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Category Archives: Language

In defence of poetry

Poetry is for everyone. This is something I feel very strongly about.

What makes poetry? To me, poetry is a simple affair. Poetry is about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, or describing the ordinary in extraordinary ways. It is a moment of extraordinary insight, and simple in that it may only be delivered from what is immediately real and familiar to us. Perhaps this is what W.S. Merwin meant when he contended that poetry “is something before it is about something”.

Consider Bashō’s celebrated “Old Pond”:

old pond
a frog jumps in
water’s sound.

— Matsuo Bashō / Translated by William J. Higginson

What the poem describes is ordinary: the mundane act of a frog jumping into an old pond. Yet it has been transformed into something other. It has become a subtle, yet powerful sequence of events in the mind’s eye. There are two sources of tension – between imagery and sound, and tranquility and disturbance. By observing the ordinary act of a frog jumping into an old pond and by revealing the extraordinary qualities within in an extraordinary way, Bashō has created poetry.

Poetry is also an affair with language. It may begin with substance, yet it is form, defined by the use of language, which helps reveal this substance, be it abstract or strictly formalistic. This may amount to “describing the ordinary in extraordinary ways”. Furthermore, it may well be that in the process of writing, poetry may begin with form. Merwin again states that “a poem begins out of what you don’t know, and you begin not by having a good idea but by hearing something in the language.”

I concede that my definition of what makes poetry faces difficulties. What of poetry which emphasises form over substance? What of types of poetry which aim to achieve different goals other than the revelation of the extraordinary, such as the setting forth lengthy narratives, say for instance in epic poetry? It would be intellectually dishonest not to address such problems. However, poetry is profoundly personal; as it is, the short answer would be that I do not consider these ‘poetry’ in the true sense. It may be that they are only poetry for having adopted recognised and aesthetically viable forms of verse and rhyme.

So it has been contended that poetry is a moment of extraordinary insight. But what use of this moment of beauty? Why does poetry matter? Consider the following poem, “Learning by Heart”, by Abbas Raza (founding editor of 3quarksdaily):

He recited a short poem to me
Which he had learned by heart
Not to impress or intimidate
Me, or anyone else,

But just in case one year
Spring might be late in coming
And he need cheer his friends
Saddened by the dearth of birdsong.

Or perhaps for that moment in love
When he would be struck speechless,
When he knew that he would need
To borrow another man’s tongue.

Or maybe just so that if he wanted
He could tie a brightly colored cravat
On the neck of an autumn crepuscule
Too-soberly dressed in a charcoal suit.

— S. Abbas Raza (for Robin Varghese, April 8, 2010)

The fact remains that human life has to be nourished with some further beauty, some meaningful insight which stands out against the drabness of the ordinary. In this respect, poetry is no different from the fine arts. It is, however, distinguishable and more immediately relevant to us, being a manifestation of the primary means by which we communicate – language.

Moreover, much has been written and said about how one of the redeeming features of humanity is its capacity to be astonished. This is accompanied by humanity’s need to be astonished, in order for humanity to transcend itself. I opine that to be exposed to the extraordinary within the ordinary, in an extraordinary fashion, one necessarily experiences the frisson of astonishment.

In conclusion, there is much to be said about poetry. Poetry is more accessible than it seems, and is of direct relevance to our very beings: Poetry is simpler than what it delivers. Poetry allows us to transcend the grind of humanity by astonishing us with the beauty of the extraordinary. Poetry is but one amongst the many vital sugars which a life lived to its fullest must be sustained upon.

With its relevance and its oft-overlooked accessibility, poetry is for everyone.

A caveat: Raza suggests that we ought to share poetry, whilst Yeats cynically observes in the third verse of “Adam’s Curse” that this has become desperately unfashionable:

I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’

— W.B. Yeats

This is perhaps a matter best left to good taste and discretion.


That post-quiz procrastination

It’s that post-quiz glow again. This last quiz was math – but it’s always similar, always insidious, always brutal. Hours pass in a flash. Productivity is out, procrastination is in – that’s how it works. Instants of distraction add up, build up into stacks and mountains of work, rising on and on. As it is I turn away in mortification from my clock. Oh clock (I think inwardly): thank gawd you can’t talk or I’d go nuts toting up all hours I’d thrown away.

And all this for what? On occasion (commonly now) I think of all this as foolish futility: nothing but that crass pursuit of a fancy qualification and a straight road to a fat-cat high-paying job. It’s all about dollops of dosh, bright big-city lights (and a fast car’s cool too). And my ocular faculty turns all misty and starry as my mind roams in a fantasy world: a world of payslips almost too big to hold in a hand, gallivanting globally airport to airport (first class, imaginably?) – what wouldn’t I do for that?

And I think of all that as this world turns, on and on, and out my window I might watch all kinds of flora changing colour, turning ruddy and dry, moulting in cold air – if only I had that luxury of looking.

Four days ago it was snowing. I think back on that instant–

waking up

hardly conscious of my limbs flailing about trying to shut off my alarm

groping about for my customary ocular aids

stopping to look – what’s this – what’s that stuff on Calhoun’s rooftop – why’s all that ground sparkling in this dim dawn light? First a spray of raindrops, now light fluff-balls glowing in a morning’s half-dark, tumbling and falling all softly on a diagonal –

And as my mind flits and roams on, I think now – my opinion might still flip around, but for what it’s worth, I do actually think now – that this fat payslip fantasy is all illusory, and I want nothing but a possibility of capturing that flavour of that instant, idly gazing out my window at my first vision of snowfall.

