Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Words, Those Squishy Things

Yes, I do love words and I couldn’t have said that without them. I love their sound, their layers of meaning and the long journey they’ve undertaken to get here. One has to admire their elasticity, how they can stretch, bend and bounce. There is nothing more organic, rising into usage from someone’s mouth into the common tongue if it has the legs for it.

Some years ago the poet and publisher of Sun-Moon Press, Doug Messerli, prefaced his poetry reading by saying how he was more interested in the relationship between river and rivet than he was between river and bridge. I never forgot that. Doug was a language poet. His focus was not on any narrative but on language itself. In fact, his idea of a poem was to call attention to itself so the reader would accept his terms. Don’t look for a story, particularly for a single point of view. In a visual sense this was analogous to moving from representational, even impressionistic painting, to cubism.

The river / rivet note came to mind recently when I discovered that the word rival also refers to river. It can be traced back to a time when opposing points of view were debated along the banks of a waterway. The provenance of words enriches their meaning.

In poetry one can assume each word has been weighed and carries with it a secondary reference. When Lewis Carroll mentioned qualities of sand in his Walrus and Carpenter poem he may have been thinking about the sand in an hourglass which is code for mortality and how he would miss Alice as she left childhood and innocence behind.

Words are for leaping in some poets’ hands. Rub them together and sparks fly. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax – of cabbages and kings. When Dodgson / Carroll brings in Tweedledee and Tweedledum as mirror images could he not be speaking of his two selves, Dodgson the math and logics professor and Carroll, the playful spinner of yarns? Add to this a third self, the social satirist taking a swipe at British Imperialism.

 Consider the Walrus and Carpenter landing on a beach where the sun is shining at night. Sounds a lot like another colony in a distant part of the Empire upon which the sun never sets. Not to belabor the point but those shoes and ships and sealing wax are all part of Victorian civility along with cabbages and kings. Gobbling oysters is what colonists do to native populations. It is all about domination and those cunning settlers.

Dodgson / Carroll sailed down the river, Isis, with Alice and her sisters telling riveting stories. The rivals were within the author and his disparate aspects. Can a conservative, devout, tradition-loving Oxford professor with a penchant for postulates and proofs write a so-called nonsense verse translated into seventy languages which hides within the lines a disparaging view of the establishment? Is that what poetry can do? Shine a light, unwittingly, upon a dark corner of society which would be deemed subversive in a more frontal attack? Let the artist roam. Allow the muse its full throat. Who knows where it may lead?     

On the other hand maybe I am all wrong. No need for cryptic messages. I don't wish to analyze it to death. Dodgson's poem stands on its own walrus feet. Millions have read it since publication in 1871, finding delightful bafflement in its illogical logic.  

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