Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Eek! I'm a "Professor!"

No sooner did I post the last blog about writing than I discovered that I'm going to Florida State University for grad school. That's great, because I'll be working with Gary Taylor, who has a worldwide reputation in Shakespeare studies. Plus, I got a full scholarship and a stipend. Also great, right?

Then they tell me that the financial deal is in exchange for me teaching two Freshman Comp writing courses and that I have to be in Tallahassee June 28 to learn how to teach.

Yipes! I've guest-lectured before, but I thought I'd have years before actually having to teach a class of my own. After my initial panic, though, I'm excited about the idea. And I realized that I've got a lot to say on the subject of good writing, because for me good writing is inseparable from good thinking and good living.

As I said last time, I am an ardent supporter of George Orwell's claim that precision in language is vital because precision in language is the outward sign of precision in thought, and precision in thought gives us our political freedoms, our morals, and all our higher thoughts. Vagueness, sloppiness, imprecision, or fuzziness in thought spills over into language, but worse, it spills over into life. Language is the primary means by which we negotiate our presence in the world. It matters, a lot.

Besides precision, what I hope to teach the unfortunate souls who will be my first students are breadth and depth in language.

Breadth in language, because the right nuance makes all the difference. Happiness is not the same as joy; joy is not the same as contentment; contentment is not the same as ecstasy. Striking the right nuance allows for insight, allows the writer to create finely shaded portraits of characters whose words and actions stay true to their fictitious selves. Miss three or four nuances in a row and instead the writing is just galumphing around without direction, or with three or four directions at once.

I could offer a thousand examples here: "Let not the bloat king tempt you to bed" from Hamlet. What a word choice -- "bloat"! It's magnificent, a single syllable packed with a dozen notions of disgust, sleaze, sensuality, weakness, decay, hatred, even putrefaction. "Fat," though nominally a synonym, does virtually nothing here. Switch words and you go from an unforgettable line to an unmemorable one.

The wall calendar a few feet away from me right now features Edward Gorey's poem The Doubtful Guest, and the couplet for May is "It betrayed a great liking for peering up flues, / And for peeling the soles of its white canvas shoes." Even in a comic poem about an imaginary creature, look at the difference in character between "betrayed" (revealed in spite of itself) and possible alternatives "revealed," "displayed" or simply "showed" (if one ignores meter). Gorey's word choice supports all the rest of the poem about this enigmatic, moody, vaguely disturbing -- but still child-like and innocent -- creature, as opposed to one that is ostentatious or transparent. I hope to encourage my students to develop as broad and rich a vocabulary as they can so that they can command the full breadth of language.

But my favorite thing about language has to be its depth. I am transported with delight when I see an author use a word in such a way that it is the only possible word in all of English that could have been used in that spot. Here are three of my favorite examples:

A Sappho fragment translated by Anne Carson (a poet in her own right) runs like this:

You gather back
All that dazzling dawn put asunder:
You gather
a lamb
Gather a kid
Gather a child to its mother

A beautiful, peaceful image, but Carson's choice of the word "kid" could not have been any other word. By meaning both juvenile goat and human child, she links the agricultural image of lamb to the familial image of mother in the two surrounding lines. "Kid" is the fulcrum on which the line pivots. "Piglet," "duckling," "chick" "toddler," "teenager," -- none of those would have worked with such symmetry. Only "kid" could have worked there to smoothly transition from daytime farm work to evenings around the hearth, from generic generational to personally loving and familial. "Kid" is a what I would call a depth word, one that has two meanings equally important to the poem.

My second example is from pop culture. One of my favorite '80s bands is Pet Shop Boys. Their bouncy synthesized music formed a catchy, ironic contrast to their usually downbeat lyrics (example: the infinitely danceable, hummable ditty called "What Have I Done to Deserve This?")

Their early song "Rent" is about a poor lover kept by a rich one (genders seem unimportant to Pet Shop Boys -- I've listened to the song for years and couldn't begin to guess at which partner is supposed to be which gender). The song is endlessly ambiguous, aggressively ambiguous, and ambiguous in layers that keep folding over one another. While a background chorus coos enticingly, "It's so easy," the singer narrates all the expensive goodies the relationship provides -- dinner off Broadway, caviar, shopping, a bill-free existence -- yet the refrain goes,

Look at my hopes, look at my dreams,
The currency we've spent
I love you
You pay my rent.

Again, "currency" is the only word that can carry the meanings of both cash and more intangible things of value. Cowrie shells are a form of currency because they are valued, but they are not the coinage and paper that "cash" suggests. Because it carries both meanings, it refers both to the expensive toys and to the hopes and dreams. In the penumbra of related words, it even has a triple meaning -- current as in time. The singer's youth is yet another item that has been spent. A great depth word. "Money" there would have lost more than half the meanings in the line, even though it's the most obvious surface synonym.

My last favorite example of depth in writing, of course, has to come from Shakespeare. Sonnet 87 is not an easy sonnet for novices to read. It uses the language of finance to talk about love, and not only finance but 17th-Century Elizabethan finance. Many terms are now hard for casual readers to understand. But just let the general sense of the sonnet's meaning wash over you. Only clarification/reminder: "dear" is British for "expensive," as it still is today.

Farewell! thou are too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know'st thy estimate,
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again in swerving.
Thy self thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me to whom thou gav'st it else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

First, oh!, how much of a heart-breaker is that final couplet? It gets me every time; sometimes it brings tears to my eyes. Rue, chagrin, and ever so slight bitterness, all subsumed under such lost, utter hopelessness.

But the depth word for me is "wanting." Only "wanting" can mean both "lacking," its surface meaning here, and "desiring," the depth meaning. "The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting": I lack the qualities that would allow me to deserve the gift of your love. But also: my desire, my passion, drove this relationship, but now you've realized that you deserve better and the relationship is over. My wanting couldn't overcome my wanting.

The usual gloss on this sonnet is that it concludes a cycle in which the poet loves a Fair Youth who is stolen from him by the Dark Lady. Of all the words at his disposal and all of his facility -- and felicity -- with words, only one word here works both themes of desire and loss, and Shakespeare unerringly nails it. It's exhilarating to come across such a fine use of language, no matter the author or the context.

As usual, I'm running on long with my usual logorrhea. I meant to talk about how the Web is changing language, but I'll save that until next time. Namaste!

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely way to start my morning. Thanks. You've probably read Suzanne Langer's elegant little book on language and art, _Philosophy in a New Key_ but I'll mention it anyway because one of her main points is the distinction between connotative and denotative language. That a word can mean more than one thing is for her the mark of the human.