The dictionary and poetry

Frank O'Hara
Frank O’Hara, 1926–1966, was in the habit of tossing around scraps of poetry. Some were found in his chest of drawers after his death.

Got a message from a friend who was having trouble with the poems in my 2nd volume, Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around. He appeared to question why he had to consult the dictionary and look up words. Like most people who don’t read much poetry and are not practiced at reading it, he would probably not consider consulting a dictionary to be a lot of fun.

In a recent book, Why Poetry, however, Matthew Zapruder suggests that the dictionary is exactly what you should consult when you read poetry. If you don’t know a word, look it up, he says, for what you need in poetry first of all is the literal sense of the word. When you understand the individual words, the poem will make more sense, at first a literal sense, then perhaps something more. Only then will you be able to connect the denotations of words with connotations or connections.

The more of the surface of the poem you understand, and perhaps discuss with others, the more of the depths of the poem and the interconnectedness of the parts of a poem you will understand. And not just understand but feel and be affected by.

Let’s look at a few unusual words from a sample poem in Lost & Found,            and see how this poem may model how poetry makes more sense when you understand the individual words and how they work together.

Poem I’ve Been Hoarding in a Drawer
Thinking of Frank O’Hara

Sure, socks, tees, and bikini briefs cohabit
in this fine and private place, grave of a sere
and obscure drawer. And when scraps of poetry
also, stray spraints or scats, pack of street mutts,
anoesis of barks, sniffs, scratches, are found here
one day, after I am gone, stuff I hid away, a dusty
cluster of what might have been, and perhaps was,
back in the day: okay, okay, okay.

The title, first, makes use of the operative verb hoard. Is this a pirate’s treasure we’re talking about? Whoa, now! Before we jump to metaphoric conclusions, let’s define hoard in its most familiar, literal sense. To hoard is to stow or hide something away, yes? To store something up and save it from consumption, maybe against a rainy day, maybe against our fears that sooner or later we’ll have nothing at all left in our hands.

If we hoard something in a drawer, we’re saving or keeping it against use or consumption. In this case it’s both underwear (“socks, tees, and bikini briefs”) and a poem, this poem, that are being hoarded. A strange combo to hoard in a drawer, to be sure. 

Then comes a series of unusual, and maybe unfamiliar, words: sere, a rather archaic word for dry; spraints, which means otter feces, and scats, animal feces in general; and anoesis, “a state of mind consisting of pure sensation or emotion without cognitive content” (dictionary.com), which with the modifying phrase “of barks, sniffs, scratches,” suggests some kind of doggy mentation at a pretty basic animal level. 

So, the situation is a bit strange, or strained, or not exactly realistic or literal. We have underwear in a drawer and also scraps of poetry, maybe unfinished or unpolished poems. And these unlike objects coexist and somehow belong in, or have been filed in, the same place (by the poet). The phrase fine and private place is an allusion to a 17th century seduction poem, familiar to students of poetry if not the general public, by Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress,” where the poet says as he nears the climax of his seductive pitch:

The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

Marvell is in a hurry to get it on with his mistress, and she’s still resisting. He admonishes her to do it, do it now, before they’re both dead and can feel nothing at all.

The poet of “Poem I’ve Been Hoarding in a Drawer” is not pleading with a lady, but making something of an erotic connection between the hidden contents of a drawer — intimate garments like underwear, that is, and intimate feelings contained in poems. For isn’t that one of the things that poems do best? Talk honestly about things most of us keep to ourselves, perhaps forever, never uttering, never getting off our chests and out of our hearts? True, this particular poet, in this particular poem, has hid poems away: perhaps he doubts the wisdom of presenting them to the world. He’d be opening himself to the cold gaze of the world of duty, service, subservience, convention, it could be.

But in the end, at the end of the poem, he seems to be resigned to the eventual discovery of these poems, these feelings, 

stuff I hid away, a dusty
cluster of what might have been, and perhaps was,
back in the day: okay, okay, okay.

