Category Archives: the language

Words have skins like amber.

“Ralph Waldo Emerson once declared that language is fossil poetry. Many words that we use carelessly have, embedded within their amber-like exterior, the remnants of long lost perceptions and intuitions. When received thoughtfully and with some delicacy, words have the capacity to allow us to travel back in time, to imagine how and what the world meant to our ancestors. But unlike the insects, or dinosaur DNA fixed in amber, the meanings within words are changing, evolving, as human perceptions change.”

-Ken Myers on Mars Hill Audio Journal, introducing his interview of John Durham Peters about his new book, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media.

I listened to this interview and have ordered the book, though I fear it will be above my head, like clouds. The author was not hard to understand when he was talking, and he spoke of so many things that I would like to “hear” him discuss further, after I get the book and can read the words on paper, and flip back and forth and underline a phrase here and there of his meaningful prose. How can I resist a book that contains all together in its title the words Marvelous, Philosophy, and Clouds?

Only to a degree expressible.

I’ve shared four poems by W.S. Merwin on my blog over the years. He is a poet who doesn’t use punctuation in his poems. I recently read an interview with him, given five years ago. Here I’m posting a short excerpt in which he talks about his eschewing punctuation, and about the uses and challenges of poetry generally.W.S. Merwin_NewBioImage

If you stop using punctuation, that’s a kind of formality. I mean you have to be very conscious of the grammar and the syntax and how the sentence is put together; otherwise it’ll be just so ambiguous and confusing you just won’t be able to read it. The other thing I think it does is to make the separation between poetry and prose. I thought, punctuation is very convenient, but it was really invented in the seventeenth century for prose. Not for poetry at all. The punctuation of Shakespeare texts is whatever seemed convenient. There weren’t any particular rules that he was following that I can see. I mean it changed in the course of the plays. But above all, I thought that having no punctuation made you listen to the poem. That’s the important thing.
Poetry, like the imagination itself, must be limitless. And there must be other ways of expressing the inexpressible, which is what—poetry is just that. Prose is about what can be said and what is known and so on. Poetry is about what cannot be expressed. I mean, terrible grief, or intense erotic feeling, or even unspeakable anger are all inexpressible. You can’t put them in words and that’s why you try to put them in words. Because that’s all you’ve got. That’s another reason why I think that poetry is as ancient as language itself, because I think language must come out of an urge for which there was no expression, no way of doing it. I mean grief or fear or rage or whatever it was. It goes from one roar or one scream or one terrible sound of pain to starting to articulate it. It’s the articulating that becomes poetry. But it doesn’t become information at that point. It’s closer to translation. It’s translating something that’s there, that is only to a degree expressible.

-W.S. Merwin in Guernica magazine interview

Minding your itses and it’ses.

This article from Stan Carey at the Sentence First blog,  Its, it’s: It’s a problem should help you clear up any hesitation or confusion you have about when to put an apostrophe in its. It’s the most thorough treatment of the problem I have read, with 40 ! surprising and cringeworthy examples of misuse photographed from original documents or screens, even in the edited prose of such publications as The New York Times and The Economist. Using it’s when its is called for is the most way these two are mixed up — I think even more so now than when he wrote this article. Anits 2d still wrong.

To be fair I should mention that Mr. Carey is generally in the descriptive linguistic camp, but he says this issue is a pet peeve of his. He admits that the scale of the its-it’s problem is not cosmic, “But careful readers will notice the mistake and consider it a sign of inattention, sloppiness, ignorance, or even illiteracy – especially if it’s repeated. So if you value good communication, it’s a distinction you ought to make, and make consistently.”

If you don’t want to read any of his article, here is a key point to remember, which alone may correct the tendency to follow the maddening crowds: It’s always, always is a contraction for it is or it has. If you start to type it’s, ask yourself if you could say one of those phrases instead. No? Then leave out the apostrophe.

Another thing that helps is to keep a list in your mind of all the possessive pronouns (noting that its is one of them), none of which have apostrophes: my, yours, his, hers, its, theirs, etc. See, even the ones ending in s do not have apostrophes. Its behaves like its's 2

But I hope you will at least scan the article – it’s fun to take instruction from examples of professional writers goofing up, and it will freshen and reinforce your language skills so that no one will think you are sloppy or illiterate — at least not over this little word.

Attention to gnats and devils.

pig IMG_5528One of the books that Richard Wilbur wrote for children is Pig in the Spigot, which any lover of words should enjoy, whether you are a child or not. I can see reading it with a child who is well on the way to reading, but when I was homeschooling I often would introduce material “too early,” and that can work, too. If used with a notepad and pencil, I bet I could make this book serve as reading/phonics lessons for at least a week.

One of my favorite elementary school assignments was when the teacher would write a word on the blackboard, and tell us students to make as many more words as we could, using those letters. I always won this contest! Wilbur’s exercise is more stringent, but that only gives him the chance to shows his poet’s skill in imagining the logical ramifications should the words within words become literal.

The illustrator must have had fun coming up with the sometimes-wacky pictures to go with the stories that one can create with this kind of activity. Here are a few of the examples of fun verses that often carry some even deeper implications.

The Devil is at home, as you can see,
In Mandeville, Louisiana, but he
Is often on the road, and in the line
Of work he visits both your town and mine.

Some tiny insects make a seething sound,
And swarm and jitter furiously around,
Which seems to me sufficient explanation
Of why there is a gnat in indignation.

pig IMG_5523

Moms weep when children don’t do as they say.
That’s why there is a sob in disobey.

I just noticed that the mother in this last picture is wearing a cross. There are many other interesting details to be explored in the images, but it’s the language of words that I get excited about. Anything that helps children slow down and pay attention to the details of letters and sounds will help them to be good readers and writers — and spellers!

But I don’t want to sound too pragmatic, even if the level of literacy in the country is dismal. John Holt said that it is not good methods but good books that make good readers, and here is an example of what he was talking about. What makes me happy is the knowledge that good readers will read more because they enjoy it, and if they keep reading good books their inner worlds will grow ever larger. They are more likely to become good writers and thinkers, and maybe they will write some more good books for children that are fun for me to read.