In January 1967, I began my first serious study of poetry under the tutelage of a brilliant young professor named Rene Fortin.
The poetry was 20th century, described as Modern, and took us from William Carlos Williams to Sylvia Plath. The style of interpretation derived from a school called the New Criticism. Nothing mattered, I learned, except for the words on the page, especially any evidence of tension, ambivalence or ambiguity.
The focus on the words was rigorous. The history of the period meant nothing. The poet’s biography meant nothing. His intent, stated or hidden, meant nothing. Derive meaning, I was told again and again, from the words on the page.
Despite its several weaknesses as a way of interpreting literature, the New Criticism gave me the ability to read a text up-close, and with full attention. I would not be the same reader, writer, or teacher without that skill.
I’ve been reading more poetry lately: Shakespeare’s sonnets, 20th century anthologies, and now Emily Dickinson. The renewed study of poetry has helped me solve some problems for my next book, “How to Write Short,” and has toned some reading muscles that had gone a bit flabby. I am noticing things in old texts, for example, that I don’t remember seeing in earlier readings. Let’s take two short poems written by the Belle of Amherst, Miss Emily Dickinson:
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
I would invite you to read it again, this time with attention to the length of the words. I count 19 words in all. Each word — except “begins” — has one syllable. The total number of letters is 48. That means that the average length of a word equals 2.5 letters, astonishing efficiency by any measure.
Another poem from Dickinson:
Faith is a fine invention
For gentlemen who see;
But microscopes are prudent
In an emergency!
Let’s do the math. By one standard, this poem is shorter, containing only 16 words. But, wait! It runs to 76 letters on the back of the polysyllabic “invention,” “gentlemen,” “microscopes,” and “emergency.” The average word length is about 4.8 letters.
This “Tale of the Tape,” as they say when measuring the physical attributes of boxers, reveals something essential about the nature of the English language. English is, at the same time, a hard and a soft language. (Here’s a different version of that last sentence: “English is, simultaneously, a hard language and a soft language.”) Notice that English gives me two ways of saying the same thing: “at the same time” and “simultaneously,” four words adding up to 13 letters, or one 14-letter word.
Said aloud, the longer word flows more quickly than the four short ones, just as “convertible” has more rhythm than the double pop sound of “rag top.”
The hard stock of English words comes from our Anglo-Saxon heritage. In addition to function words such as prepositions and conjunctions, the Old English word hoard contained many stark words of one syllable, including the notorious four-letter variety.
Notice how “hard” the language of Dickinson’s first poem sounds and feels. It’s all heavy jabs with the pop, pop, pop, pop sound of word, dead, live and day.
That hard language was softened in 1066 after the invasion of England by William the Conqueror. The Norman (think French) king brought with him a language that sounded more sophisticated. Words derived from Latin and Greek, with migration routes through Italy and France, were suited to the workings of government and to higher levels of abstraction. Most of the key words in the second poem — invention, gentlemen, microscopes, prudent, emergency — have grown into English from Latin and French roots.
“What fascinated me about English,” wrote critic Camille Paglia, who spoke Italian as a child, “was what I later recognized as its hybrid etymology: blunt Anglo-Saxon concreteness, sleek Norman French urbanity, and polysyllabic Greco-Roman abstraction. The clash of these elements, as competitive as Italian dialects, is invigorating, richly entertaining, and often funny, as it is to Shakespeare, who gets tremendous effects out of their interplay. The dazzling multiplicity of sounds and word choices in English makes it brilliantly suited to be a language of poetry.”
But not just poetry.
Check out this passage from a favorite writer, M.F.K. Fisher, from her collection of essays “The Art of Eating”; (it comes after a recipe for Oyster Loaf):
“For me at least, that recipe is at last the one I have been looking for. I can change it as I will, and even pour a little thick cream over the loaf, or dust it with cayenne, but basically it is right with my childhood dream…and quite probably it is much better than the one the young ladies ate in their stuffy lamp-lit rendezvous so many years ago./ And yet…yet those will always be in my mental gastronomy, on my spiritual taste-buds, the most delicious oysters I never ate.”
I love the way the hot, exotic word “cayenne” arrives after a long string of monosyllables, which tumble out like marbles from a bag; the way that “stuffy lamp-lit” abuts the romantic “rendezvous,” and “spiritual” rubs against “taste-buds”; especially the way that “mental gastronomy” and “delicious oysters” hit a full stop with “I never ate.”
This is a lady who cooks not just with the ingredients of food, but with the many flavors of the English language, combining the hearty elements of her Anglo-Saxon soup stock with the most elegant and subtle of Continental spices.