Whatever intimates he might have worn, or intimate feelings he might have had, pinned to his sleeve, worn on his face, or tucked out of sight, they are all gone now, you see, except, for this poem (and others like it).

Now I may seem to be making something more ingenious out of the poem than it ever consciously was. I swear that when I wrote it, I did not start or proceed from a rational outline or moral thesis. The poem simply came to me, pretty quickly, and I relied, as often happens, at least as much on sound as on sense. The origins were not much more than anoesis, believe me: scratching, sniffing, barking.

Poets are suckers for sounds. (They have not been weaned perhaps from these oral pleasures and onto the hard, dry facts of the working world.) In the mouths of poets, words are musical and magical things, even dream things, as Zapruder also suggests. But in the end words also must make sense.

In the minds of readers, especially those who do a little homework, as with the dictionary, sound and sense can merge to make a wondrous and affecting experience. Given a bit of time and effort, poetry will make more sense than the brevity of a piece like “Hoarding” might suggest. But poetry will never appeal to readers the way a page-turning novel does. They are completely different creatures, and if poetry requires time, study, patience it can repay us a thousand times for our efforts.

Patriot: has it come down to this?

These days the words “patriot” and “patriotism” have been getting a rough ride. They’ve been coopted, as I’m sure you know, by right-wing conservatives, or, let’s be a little nicer here in our distinctions, radicals and even traitors.

It’s easy to grab a flag and wave it, or wave a word, or wave your dick, for that matter, if that’s all you have to wave. To make a big display out of something that you don’t begin to understand.

In the wake of the mob riot at the Capitol, on January 6, we might consider these titbits in the news:

  • The waving of many flags, and the indecorous wearing of flags, on the part of the mob as they assaulted the Capitol.
  • Ivanka Trump’s reference to these mobsters, her father’s own mob, as “American patriots” … and the reaction from Bob Sommer, a good friend of her criminally convicted and then pardoned father-in-law, who told her he was “horrified I attended your wedding.”
  • The same unconvincing honorific “patriot” applied to the mob by state legislators from Virginia and West Virginia.
  • Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, an enthusiastic defender of Trump for far too long, that is, sycophant and bootlicker, being cursed by an airport mob as he was getting out of D.C., one of the vulgarly hystericals being “Mindy Robinson, who describes herself as a conservative activist and host of ‘Red White and F You: Unapologetically Patriotic.’” 

Trump-behind-glass

Image 1 of 4

Trump addressing supporters from behind glass and flag, 6 Jan 2021.

You would think that if people knew anything about the English language that they profess to speak, they would know what “patriot” means and meant. While the definition of the word, according to Merriam-Webster, is “one who loves and supports his or her country,” that common and I would say superficial meaning has been amply qualified through the years. As Merriam-Webster also says, in a long disquisition on the word, “The word patriot signifies a person who loves his or her country and is ready to boldly support and defend it. That meaning has endured since the word’s arrival in English in the 16th century, but it has not marched through the years unchallenged.”

It would be worthwhile for all of us to read M-W’s longer, historical discussion of the word, including its use in both Europe and America to distinguish between “good patriots” and “false patriots,” in other words, those who are unlike us, whatever we are like or whatever we like.

The more education you have, could be, the more you want to mull and gnaw and digest what abstract words like patriotism really mean. In this case, don’t you want to know what exactly does it mean to love your country and support it?

In my years in graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, which coincided with our misadventure in Vietnam, I was reading modernist poets including Ezra Pound, whose take on the old Roman poet Horace’s idea of patriotism would light a torch in me. While Horace proclaimed, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” that is, it’s sweet and right to die for one’s country, Pound, in the wake of the disastrous folly of WW I, wrote in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly”:

Died some pro patria, non dulce non et decor … 
 
walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy …
 
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.

