Sunday, 24 October 2010

Something Understood

My poem, English Words, appears on Vesna Goldsworthy's Something Understood on Radio Four. The whole programme is here.

The text of the poem:

English Words

My first three English words were AND, BUT, SO;
they were exotic in my wooden ear,
like Froebel blocks. Imagination made
houses of them, just big enough to hang
a life on. Genii from a gazetteer
of deformations or a sprechgesang:
somehow it was possible to know
the otherness of people and not be afraid.

Once here, the words arranged their quaint occasions,
Minding their Manners, Waiting in the Queues
at Stops and Hatches, I got to know their walls,
their wallpaper and decorative styles,
their long louche socks, their sensible scuffed shoes.
Peculiar though: their enigmatic smiles
and sideways looks troubled my conversation
swimming in clouds above the steam of kettles.

You say a word until it loses meaning
and taste the foreignness of languages,
your own included. Sheer inanity
of idiom: the lovely words are dead,
their magic gone, evaporated pages.
But this too is a kind of spell: unread,
the vocables coagulate and sting,
glow with their own electricity.

I cannot trust words now. One cultivates
the sensuous objects in a locked museum:
their sounds are dangerous and must be heard
voluptuously, but behind thick glass.
Their emptiness appals one. One is dumb
with surprise at their inertia, their crass
hostility. They are beautiful opiates,
as brilliant as poppies, as absurd.

I'll try to conjure what I was thinking when I wrote this poem, about thirty years ago. It was one of a series, 'Appropriations', I wrote about our first years in England. The title of the set came later, and I dropped two or three poems from the group. The verse form was the same in every case: four verses of eight lines each, rhyming unobtrusively, ABCDBDAC.

My first three words were indeed, AND, BUT SO, as in the bilingual version of A A Milne's Now We Are Six. What I didn't then know was that they were set language exercises. Froebel Blocks are children's wooden building bricks. The first verse is laden with words foreign to English or slightly unfamiliar words: Froebel, genii, gazetteer, sprechgesang (speech-song).

The second verse involves English mannerisms and phrases. The idea of queueing, minding your manners, 'quaint' occasions such as waiting at bus stops, at dinner hatches, are slightly displaced in a verse full of wallpaper, shoes, long shorts, tea kettles. It tickled me to use the French word louche to describe things so English.

The third verse is about sound - how the sound of words has little to do with the things they refer to and the way words dissolve, on repetition, into nonsense sound. The sensuousness of language is partly attached to the associations of the words, but when the associations vanish, there isn't a complete vacuum. Sheer sound comes into its own. Something remains.

The distancing effect of seeing or hearing language from the outside, as it were, has the effect of putting a sheet of glass between us and it - 'there is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses', wrote MacNeice. The fourth verse watches words at work the way a voyeur watches other people. It is exciting. The words retain their power but are objects of suspicion. The poem turns to the most impersonal of English pronouns, 'one' to carry the voice. It is a form of self-awareness, I suppose, 'playing English' as if from the outside.

It can be hard knowing whether 'one' is inside or outside the glass case.


Alfred Corn said...

Thank you for posting this. Authors are seldom good exegetes of their own poems, but here is an exception. (Though I wish you'd tell me what a "dinner hatch is.")
I think when you say "verse," you must mean "stanza," a verse consisting of only one line, yes?
Of course you wouldn't fail to observe words with rare detachment; you'd had early on to learn a second language; and you are a poet. A poet who gives us a paradox: you say words are empty, useless; and yet your proof is conveyed in...words.

George S said...

A dinner hatch is a square or oblong hole in a wall through which food was passed fronm the kitchen to waiting schoolchildren in the dining hall. Houses had them too. We had one in our first house. My parents-in-law's house still has one. It's a Brit term, I suppose. Like Bee's Knees, for which see Facebook, Alfred.

You are right, I suppose, about verse and stanza, though verse is used in the sense I use it here much of the time. In hymns we sing the first verse then the second, as in verse-and-chorus.

The paradox is dead right. I have written of that elsewhere in fact, in a verse that I can't remember off hand:

Words are [something to something]
Dust to dust.
The poet loves and distrusts them.
Someone must.

I think the sheer strangeness, hollowness and voluptuousness of words has to be a factor in a poet's mind. Maybe being foreign by birth brings it closer to the front of that mind.

Mark Granier said...

Thanks for this George. I second what Alfred says, also regarding the exegesis. Your poem (especially its title) sent me back to this, for which I also thank you.


by Edward Thomas

But of us all
That make rhymes,
Will you choose
As the winds use
A crack in the wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through--
Choose me,
You English words?

I know you:
You are light as dreams,
Tough as oak,
Precious as gold,
As poppies and corn,
Or an old cloak;
Sweet as our birds
to the ear,
As the burnet rose

In the heat
Of Midsummer:
Strange as the races
Of dead and unborn:
Strange and sweet
And familiar,
To the eye,
As the dearest faces
That a man knows,
And as lost homes are:
But though older far
Than oldest yew,--
As our hills are, old,--
Worn new
Again and again:
Young as our streams
After rain:
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love.

Make me content
With some sweetness
From Wales,
Whose nightingales
Have no wings,--
From Wiltshire and Kent
And Herefordshire,
And the villages there,--
From the names, and the things
No less.
Let me sometimes dance
With you,
Or climb,
Or stand perchance
In ecstasy,
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
As poets do.

George S said...

And of course I should have said that the title of the poem, as indeed the context of the whole poem, was Edward Thomas's gorgeous 'Words'. Thank you, Mark.

Poet in Residence said...

I must echo the words of Alfred and Mark.
Your comments, analysis, and explanations with regard to your own poems and many other authors' works are highly interesting, very educational and most illuminating. I find your blog fascinating and read it at every opportunity.
Many thanks! gwilym

Nicola said...

Many thanks for this beautiful exposition. I am English yet rootless. I have travelled and often feel a stranger in my own land - this poem speaks for me. I often hear this programme but last night was late so heard only the last minutes. Glad now to hear this.

George S said...

I have travelled and often feel a stranger in my own land...

When asked, as one is at times, 'Who do you write for?' my favourite answer has been, 'For people on trains'. There are conscious ambiguities in the answer, considering the role of trains in human suffering, but they're only light ambiguities. It just means I don't forget them. But it is precisely for the experience you describe there, for the sense of transit, of not being either here nor there, never quite at home. Like, I suspect, many more of us than we care to admit.

Whether you read me or not, Nicole, in my mind you are one of my soul readers - and what is more, should that sound as though I had anything to teach you (which I don't) I should add I suspect we are on the same train and can talk to each other out of the same sense of being.

And maybe that's as good a sense of writing as any - the sharing of an articulated sense of being.