– Rayn-r, 11/11, thrown out onto this blog 12/1


Or: The Beauty of Language

What’s in a word? One might be tempted to say “letters, my dear man”, but as with anything transmitted and given meaning by society, words have a life and a history all of their own, the product of their existence, imagining, and continual re-imagining by us humans. Indeed, the very language we use is older than any of us (perhaps even all of us combined), and it carries so many quirks and coincidences that, sometimes, one can only pause and marvel.

Take the word “test” for example. It is most familiar to us as a tool of judgement, assessment, or trial, and the noun possessing this meaning has been recorded since the 1590s. The verb form of the word has been recorded since 1748, somewhat unexpectedly, but not uncommonly; many verbs we take for granted today have in fact been “verbified” from their parent nouns. This general sense of “test” originates from its usage in the late 14th century meaning “a small vessel used in assaying precious metals”, and has its roots in the Latin “testum”, meaning “earthen pot”.

From there, we get the numerous nuances of the word in contemporary usage, each instance drawing on a different aspect of the meaning. We have “test-tube”, perhaps most closely-linked to the original; we have “test-drive”, certainly not a test in the earliest sense -how would one drive an earthen pot?- but a test in the more abstract sense; and we have “test-tube baby”, signifying the triumph of science over sterility, and interestingly enough, first appearing in 1935, while “test-drive” did not appear until 1954.

One might be tempted to link that first sense to “testify”, and it is easy to see a connection- both senses are linked with the verity of the object in question, be it metal or man. Both senses originate from the late 14th century, but come from different Latin roots. “Testify”, in the sense of “to serve as evidence of”, ultimately originates from the Latin “testificari”, to bear witness. The Latin word itself originates from “testis”, witness, and the root of “facere”, to make; in essence, to make witness.

Allow me a diversion here. The word “facere” is present in more English words than we would think at first sight. As with “testify”, most words ending in “-fy” with a creative (and not Creationist nor even Creative, for those are completely different meanings) aspect ultimately originate from “facere”. Similarly, any word with “-fication”, “-factor”, “-facient” &c. (another Latin loanword!) would have originated from the Latin. Many quotable phrases contain the word, or one of its many, many variations (Latin is notorious for having too many declensions). Perhaps one day, we will look back on this century and utter the words of Tacitus: “Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant”, or: “Where they create a desert, they call it peace”. Perhaps, when this Universe finally ends, some super-Universal (“super-” in the sense of above and beyond) entity will find it ironic to utter: “Fiat lux”, or: “Let there be light”.

Enough of the unrelated Latin; there is time enough for it another day. There is now a second sense of “testify” having to do with religion, and “openly profess[ing] one’s faith and devotion”; this sense is attested from the 1520s, which coincides with the Protestant Reformation. Indeed, “protest” itself originates from the same root, “testis”, but with the prefix “pro-” signifying “forth, before”. One of the oldest senses of the word is “to protest one’s innocence”, which is still retained in contemporary usage. The sense of “disapproval” originates much later, from 1751, and “dissent from or rejection of prevailing mores” from 1951, in relation to the U.S. black civil rights movement. Still the oldest sense, however, is that of a “solemn declaration”, in the mid-14th century, which is the sense in which Martin Luther protested, even though the verb in that sense is attested only from the mid-15th century.

Perhaps a word closer to the four letters we started out with would show some more similarity- but alas (and to my joy!), English surprises us yet again. “Testy”, meaning “impetuous, rash”, has nothing to do at all with test-tubes or testimonies, although it might explain the need for some test-tube babies. What seems like a contemporary word, if only for its overusage, can in fact trace its history with the oldest of the lot- the first sense has been recorded since circa (another Latin loanword) 1500, and the other meaning of “easily irritated” comes some scant two decades later, in the 1520s. The history of this word is somewhat more complicated than one would imagine lay behind a simple derogatory adjective. It comes through the Middle English “testif”, “headstrong”, via the Old French “testu”, “stubborn” (or literally, “heady”), and ultimately from the Latin “testa”, “skull”. Indeed, the emotional aspect of the word is shared with “heady”, as is its history.

The most interesting word (I apologize to the ladies in advance) has, astoundingly, nothing to do with testiness, although the visual and aural similarities have no doubt contributed to the usage of the latter; indeed, “testes” comes from the same root as “testify”. It is the plural of “testis”, used in the sense of “gonad” since 1704, which makes this sense easily the youngest of all. Astute readers may recognize the root; it is, in fact, usually regarded as a special application of “testis”, presumably because it “bears witness” to virility. Other explanations include a variation of the sense of “testum”, or “pot”, bringing us full circle in the most unexpected way.

It is a testament to the power of society that a language can evolve so much over time, with little more than its current state known to the vast majority of people, who are themselves nevertheless bringing about the next evolutions. Indeed, the meaning and significance of language is contained almost solely within the minds of people who live but threescore and ten years, yet it has survived so much of Time, and come out none the worse for it.