And of course there’s the famous poem by Wilfred Owen, a British poet and soldier who died in WW I, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which ends:

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

When I was studying in Texas, and getting tear-gassed marching on the state capitol (which we never reached, state workers hanging out the windows and shouting to the police, “Kill ’em! Kill ’em!”), common redneck bumper stickers included “America, love it or leave it” and “My country right or wrong.”

No, I think if we love our country we reprove it, and improve it, when it’s wrong, as it has been on many occasions. It was wrong, under LBJ, to get involved in the Vietnam War. It was wrong, under George W. Bush, to invade Iraq. And it was wrong, during much of these past four years under Trump, to suppress voting rights and civil rights, deny climate change, and rile up an ignorant populace.

These Trump years remind me of the fable of the belly and the members that Shakespeare uses in Coriolanus, one of his history plays. A mob of plebians is complaining how the patrician rulers get all the food and do none of the work, but then the patrician Menenius Agrippa explains to them:

The senators of Rome are this good belly,
And you the mutinous members; for examine
Their counsels and their cares, digest things rightly
Touching the weal o’ the common, you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds or comes from them to you
And no way from yourselves. What do you think,
You, the great toe of this assembly?

Whatever you think about the patrician bias of such advice, the point is clear on many levels that riotous behavior reduces rather than affirms or augments the state. A mob of fools, or asses, or toes, as Menenius suggests, does not assure the health of the whole; rather, blessings come from above and flow throughout the body. Or, I would say, blessings come from the whole and are distributed to the parts.

If it is time, from time to time, for Liberty to be leading the people, let’s make sure that Liberty is a wise guide, not a wise guy, a dummkopf, an ass like Trump — a figure with moral and intellectual bel-esprit. Loving our country, finally, being true patriots, requires care and calm and vigilance as well as the gift of discernment.

The vulgar tongue

So my sister-in-law Pam gives me for Christmas a desk calendar called “A Daily Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” including “colorful curses useful in the 18th century — and useful now.”

Oh, what fun it is to sing a slaying song tonight!

A song, that is, that may slay decency and put to rest the common notions of decorum.

The “Vulgar Tongue” entry for January 1, New Year’s Day, is a good if curious beginning — not a curse or a swear word but more a humorous euphemism: “wrapt up in warm flannel,” which is said to mean “Drunk with spiritous liquors.” Sounds like an old English phrase or Irish, it could be. One doesn’t want to disturb the company, so chuckles as he explains his condition the previous evening, which may have been New Year’s Eve.

At my age, said to be 73, and in our state, which is not simply Arkansas but the state of the Covid pandemic, I did not go rousting last night, with or without my wife. We stayed home, had a good supper, and watched, each of us left to our own device(s), a movie. Jen opened a little Malbec and watched a movie on her iPad, while I wrapped myself in the flannel of my favorite box wine, Bota Box Nighthawk Black, Rich Red Wine blend, but not so rich a poor man can’t afford it (about $18 for three liters, the same as four 750 ml bottles), and a shot or two or three of Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey (about $18 for a 750 ml bottle).

Professor and Madman
The Professor and the Madman, 2019.

In this condition I watched on the living room TV about half of a new movie called “The Professor and the Madman,” which was intriguing if a bit bloody. In fact, I quit at the midway point, well before midnight, when the plot seemed to be thickening or bloodying. You know me. I can’t stand too much blood. (Can I?) The movie involves the unlikely collaboration between  the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a Scottish autodidact named James Murray (Mel Gibson), and the American MD William Chester Minor (Sean Penn) who in London delusively shoots and kills a man he believes is his enemy. He’s locked up and only gradually recovers his sanity through books, through which he contributes amply and crucially to the new dictionary.

But the point here is not a movie review, is it? But the introduction, in fact, of a phrase that’s new to me, and perhaps to you, in the ample bosom of our mother tongue. (Pardon the mixed metaphor! Argh!)

So if you too found yourself last night, or any time recently, wrapped in warm flannel, don’t just throw off the covers, please. Try the hair of the dog that bit you, would you? Another vulgar and improbable phrase fit for a king or beggar.