English ears. The challenge of the English poet has often been to take in this huddled lexicographic masses, yearning to breathe free, and to make them as much a part of our heritage as they are in their native tongues. This has come about through translation, inspired readings from the classics of other nations, and from sure curiosity and wonder at the variety that came, exiled, from Babel.

No language is so foreign to our own, and poses so great a challenge to art, as our own mother tongue. We have lost much more than we have gained, over the years, and we find ourselves impoverished when it comes to new way of expressing the old ideas that make up the stuff of poetics. We always look for the newest imports to carous with, but of the old friends, decrepit and left lonely lost in the pages of the OED? Old communities of ideas that were once vibrant and sensational in their own way are now lost or mere curiosities without use to the modern wordsmith. We owe it to our audience, and to ourselves, to try and resurrect some of these old terms and to breath new life into our language by recourse to what once was. It is poets who keep a language alive and vibrant for our generation and those to come and it is equally our task to make sure the work of past wordy mixture and genius and is not lost in the long shadow cast by neologisms and exotic new terms fresh from the docks.

As poet myself, and as the son of a poet, I grew up in a world where words held real value and were playthings for growing minds. As with anything one can grow tired of the familiar and the well-worn and begin to crave what is not readily accessible or easy to use. Words are the toys of the intellect and the more we collect the more, and more deeply, we can express our own thoughts and desires. No painter is content with using Prussian blue over and over again; he wishes to create with different hues and colors unfamiliar. We grow weary when we must go back to the same well over and over again and sometimes it is enlightening and rewarding to go a bit further for our mental nourishment.

So many times we look to the clouds and see planes flying there. To what do we compare them but to birds? Maybe that 747 is in fact more like a steel nepheliad, a nymph of the sky, a creature of elegance and beauty that dances between the clouds? This word does not limit our minds, as does its avian counterpart; for how many times can we sour like cranes or geese before we grow tired of imagining ourselves as fowl? Travel then to a sky painted on a grecian urn and look down from above with the eyes of fair nymphs, creatures that inspired lust and excitement in the mortal minds of the past. But do not be ashamed at not thinking of this word first of all. Such deficits of imagination instead pudify, indeed a more elegant way of describing disgust at our own alphabetical limitations. Already English is seeming less staid and more intriguing to us!

We praise eloquence when we encounter it, rightfully so because it is rare enough, but we too often associate this word with the practical use of language to inform and to enrich other minds. What of he who is equally skillful with words be whose aim is more nefarious?

Fallaciloquence is a word that is godsend when we wish to praise the pursuit of the un-praiseworthy practiced skillfully and beautifully. We have know a co-worker or a friend who seems uniquely gifted at worming his or her way out of a task or responsibility with gorgeous ease. We can now accurately name their skill and categorize their genius appropriately. Their Fallaciloquence will never again go unheralded. Our pride may begin to swell now that we have been introduced to such interesting ways of communicating, but wouldn’t it be far more colorful instead for our pride to gumfiate? It has the same meaning but has the taste on the tongue of an old vintage, a word that perhaps our great great great grandfather may have used to chastise the hubris of his boastful brother at the pub. We can transport ourselves to different times with just a few syllables and rearranged letters.

Poetry, like so many of the arts, has been dazzled by the spell of post-modern thought, the tearing apart of old forms and the rejection of traditional ideas of beauty. I say “tear away!” Reject all you will, but remember that what was beautiful was for a reason and can be again if only we revolutionize our way of constructing old forms. ABAB BCBC may seem like a chain linked to a boring and limiting past, but even this meter can be revitalized with some new choice words

 

Roses are red

And Violets are blue

Take me to bed

And I’ll love you

 

A bad poem, too cute and familiar by half, and a poor invitation to a night of carnal pleasure. But what if we play about with the words a bit? Can we find something fresh in this stale composition? Let’s try. What are roses but red? Are they titian, perhaps? And what of blue? So much blue; moods, skies, eyes. It is tiring. But perchance blue is beryl? There is a novel word! Not often we see a “y” used at such a place. So where does that leave us with the poem?

 

Roses are titian

Violets are beryl

Our love can be Grecian

And not quite so sterile

 

Is it a good poem now, with these new words? I think so. It is charming at least and suggest a ribald night ahead where boundaries may be pushed and new physical possibilities explored. You may hate it, but you certainly cannot say it is any more boring than the tired alternative. Even if it is despised by its recipient you can be sure that there will at least be some questions as to the words used, and this can lead to some rather fertile conversation! Words are too often used to introduce topics of discussion, to usher us to better and more interesting things. Words should, themselves, be an incitement to ventilation. What could be a more interesting topic at your next drinking party then the word chanticleer? Now there is a truly delectable cock tale!

Many poets get into the business to woe and to seduce, words being the ultimate aphrodisiac (get thee behind me, oysters!). To pay the perfect compliment to the object of one’s affection can be rewarding in so many ways. But there are only so many “luscious lips” and “fulsome breasts” that can rhapsodized over. But, if you were to inform your sweetheart of your appreciation of her callipygian posterior watch as her eyes widen and her breath quickens. There is praise that is not quite so cliched! And if your beloved is of the male persuasion? Fear not! Unique words of praise are not just of use in describing the fairer sex; his strong features may in fact be pulchritudinous. And why call him your lover when he could be your virile inamorato? There is no need for love and lust to fall back on boring modes of description. Even romance can be a time to exercise your vocabulary.

My advice is aimed at those of us who are poetically inclined but that does not mean that the lay person cannot get in on the word fun! We must throw out our Webster’s, or at least throw them back onto the shelf. Instead let’s bring out our Thesaurus and, even more valuable, or Etymological Dictionaries! Search the web for strange old terms, read obscure reference works, watch foreign films without the subtitles. Do anything and everything possible to expose yourself to words that would otherwise go undiscovered. Never play when  you could gambol. Sometimes we feel like a simpleton, but is it not better to be a foppotee? Always to quaeritate your own limitations. Never make the simple choice, be a sacricolist of language!

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