Twenty Poems That Could Save America
and Other Essays
By Tony Hoagland
Graywolf Press Copyright © 2014 Tony Hoagland
All rights reserved.
Je Suis ein Americano: The Genius of American Diction
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 English language," said Whitman, "is the accretion and growth of every dialect, race, and range of time. ... It is indeed a sort of universal absorber, combiner, and conqueror."
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.
Few poems illustrate the multiple and practical implications (or dilemmas) of word choice better than "The Beautiful American Word Guy," by John Weir:
The beautiful American word "guy." It always gets me. For one thing, a guy is never alone. What if your name were Guy? Then you'd think that all the men behind all the deli counters on Ninth Avenue were talking to you. "What'll it be, Guy?" "Mayo, Guy?" "We're outta sesame, Guy, how about onion?" Guy is friendly, whereas "man" is hostile and competitive. "I hear you, man," actually means, "Back off, dickhead, I'm in charge here." "Dude" is useful, but thanks to Bart Simpson it's never sincere. "Buddy," "buster," and "pal" are sturdy but tainted by camp, like dialogue from old Hollywood movies. "Boss" scares me, and "chief" sounds undemocratic and maybe politically incorrect.
I like "brother" sometimes. "Brother, you gotta be kidding," a truck driver yelled at me once on Eighth Avenue, because I was reading a book and crossing the street against the light. He twisted the word around to mean, "Die, motherfucker," but I'm a romantic, and I heard him saying, "Cling to me as we plunge together manfully into the abyss."
Still, guy is the most inclusive and universally tender, taking the back of your neck in its creased palm and saying, "I'm counting on you." It's a promise and a threat, a stroke, a supplication, and a plea. If there were an epic poem of America in muscular four-beat Old English lines, its first word would not be "Hwaet," but "Guy."
Weir's poem rejoices in and agonizes over the wealth of alternative nouns by which one man can address another in American. Looked at as a dilemma of vocabulary, the poem can be seen as simply a catalog, or rehearsal, of available synonyms — each one with its own history, baggage, and connotations: man, dickhead, chief, motherfucker, buddy. Looked at as a predicament of masculinity, or politics, and we are deep inside not just the psyche but the history of the world.
To illustrate, consider one of the synonyms in Weir's poem, "chief." Chief has etymological roots in the word chief in Old French, and the word capum or caput in Latin, meaning head. But in the history of its usage, English users know the word from its frequent use in John Wayne movies, and from the popular-culture tales of cowboys and Indians; we involuntarily are reminded of stone-faced Native Americans, dressed in feathered headdresses. Likewise, we are aware of the latter-day controversy surrounding the use of chief as a label for this "American ethnic minority," a context to which the poem refers as "maybe politically incorrect." The circumstances of the word chief, like many words, are so complicated and enmeshed, they can't be easily shaken off.
Thus, 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.
Diction as a Focusing Device
Diction's greatest power lies in its conceptual precision — in its compressed embodiment of discriminating intelligence. If a speaker says, "I am a connoisseur of hotdogs," we recognize that the description is a deliberately incongruous combination of high-class and low-class elements, of French nomenclature and American vernacular. The effect is comic, satirical, and conceptually precise; we intuit that the speaker, by applying one diction to the topic of another, is mocking certain kinds of pretension. Or perhaps he is affectionately acknowledging his own lack of sophistication. The layered implications are socially complex and intellectually compressed.
Diction in this sense can be most usefully thought of as a focusing system, one that operates on both conceptual and emotive levels. After all, diction is the main instrument of constructing tone, and it is tone that orients our attention and inflects our attitude toward a scene, a person, or a topic.
"Connoisseur of hotdogs" is a rather garish performance of mixed diction. Diction used in a more tempered, orchestrated way can be found in August Kleinzahler's poem "Watching Dogwood Blossoms Fall in a Parking Lot Off Route 46." The diction of the title itself — its juxtaposition of "Route 46" and "Watching Dogwood Blossoms" — brings into focus the poem's central theme: the coexistence of pastoral beauty and man-made reality. Here is most of the poem:
Dogwood blossoms drift down at evening as semis pound past Phoenix Seafood
and the Savarin plant, west to the Turnpike, Patterson or hills beyond.
