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August 04, 2007

Words, Words, Words

OED.jpg The Age of Anxiety — it used to be the long poem by Auden (he wrote four in the 1940s alone) which I liked least. But now, having struggled with it a bit, I think it's slowly becoming just the opposite.... The qualities which hit me at the moment are the ingenuity and energy of the poem's lexicon. During a recent reading, perhaps at a bit more than a third of the way into the book, I began jotting down some of the words I was wondering whether I'd seen in any poetry written before 1944, the date when Auden started writing The Age of Anxiety.

A partial list of instances from the 20 pages or so when I was keeping a tally includes: "gadget", "gland", "fiscal", "commodity", "juke-box", "carpet-slippers", "statisticians", "dreck", "cocktail", "antiseptic", "jackass", "night-nurse", "galumph", "asterisk", and — since this matter-conscious, orally-fixated poem contains a significantly copious selection of modern euphemisms for the Place-Where- Everyone-Goes &mdash: "washroom", "men's room", "comfort station" and "pay-toilet". Auden's poetry is intensely alive to the prolific production of neologisms and periphrases in modern life.

Critics usually trace back the thudding alliterative measure in which Auden wrote the majority of the verse in The Age of Anxiety to an adaptation of the four-stress alliterating line of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems. But, as I read on, what the self-conscious emphasis on the initial letters of so very many words evoked at least equally strongly for me was the total, undifferentiating absorptiveness of the Ur-book, the dictionary, the only volume in which, at least ideally, all words of a particular language are registered. And the dictionary is the only volume where language is listed by a method which discriminates only on the basis of initial letter and not (again ideally, at least) by class, context, or by the gender or sexual preferences or ethnicity of users. Abbreviation, abbreviator, abbreviatory, abbreviature, abbrevy, abbrochement, ABC, ... anus, anvenum, anvil, anvilling, anxietude, anxiety, anxiferous, anxiogenic, anxious....

The dictionary, and Auden’s poetic refraction of it in The Age of Anxiety give us an inkling of, a glimpse at, the total langue of the English language instead of the parochial parole with which we happen to be (more or less depressingly) familiar.

While the mid-century world came close to dying from the disease of nationalism, Auden’s Christianity had moved him to a plane on which, as he put it in his introduction to Emile Cammaerts’s book The Flower of Grass in 1945 (ie, an essay written while he was also composing The Age of Anxiety), spiritually speaking "there is neither Jew nor German, East nor West, boy nor girl, smart nor dumb, boss nor worker, Bohemian nor bourgeois." It might well seem, based on a reading of The Age of Anxiety, that at the same time as his other-worldly beliefs were a way of distancing himself, and poetry, from of an insanely factional "real world" in which we are "Fanatics of the Egg or Knights sworn to | Die for the Dolphin, and our deeds wear | Heretic green or orthodox blue, | Safe and certain", Auden wanted his poetic language to aspire to a similar condition of non-judgmental weightlessness, unrooted in any particular place or speech community.

No impression of completeness is literally encyclopedic, no urge to a cosmopolitan universality is technically universal, but Auden's inclusion of a line and a half of Hebrew (Rosetta recitation of the Jewish prayer at the end of her last monologue) in his most ambitious long poem does stand in stark contrast to the severely circumscribed internationalism of high modernists such as Pound or Eliot who made room in poetry in English for shards of Chinese and Italian, Latin and Greek, but not, ever, for the language of the Jews. This morally striking moment is linguistically striking too. With a wonderful lack of respect for separate "traditions" Auden’s synthesizing brilliance folds the ancient Hebrew words perfectly into the alliterative form of Old English verse and puts them into the mouth of a department store buyer in mid-20th century Manhattan. The moment is, at one level, just the focussing and pinpointing of the poem's ubiquitously voracious desire for as much novel and modern diction, and through it for as much of the modern world, as it is practically possible for a poem of only 138 very small pages to bank up.

