The Plasticity of Language

In the original introduction to Roget’s International Thesaurus, first published in 1852, Peter Roget writes about “the elasticity of language” as suggested by his seminal reference work, was the world’s first thesaurus (29). Roget claimed that the cross-referenced alphabetical index of words at the back of the book (the main content of his thesaurus utilized an organizational strategy that divided all words into six conceptual categories) sufficiently demonstrated “the multiplicity of uses to which [….] the meaning of words has been stretched, so as to adapt them to a great variety of modified significations” (29). It is no surprise that someone setting out to compile and classify the lion’s share of English words would conclude that language is a flexible, fluid, and slippery substance, especially since the aim of his project was to create chains of interrelation between words. If a word (which may already posses multiple meanings) can conceivably be replaced by dozens of alternatives, thereby producing variable echoes of the original, then a writer’s pursuit of precision and accuracy would be a futile act. Instead, the object of the writing game becomes something more like selecting the most satisfying assortment of words from the field of possibilities (however “satisfaction” is to be defined). Furthermore, the implications of language’s elasticity provide particular trouble for poets. Because poetry is the most self-conscious genre of writing (that is, the mode in which the writer must most be attuned to the qualities of language itself, the physical and semantic characteristics that make words both conveyors and obscurers of meaning), a poet cannot practice for long without questioning the ingredients of his or her medium. Upon finding language to be fungible and in a state of constant deference toward yet more words, the poet should write in such a way to reflect, not restrict, the potential of language to stretch across a multitude of connotations and discourses.

The Oulipo movement invented literary forms that forced writers, via stringent constraints, to utilize the diversity and flexibility of language. By disallowing, for example, the use of the letter “e” in composing a text (as in George Perec’s novel La Disparition), an Oulipo writer constructs meaning with words that might normally be selected as a second, third, or fourth option (if at all), thereby encouraging a tour through a thesaurus’s back pages, so to speak. Fresh and striking verbal passages emerge from an Oulipian text precisely because the consensual phrasings and syntax must be exchanged in light of arbitrary constraints. Here, for example, is an excerpt from “Dexter Weaver Serves Breaded Crested Grebe,” a text written by Dallas Wiebe using only letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and signs found on the left hand side of the keyboard:

at easter at sweetwater texas few feasts grace watered grass # ragweed rages # secret feverfew craters terraces # bare trees starve as star wars rage # garbage bags sweat as sewers target excess crawdad cadavers #  (165)

Despite the severe limitation he has imposed upon himself, Wiebe is able to convey meaning, in fact constructing original phrases, such as “bare trees starve” and “crawdad cadavers.” The language is fecund enough to respond to Wiebe’s one-hand-tied-behind-the-back antics, actually flourishing in some sections.

Perhaps no contemporary text better demonstrates the malleability of the English language than Christian Bök’s “Eunoia,” a long prose poem written in five univocalic chapters, respectively titled A, E, I, O, and U. Each chapter uses its titular vowel as the only vowel allowed in the chapter. Bök further constrained himself by requiring that each chapter use at least 98 percent of available words. Additionally, each chapter must “allude to the art of writing […..] describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage” (Bök 103). Here is an excerpt from Chapter E, a reversal of Perec’s novel:

He prefers the perverse French esthetes: Verne, Péret, Genet, Perec—hence, he pens fervent screeds, then enters the street, where he sells these                                     letterpress newsletters, three cents per sheet. He engenders perfect newness wherever we need fresh terms. Relentless, the rebel peddles these theses, even when vexed peers deem the new precepts ‘mere dreck.’ The plebes resent newer verse; (31-32)

The emergence of perfectly quotidian speech (“then enters the street,” “three cents per sheet”) that would make sense removed from the poem’s context and placed in a perfunctory role out in the world proves that the language can still be referential despite the limitations imposed upon the text. Additionally, certain phrases are uncannily appropriate, perhaps ideal, when written in this form, “fervent screed,” for example. When Chapter I begins, “Writing is inhibiting,” the text is clearly speaking about itself, finding a way to be perfectly self-referential without breaking the form (50). Furthermore, Bök is able to retell the story of the Odyssey in Chapter E, from Helen’s point of view, of course. This and other content restrictions demonstrate the lengths to which the language will stretch in order to cover ground the writer, for whatever reason, is determined to reach. In Eunoia’s afterward (the poem is the book’s title piece), Bök confesses one of his aims in writing the poem:

The text makes a Sisyphean spectacle of its labour, willfully crippling its language its language in order to show that, even under such improbable conditions of duress, language can still express an uncanny, if not sublime, thought (103).

Language can be bent and twisted into new forms, but apparently not broken. Instead, Bök treats the vowels as separate colors and rotates through his palate systematically.