The adulterated, pearly light and bleak perfume of benzene and exhaust
make this solitary tree and the last of its bloom as stirring somehow ...
as that shower of peach blossoms Tu Fu watched fall on the riverbank
from the shadows of the Jade Pavilion.
"Watching Dogwood Blossoms" is a kind of elegant still life, combining images of the modern and the bucolic. But the effectiveness of the poem is not merely a matter of contrasting juxtaposed nouns, such as semis and peach blossoms — nor is its intention merely ironic, although one feels the presence of that possibility. The poetical formality of phrases like "the last of its bloom" indicates that the speaker's claims for beauty are sincere. Even conventionally disagreeable phenomena are descriptively elevated to aesthetic status by diction choices. Pollution creates an "adulterated, pearly light," a phrase in which the Latinate formality of adulterate actually dignifies the contamination to which it refers. Likewise, bleak is a word choice of erudite expressiveness; perfume dresses up benzene and exhaust. Kleinzahler's pastoral poem registers a contest between the ugly modern and the beautiful eternal, but spiritual elevation is ultimately given the advantage by the relative weights of diction.
Through its lyrical, light-handed layering of mixed dictions toward a very particular conceptual focus, "Watching Dogwood Blossoms" makes a transcendental claim for beauty, achieved against the resistance of its own unpoetic landscape. By presenting simultaneously rapturous and realist perspectives, the diction of the poem actually trains our cognition, instructing us in how to perceive the world in a very particular way: skeptically, yet also receptively, and appreciatively.
Hayden Carruth's poem "Une Présence Absolue" is essentially a prayer, one that employs diction in a building pattern of gradual escalation and then, abrupt descent, moving from an increasingly sacred rhetoric to vulgar self-acknowledgment. The theatrical effect is to present and then to collapse the distance between two realities, through two dictions, in order to make a sharply focused composite:
Not aware of it much of the time, but of course we are
Heedless folk, under the distracting stars, among the great cedars,
And so we give to ourselves casual pardon. It is there, though, always,
The continuum of what really is, what only is.
The rest is babble and furiosity. Imagination, let me pay more attention to you,
You alone have this letting power; give me your own gift, which is the one
I am this poor stupid bastard half-asleep under this bridge.
The first half of Carruth's poem, though not radically elevated, contains a smattering of high-discourse formal inflections, in both vocabulary and syntax: "we are / Heedless folk ... among the great cedars, / And so we give to ourselves casual pardon." Heedless, pardon, babble, furiosity — all these word choices invoke a formal literariness and the aura of serious public address. The poem reaches its rhetorical and emotional climax in lines five and six, at the speaker's reverent invocation of imagination.
What happens next, in the poem's abrupt final sentence — "I am this poor stupid bastard half-asleep ..." — is a plunging demotion of the high diction that has immediately preceded it. In the speaker's blunt declaration of his own crudity and ignorance, we get an accurate, focused acknowledgment of the distance between heaven and earth, between human nature and divinity, between the speaker's aspiration and his own humble actuality. This satisfying dramatic effect carries a conceptual and emotional punch; a complex revelation wrought mostly through diction. Not only does Carruth's vocabulary de-escalate (poor/stupid/bastard), but the meditation is suddenly grounded in a specific narrative moment and setting, "under this bridge." The speaker is no longer a talking meditative head, but a mere man, made of flesh in a lowly physical landscape.
Of course the modulations of diction are a continuum; throughout the poem, and in the course of a single sentence, word choices fluctuate in minute and nuanced ways. Even early in the poem, Carruth is toying with the equilibrium between lofty and plain rhetoric. The phrase "we are heedless folk," for example, gives off an aura of casual seriousness, because heedless is formal and almost archaic, whereas folk has a casual plainness to it. Similarly, of course is informal, while "among the great cedars" conveys an atmosphere of veneration, as does "we give to ourselves pardon." Had the poet wished to elevate his rhetorical register even more at this moment, he easily might have said, "we grant ourselves casual pardon." All such subtle, word-by-word choices are instrumental in the poet's careful orchestration of a building swell, which is then abruptly deflated by the last sentence of the poem. Carruth's poem is rhetorically expert, and diction is his primary tool.
The Material Imagination
The selective material imagination of a poem — that is, the poem's nouns — comprise a consequential diction of their own. To have a painting by Vermeer in a poem presents a worldview different from a poem containing a convenience store and a Ping-Pong table. To have a string quartet and a Port-A-Potty in the same poem suggests a democratic universe, and possibly an ironic or comically observant speaker. Some poems are more "mixed" than others.
