The Exhaustion of the Poetic Lexicon

Every language has words that determine its poetry; words in one language are possessed of a poetic efficiency that they lack in another. Think of the sonority of morte: in Italian it carries great weight, for one thing the syllables are similar to notte, the words are almost synonyms… In part, certain words determine thematics, while others have ceased to be poetic for the abuse they have undergone; “los labios rojos,” for example, no longer functions poetically, now it has to be said a different way. There are many words in Catalan from the XV century that have not aged, that have been preserved in their disuse…

Thus Pere Gimferrer in a recent interview. It is true that words need to be left in peace to be adequate for poetry; if we think of the ideas of making-strange, making new, of the uneven Venetian pavers in Proust that symbolize those ripples in the tranquil effluence of time through which poetic awareness comes into flower, we see that the inappositeness thereto of any word that has been too much handled, the coarse textures or irregularities of which have been smoothed away by too many hands. Cyril Connolly remarks that in the age of Dryden, there was really no such thing as bad English writing; the act of putting words to paper was too new, nothing had yet been corrupted.

I wonder is the caducity of words always the outcome of mendacity. When Gimferrer refers to the poetic concept of “red lips,” he is speaking of something that gained its force as a departure from the strictly real; red lips are a striking image to the extent that the color of lips is not red, by use of this adjective they are made to stand out like Derain’s blue mountains or scarlet trees. But at the point at which people forget what color lips actually are, the word “red” becomes shorthand for the supposed color of a detail in nature that readers and writers have ceased to really look at; the cliché has supplanted the reality in the collective imagination. The words ruined by Business English are characterized generally by patent dishonesty (what large company has not at various times described its customers, its shareholders, its employees, its employees’ well-being, etc. as its “number-one priority”?) or by a kind of brute augmentation that is the linguistic equivalent of plastic surgery, hiding the paucity of thought behind syllabic superfluity: proactive for active, reference for refer, orientate (once a charming word meaning “to face the orient”) for orient, operationalize for use… Borges, commenting on Jorge Manrique, praises the power of the simplest words and metaphors, which he claims have greater immunity to such destruction; I am not sure if he is right.

The poetic possibilities of a language are defined in part by what ambits remain untouched by this progressive degradation. Anyone who reads in various languages can attest to the perdurant vitality of themes in one language that have been poetically exhausted in others. “I would die for you,” “I would walk to the ends of the earth for you,” and so on can no longer be said in English because the rank dishonesty with which they infest popular culture has left them toothless, but one can imagine a less meretricious culture in which they might still hold force. Gimferrer complains that Castilian is losing “poetic efficiency” from overuse, and has advocated for Catalan as a “prestige tongue,” perhaps in the hopes that a marginal but ceremonial status will preserve it from lyrical enervation.

Of course languages can be renewed as well. Acquaintances have always shown themselves perplexed by my interest in rap music, and generally consider it a conceit, a kind of reverse dandyism or provocation. That is absurd. For me English-language poetry in general, though I am not an expert, has become so withered and bound up in packaged arrogance and literary posturing –– this without mentioning its entrenchment in a system of privileges and perquisites dispensed on the basis of social placement, particularly in the academic realm, and hence, in the final analysis, on class –– that it inspires distaste rather than interest.

Rap has continued to engage, with the full battery of poetic resources, a sphere of authentic, lived concerns –– however truncated or ignoble they may be –– at a time when the majority of poets have lost all relation to their real longings and true natures, whether as social or spiritual beings. In addition, the best rappers have emphasized the fundamental importance of assonance, alliteration, variable stresses, and internal rhyme to English poetry –– the more naturally poetic elements of the language, as against a fixation on Italianate and Provencal forms grafted onto a tongue that diverged drastically from both its Germanic and Latinate progenitors. However distasteful many listeners may find rap to be, there is a force in its words and their employment that lies worlds apart from the soggy linguistic attenuation of a great deal of modern English poetry and popular song.

On a different note, Hölderlin describes the Ideal as the subjective ground of poetry in his (for me) very difficult essay Über die Verfahrungsweise des poetischen Geistes. I wonder if Proust has something similar in mind when he speaks of the spiritual obligations that impend upon us as though from another world when he describes the death of Bergotte:

Toutes ces obligations, qui n’ont pas leur sanction dans la vie présente, semblent appartenir à un monde différent, fondé sur la bonté, le scrupule, le sacrifice, un monde entièrement différent de celui-ci, et dont nous sortons pour naître à cette terre, avant peut-être d’y retourner revivre sous l’empire de ces lois inconnues auxquelles nous avons obéi parce que nous en portions l’enseignement en nous, sans savoir qui les y avait tracées – ces lois dont tout travail profond de l’intelligence nous rapproche et qui sont invisibles seulement – et encore ! – pour les sots.

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