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.

Good Old Boys

In this winter of our discontent — specifically, Monday, February 16, 2021 — our six-month-old furnace went out, and my wife and I were freezing in place. Jennifer exclaimed, “I am 74 years old, and the temperature in the house is 47!”

Better, a wiseguy friend suggested, than 80 years old and eight degrees in the house. (And certainly better than the long, unmitigated power and gas outage in Texas.)

But we called our HVAC installer, and they sent someone out the next day. This large fellow (let’s call him Charlie), who barely fit up the stairway to the attic where the furnace is located, fixed the problem quickly. A piece of ice or other debris had gotten lodged near the igniter, and he removed it.

After the job Charlie regaled me with a tale about a “good old boy,” he said, in Pea Ridge, a little town northeast of Fayetteville, who, along with lots of other folks in his neck of the woods, lost his natural gas supply entirely. The good old boy, Charlie said, called the company to relight his natural gas furnace. By the way, he said, his water heater was froze up. So did he have a gas stove? Yep. Was it working? Nope. Well, gas was not getting to Pea Ridge at all, so no gas appliance would work, including furnace. It would do no good for Charlie to come out until the gas supply was running again.

global weirding
A little pep and truth talk about global warming.

Pointing to the snow all around us, I told Charlie as he was about to leave that a climate scientist is calling global warming “global weirding,” and he assured me, “There ain’t no such thing as global warming.” So we bumped elbows on that one (he was wearing a mask, thank god, or thank his employer); and  not wanting to discuss politics, I let him go his merry way, this good ole boy, while I went mine, thankful for his HVAC expertise if not his political or meteorological acumen.

I had to laugh at this exchange, which made me realize there are good old boys and there are good old boys. So what was the difference between Charlie and the good old boy in Pea Ridge? I looked at the Urban Dictionary, a source of lively if not always entirely accurate definitions, and found this explanation:

good old boy
Would I infer correctly that Charlie is country but not that country? That he might have a  gun or two but not a big collection? That he carries only one knife at a time? That he knows how to read, whether or not he does, and doesn’t need his GF or wife to accompany him on the hunt?

The whole affair would be simply ludicrous if it weren’t for the political implications of Charlie’s assurance. He doesn’t know, and doesn’t want to know, anything that contradicts his current beliefs. Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh (may he not rest in peace) have been filling him full of non-scientific balderdash, and he doesn’t want to admit he or any other human could be responsible, in even the tiniest way, for climate change because he drives a gas hog for work or pleasure, and damn well likes doing so, and won’t be without his boy toys or power fetishes; because he believes even today in Manifest Destiny, expanding every upward, outward, westward; because, well, just because.

Because, it could be, as the clinical psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman suggests in a powerful recent article in the New York Review of Books, conspiracy theories and anti-scientific thinking, like those preached by the Trump mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6, were

… not because they were suffering from group psychosis. It is not probable that tens of millions of Americans would be frankly delusional, in a clinical sense. The answer lies, rather, in something fundamental about human psychology and cognition: we are hardwired for plausibility, not truth. We rely on our intuition, which is often misleading, not on fact. And this cognitive trait is a particular liability in the age of digital media in which we are drowning in information—as well as misinformation and outright disinformation—because we are ineluctably drawn to data that confirms our worldview and repelled by data that contradicts it.

Moths to the flame, hey? Ineluctably drawn? A good reason to practice a bit of humility before we pronounce ferociously on any matter, especially one we know little of, have not read about, and about which we are just shooting off our mouths.

 

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.