Kleinzahler's poem "Watching Dogwood Blossoms," discussed earlier, can be lucidly understood solely on the basis of its nouns. On the one hand, declares the poem, "semis pound past"; on the other, "watching dogwood blossoms." On the one hand, the seafood market, and on the other, a memory of ancient Chinese poetry. The poet's appreciation of an impure world is precisely configured by the counterpoint of nouns in the poem.
Any poet who wishes to enlarge or revitalize her aesthetic range might simply introduce a more diverse vocabulary of things into her poetry. The love poet who can incorporate Tylenol and violin lessons into a sonnet to the beloved has dilated and complicated the poetics of romance.
Mixed Diction as Culture Fest
Varietal diction in a poem is also an expression of a culture's breadth, of the conversation that culture is having with itself, among its many parts. If language is equivalent to the consciousness of a nation or culture, the range of vocabulary used in any work of literature is to some degree the representation of the range of cultural inclusiveness — conscious and unconscious.
Such a view of mixed diction is dialectical. According to this vision of poetry, mixed word choices, such as concubine and pooch, precipitous and bean counter, hula dance and Kervorkian, mingle like citizens inside a paragraph or stanza, shoulder each other aside and exchange gossip. This potpourri of speech gives the reader an idea of the complex social forces that must be accounted for in any description of reality.
To include, as Robert Pinsky does in his poem "Louie Louie," the Beastie Boys (a white hip-hop band formed in the 1980s) and the Scottsboro Boys (defendants in a 1931 racially motivated rape trial) in the same poem makes a statement about the breadth, variety, and contradictions of the known world:
I have heard of Black Irish but I never
Heard of White Catholic or White Jew.
I have heard of "Is Poetry Popular?" but I
Never heard of Lawrence Welk Drove
Sid Caesar Off Television
I have heard of Kwanzaa but I have
Never heard of Bert Williams.
I have never heard of Will
Rogers or Roger Williams
or Buck Rogers or Pearl Buck
Or Frank Buck or Frank
Merriwell At Yale.
* * *
I have heard of the Pig Boy.
I have never heard of the Beastie
Boys or the Scottsboro Boys but I
Have heard singing Boys, what
They were called I forget.
I have never heard America
Singing but I have heard of I
Hear America Singing, I think
It must have been a book
We had in school, I forget.
Pinsky's poem may be a nonsense song, but it is also implicitly offered as a portrait of America. "Louie Louie" is a lyric about the complex dance of history, memory, artifact, and tribe. It suggests that we Americans are shallow but erudite, ignorant but sophisticated, and that we live suspended in an atmosphere of references of which we are mostly unconscious. The chant itself is a way of spraying an aerosol of names into the air, waking them up before stirring them back into the culture batter, in their broth of rhyme, memory, nonsense, and reason.
And the truth is, naming as a game is a primal oral pleasure that goes back to our childhood use of language — "Betty and Tiger sitting in a tree / K-I-S-S-I-N-G." "Mona got mono from Monroe in Morocco." Naming is a pleasure game that reminds us of learning the alphabet and skipping rope, and Pinsky's poem evokes that deep play activity with vocabulary for its own sake. Simply to move our mouths around the shifting shapes of our vocabulary is one of the deep levels of poetry pleasure.
Diction's Comic Possibilities
On these and other grounds, the intricate energies of diction offer great opportunity for comedy; the frictive sonic play between vowel and consonant, the endless combinatory possibilities for pace, the rhythmic play between single-syllable and polysyllabic words — it all constitutes a rich erotic field of amusement in itself. But diction's comedic power is also deeply social and cognitive. The comedy of diction almost always springs from the colliding energies of playfulness and utility. Words chosen and used for utility are usually pragmatically economical and semantically clear, what is called "transparent": "The dog slept in the shadow of the pickup truck." But word choices made for the sake of sonic pleasure, or for the sake of rhetorical inflation, or deflation, can easily exceed, ornament, distort, or derail the speech task purportedly at hand. "Jasper's geriatric bluetick lay comatose in the spilled shade of his Civil War–era Buick." Such riffing can be observed in the routines of any talented stand-up comedian — and almost any good comedic poet. (Continues...)
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