The vast verbal ground covered by “Eunoia” results in the text celebrating a sweeping, democratic embrace of the multitudes found in the English language, and therefore existence. Whitman achieves this through his philosophical stance, his observations of the dynamics and diversity of American city and rural life, and the cataloguing technique. Bök’s Oulipian constraints force him to include any word—regardless of its meaning—that fits the arbitrary criteria. Whitman’s vision is willfully wrought. Bök’s is a necessary product of the multitudes of the English language. Like Whitman, “Eunoia” juxtaposes high and low culture and/or the sacred and the profane. Whitman proclaims that “the scent of [his] arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer,” and he includes the opium eater, the prostitute, and the president in the same catalogue (49). Within one chapter, Bök shifts from Kant, Marx, and Kafka to “A gal can grab a man’s balls and wank a man’s shaft” (16). Earlier in that chapter he sets “gangsta rap” alongside “Brahms” (15). Chapter O moves quickly from “Profs from Oxford” to “pornshops known to stock lowbrow schlock” (59, 61). One minute “God frowns on fools who do no conform to the orthodox protocol,” and the next we see “color photos of cocks, boobs, dorks, or dongs” (60, 61). Such topical range is unavoidable given Bök’s goal of using 98% of available words, effectively demonstrating the variety of subject matter that can cohere under the arbitrary division of a language. “Eunoia” serves as a showcase for the vowels, each establishing a pitch for its respective chapter. Consonants and content then become the variation or dissonances which play off the base vowel tones.

Harryette Mullen, another contemporary poet heavily influenced by the Oulipo, also engages in the kind of serious play found in Bök’s work. Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary features several poems inspired by the Oulipian N+7 technique, whereby an already existing text is rewritten by replacing each noun with the seventh noun ahead of it in the dictionary. Mullen doesn’t adhere to those rules, but instead uses a thesaurus and the ubiquity of consumer products to replace substantive words in an iconic sonnet of Shakespeare:

My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon. Today’s special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater slinkys would grow on her noggin. (20)

Mullen stretches each word into a new, but related form. The original poem, because of synonyms and syntax, is still visible, but something new has emerged. Recognizing the remnants of Shakespeare’s sonnet is a matter of both being familiar with the original poem and being able to mentally slide down a chain of synonyms from, for example, “honeybunch” to “mistress.” This reflects the process many poets go through when attempting to select what is, in their minds, the right word. Of course, the field of potential language is not limited to whatever the poet pulls up from some mystical backwater of the subconscious. Indeed there is a larger field of language available, a fact to which the dictionary and thesaurus attest. The exploration of the dimensions and subtleties revealed by the interrelation of available words provides subject enough for a poet, and in fact may be the a priori subject of all poetry. While a Romantic might celebrate a poem as an individual’s well-wrought creation, a semblance of order pulled from chaos and crafted into a clear-eyed vision of truth, the underlying reality may be something quite different. The words of the poem may instead be knots where the poet— for reasons having to do with culturally-influenced disposition, latent psychological desire, or genetic hardwiring—tied the endless string of words connected to, but still severed from, the crafted work.

Mullen’s poem “Mantra for a Classless Society, or Mr. Roget’s Neighborhood,” emulates a thesaurus entry in order to construct a chain of words that is able to reveal a subtle and perhaps more accurate representation of an external reality by refusing to settle upon one adjective, instead letting them all settle in to the picture:

cozy comfortable homey homelike
sheltered protected private concealed covered

snug content relaxed restful sedate

untroubled complacent placid serene calm undisturbed

wealthy affluent prosperous substantial
acceptable satisfied satisfactory adequate

uncomfortable uneasy restless

unsuitable indigent
bothersome irritating indigent
troublesome discomfiting disturbing
destitute impoverished needy
penniless penurious poor

poverty-stricken embarrassing

upsetting awkward ill-at-ease

nervous self-conscious tense (1-15)

By mimicking the progression (or perhaps regression) of houses observed when traveling through a neighborhood, Mullen reflects the vast array of living conditions often corralled together in urban areas (the kinds of in-flux neighborhoods where expensive restored historical homes might sit just down the street from a boarded-up crack house). She is also acknowledging the continuous, fluid transition from word to word that serves as the underlying drone of our conscious lives, the sort of hum or stream of language not yet shaped into the conventionally agreed-upon rules and structures to which individual human languages adhere. If Mullen were to pause on a particular word or image and flesh out the portrait of an individual house using a more sustained and compartmentalized treatment of the home’s structure (roof, door, siding, etc.), the poem would become more interested in an end outside of language, i.e. an image of the home transmitted into the reader’s head. By studying instead the mutability of the neighborhood, the poem is focused on the swath of adjectives stretching down the street, a continuous band only broken by someone purchasing and fencing-off a particular plot.