Poetry criticism, at least as an exercise in close reading (and will poetry reading ever again get "far" or "distant" from what is currently "close"?) has become almost completely focussed issues of shape and form. But the grammatical and syntactic structures of language as whole, which we could legitimately correlate with poetic "form", change relatively slowly. For example, an increasing paratacticism in sentence structure, often held to be one of the markers of modernist daring with language, has been a general characteristic of English usage since the 18th century.

Where linguistic modernity truly makes itself felt is not primarily in English's structure but in its lexicon. The world of late capitalism manufactures new kernels of language at an extraordinary fast rate. Take a sample of linguistic novelty, as recorded by the OED for 1947, the year when Auden published The Age of Anxiety. That year, according to the OED saw the first use in English of 319 notable new words or parts of words. Here is a small sampling:

affectless, apartheid, automaker, biocide, biotechnology, bikini, Biro, bop, Chicano, chloroflourocarbon, echograph, econometrician, ethnolinguistics, gamesmanship, honcho, ingressant [Auden is cited for his use of this word in The Age of Anxiety], jet stream, Kafkaesque, loner, look-alike, macromodel, market testing, mesofauna, microenvironmental, miniaturization, minimalistic, multipolarity, name-dropper, neo-Keynesian, new look, nuclide, overdesign, Oxfam, oxy-arc, Phenergan, phenylpropanolamine, photoinduction, physicalize, pi-meson, pixillation, press-up, programmed, pulser, rain-out, scorzalite, Scotch tape, self-hate, socializer, subminiature, subprogram, tectosilicate, thiopental, toxaphene, upbeat, vert [Auden is cited too for his use of this word in The Age of Anxiety], viraemia and zoophilic.

As if to trying to keep pace, at least at a symbolic level, with the rapidity of linguistic coining within American culture in the immediate post-war period, Auden tried very hard to make his forms in The Age of Anxiety neo-traditional but his diction anomalously, almost freakishly contemporary. The OED cites this one poem alone 64 times for novel lexical usages of the following words or parts of speech:

base, bedroom, blossom, book, bullet-head, bus, cabaletta, comfort, commute, deasil, dish, doodle, double-talk, egg, elevator, euphoric, Ferris, filter, fix, game, Ghuzz, G. I., green-house, Gupta, hepato-, hot, ingressant, jive, klieg, know-how, man, market, medicine man, momma, monadnock, orphaned, parachute, passport, pay-, peek, penthouse, personal, quiz, rain, right, run, salad, Schadenfreude, silk, soft-footed, Suburbia, teenager, Tethys, think, tick, time, Timurid, Torgut, treacly, trivia, tycoon, U, ur- and vert.

Exactly comparably, Pound is cited by the OED 64 times for significant usages in The Pisan Cantos (1948). By contrast, we learn something suggestive about the nature of W. C. Williams's level of linguistic innovation by noting that Part 1 of Paterson (1946) is only cited once by the OED, and about the nature of H. D.'s poetry by noting that The Walls Do Not Fall (1944) is not cited in the dictionary at all. Of course, these lop-sided figures partially reflect the prejudices and blind-spots of generations of OED contributors and editors. But the linguistic yields from Auden and Pound as opposed to Williams and H. D. cannot be explained away entirely on such grounds. Some writers are more linguistically "open" to the world than others, and this is an important and almost wholly facet of their work.

A study of lexical contemporaneity is only one crude measure of an author's claim to be considered a self-consciously "modern" poet. But the current preoccupation with purely, and often crudely, formalist definitions of avant-garde writing are no longer adequate. Lexical innovation (and anxiety) are just as much markers of poetic modernity as formal innovation (and anxiety) are. But critics and scholars have been obsessed with the latter for almost three-quarters of a century now, while largely neglecting diction. It is time for more work on the language in which a poem is written, just as it is time for poetry criticism to rethink and revive the study of that banished entity — content.

Posted by njenkins at August 4, 2007 03:17 AM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins