The text of the poem:
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.