Alas, a poet cannot submit a cross-referenced compendium of all known words and call it a life’s work. First of all, new words emerge every day. The work would never be finished. Choice and editorial selection are inevitable. In fact, a poet may be nothing more than an editor whittling down the text (all available language) to a manageable length. It is then by becoming attuned to the process and underlying motivations of these editorial choices that a reader can appreciate the impetus for the poem’s existence.

Oulipian texts make this process apparent by arising in reaction to the constraint. In fact, a popular Oulipo mantra reads, “A text written according to a constraint describes the constraint” (Roubaud 42). Without the presence of a clear constraint, such as the one used by Bök, the editorial process is simply constrained from accessing the fields of language not illuminated by the writer’s conscious attention, either because of the lack of certain language skills, editorial bias, or a willfully narrow scope. A poet seeking to transmit works from the wider field of potential language must first develop a wider ear, eye, and mind, while still recognizing that concessions and selections must be made.

The work of John Ashbery consistently displays an awareness of the various and competing streams of discourse that underlie, surround, and permeate our consciousness on a daily basis. His poems frequently resemble a pastiche of multitudinous voices all vying for conscious attention. Accordingly, the language normally reserved for poetic discourse stretches to accommodate a cacophony of styles and language tracts. The opening stanzas of “A Day at the Gate” seamlessly maneuver through the language of pulp urban melodrama, economic reporting, and hokey colloquialism:

A loose and dispiriting

wind took over from the grinding of traffic.

Clouds from the distillery

Blotted out the sky. Ocarina sales plummeted.

Believe you me it was a situation

Aladdin’s lamp might have ameliorated. And where was I? (1-6)

Over the course of a day (or perhaps simultaneously), a citizen of modern society may encounter all of these voices via book, television, and crowded street. “The mind/ is so hospitable,” Ashbery writes, “taking in everything/ Like boarders” (8-10). Upon receiving the assortment of discourses that impinge upon consciousness in the present time’s hyper media culture, a poet can pretend to ignore such influences and carve out work that supposedly asserts an individual voice, or the poet can reconsider the nature of poetic language and accept a broader definition of the poetic, stretching the language to incorporate the raw material generated by a diversity of media voices. Ashbery provides a primer for this approach with his prose poem “The System,” published in 1970, well before the deluge of 24-hours news and the Internet. Yet, even then Ashbery apparently felt assaulted by disparate chattering of informational prose. The poem can be read as a collage that parodies non-fiction genres, such as self-help, new age prophecy, philosophy, and science text books:

In addition to these twin notions of growth, two kinds of happiness are possible: the frontal and the latent. The first occurs naturally throughout life; it is experienced as a kind of sense of immediacy, even urgency; often we first become aware of it at a moment when we feel we need outside help. Its sudden balm suffuses the soul without warning, as a kind of  bloom or grace. We suppose that souls “in glory” feel this way permanently, as a day-to-day condition of being. (59)

Ashbery stitches together a variety of found and overheard prosaic dispatches, acting as a sort of editor of the world at large, receiving discourses and selecting those that, with some stretching, fit into the loose, rambling narrative of the prose poem. “The System,” which accounts for some fifty pages of the book Three Poems, uses preconceived and previously performed writing and speech as a fuel, opening its mouth wide to swallow and regurgitate great fields of verbal crop. The result is a poetic text generated by the enlistment of language existing beyond the scope of inward-drive self-reflection common in the first-person contemporary lyric.

As the glut of information continues to grow, the range of lexicons encountered by those who are both actively literate and engaged with media culture increases and diversifies, making possible the marriage of high and low, cartoon and sermon, weather report and romance. Poems must stretch and adapt in order to consider the potential field of words and shades of meaning emanating from an empowered and increasingly published globalizing community. The material of language is conducive to just such a pursuit.

Works Cited

Ashbery, John. “A Day at the Gate.” Can You Hear, Bird?New York: Noonday Press, 1995. 3

Ashbery, John. “The System.” Three Poems. New York: Penguin, 1970.  53-106

Bök, Christian. “Eunoia.” Eunoia. Ontario: Coach House Books, 2001. 12-81.

Mullen, Harryette. “Dim Lady.” Sleeping with the Dictionary. University of California Press, 2002. 20

Mullen, Harryette. “Mantra for a Classless Society, or Mr. Roget’s Neighborhood.” Sleeping with the Dictionary. University of California Press, 2002. 49.

Roget, Peter. “Introduction” Roget’s International Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases. Ed. C.O.S. Mawson. New York: Crowell, 1922. 1-37.

Roubaud, Jacques. “Introduction.” Oulipo Compendium. Eds. Harry Matthews and Alastair Brotchie. London: Atlas, 1998. 37-44.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass, The First Edition (1855). Ed. Malcolm Cowley. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1997. 25-86.

Wiebe, Dallas. “Dexter Weaver Serves Breaded Crested Grebe.” Oulipo Compendium. Eds. Harry Matthews and Alastair Brotchie. London: Atlas, 1998. 165

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