A Justly Forgotten Poet.

Emily Bernhard Jackson begins her 2015 review of Emily Harrington’s Second Person Singular: Late Victorian Poets and the Bonds of Verse and Elizabeth Ludlow’s Christina Rossetti and the Bible with the refreshing sentence “There is, it should be admitted, such a thing as a justly forgotten poet.” I applaud the desire to rescue good writers who have fallen into obscurity, but that generous impulse can easily go too far; I like very much this paragraph in which Jackson explains the kind of problem it can cause:

One queries Harrington’s decision to include a chapter on Dollie Radford, for example. Several times in the course of her discussion, she herself confesses that Radford at least appears to be a minor poet, and the verse she includes does nothing to suggest otherwise. There seems no reason to anticipate a renaissance in Radford studies, and one cannot help feeling that this chapter might have been removed with little lost overall. Perhaps, in fact, the space opened up by removing the Radford chapter might have been used to lengthen the others, for the book’s other flaw is the brevity of its study of each poet. Granting only a chapter each to a group of smaller poets results in their continuing to seem small; these women might gain greater weight in the canon if each had been the subject of a longer, individually focused study.

Incidentally, on the next page of that issue of the TLS Claire Lowdon reviews James Wood’s The Nearest Thing to Life (which I wrote about here) and complains about his “fatal tidying instinct … the desire to gather up several disparate concepts into a single neat theory”; she says “Wood seems to feel the need to defend literature against charges of slightness. The result is obfuscation.” That seemed to shed some light on something that startled me in an interview with Wood I heard this morning, in which he confessed (or boasted, depending on how you take it) that he never reads genre literature, even though he’s happy to watch junk TV and read car magazines (so it’s not just a matter of not wanting to waste precious time). I suspect it’s the need, perhaps based somehow on his intensely religious upbringing, to have literature be Serious. That’s not a good basis for criticism, though it’s not incompatible with good criticism (obviously, since we’re talking about Wood); it’s all too reminiscent of the pomposity that infected the generation that came to prominence in the 1950s, Lionel Trilling et al. Literature — worthwhile literature, at least — is not made by high-minded creatures with ichor in their veins, and it’s a bad idea to approach it that way.

The Greatest Book Deal Ever.

OK, that’s a little hyperbolic maybe, but the subject lends itself to hyperbole. Nina Martyris at the Paris Review writes about “of one of the riskiest—and shrewdest—deals in publishing history,” the one that brought us Les Misérables:

In a new book, The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables’, the professor and translator David Bellos condenses tranches of research into a gripping tale about Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

The deal, Bellos points out, was pathbreaking on several levels. First, Hugo earned an unprecedented sum: 300,000 francs (roughly $3.8 million in today’s money) for an eight-year license. “It was a tremendous amount of money, and since it entitled the publisher to own the work for only eight years, it remains the highest figure ever paid for a work of literature,” Bellos writes: “In terms of gold it would have weighed around ninety-seven kilos [213 pounds]. It was enough money to build a small railway or endow a chair at the Sorbonne.”

Second, the neophyte Belgian publisher Albert Lacroix was the antithesis of a Penguin Random House. At the time, the twenty-eight-year-old Lacroix had cut his teeth at his uncle’s printing press, and he didn’t have so much as a sou to his name. Determined to sign Hugo on, he set up his own firm—Lacroix, Verboeckhoven & Co—and borrowed the entire amount for Hugo’s advance from the Oppenheim bank in Brussels, where he had contacts. Bellos marks it as “probably the first loan ever made by a bank to finance a book,” which means “Les Misérables stands at the vanguard of the use of venture capital to fund the arts.”

There’s much, much more, including such piquant details as “The text was as fiercely embargoed as a Harry Potter novel” and “Gustave Flaubert privately mocked it as a ‘book written for catholico-socialist shitheads and for the philosophico-evangelical ratpack'” (and then had to delay publishing his own Salammbô by six months: “the catholico-socialist shithead novel was monopolizing sales”). Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys tales of literary dealmaking.

The Merriam-Webster Word Factory.

Jennifer Schuessler takes an enjoyable look (for the NY Times) at lexicographer Kory Stamper and her inside view of the workings of the Merriam-Webster empire (now sadly diminished, like all lexicographical enterprises, but still going strong). Stamper (whom I’ve posted about before, e.g., here) has a good attitude about language:

Ms. Stamper has no patience for self-styled purists who quail at “irregardless” — an actual word, she notes. (She is O.K. with ending sentences with prepositions as well as — brace yourself — split infinitives.) But she also describes being caught up in some higher-stakes fights.

One chapter takes an uncomfortable look at the racial assumptions baked into a Merriam-Webster definition of the color term “nude.” Another recounts the furor that erupted in 2009 when it added a subdefinition to its entry on “marriage,” noting uses to refer to same-sex unions that weren’t necessarily legally sanctioned. [..]

If dictionaries are a form of information technology, the building is in some ways a catalog of obsolescence. A downstairs gallery includes a 1934 poster advertising the second edition of the Webster’s New International Dictionary, billed as “one of the thickest books ever printed.” (The technology needed to bind it, Ms. Stamper said, no longer exists.)

There are also oddities like an asymmetrically bound Seventh New Collegiate from 1969, designed so it could hold itself up — an innovation that failed to catch on, probably because if you open it too far from the center, it falls over.

There’s a picture of that asymmetrically bound failure, as well as of the monstrously fat second edition of the New International and other related objects, and in general it’s worth a look. Thanks, Eric!

Addendum. Stan Carey reviews Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.

Scraping the Mold off Meanings.

It’s high time I gave a shoutout to Amateur Reader (Tom) and his literary blog Wuthering Expectations. What impelled me to post at this particular time was his series on Benjamin and Barbara Harshav’s American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (1986), which I now want a copy of; in this post he focuses on Jacob Glatstein and Moishe-Leib Halpern, and in this one on H. Leivick (“the Russian among the American Yiddish poets”). I was barely aware of these poets (really just their names), but look at these snippets! From Glatstein’s “We the Wordproletariat” (1937):

The sky, the blue hazard, went out.
You still sit and seek the shadows of a word
And scrape the mold off meanings.
Words take on sadder and purer tones.

The cursed night has got into your bones.

From Moishe-Leib Halpern’s “My Restlessness Is of a Wolf” (1919):

My restlessness is of a wolf, and of a bear my rest,
Riot shouts in me, and boredom listens.
I am not what I want, I am not what I think,
I am the magician and I’m the magic-trick.

And from Leivick’s “Yiddish Poets” (1930s?):

Sometimes, like frazzled cats, dragging
Their kittens around, distraught,
We drag our poems between our teeth
By the neck through the streets of New York.

In all of these excerpts, the poetry shines through the translations and makes me want to delve deeper. But this is just a side journey; he’s been reading late-nineteenth-century prose and early-twentieth-century Russian poetry, among other things, and no matter what he writes about I always find my understanding deepened. I first realized his excellence when reading his posts on Flaubert; I think the one that hooked me was this one from 2015, about the framework of metaphors in Sentimental Education, but this one is also amazing:

Flaubert, though, considers the novel to be beautiful all the way through. Any surface dullness is of no consequence because he can see the hidden patterns he has carefully constructed underneath the flat surface. They are always there somewhere, they are beautiful.

But hell, just scan down the list of “Labels” in the right margin and click on anything that piques your interest. Then subscribe to the RSS feed. Your time will not be wasted.


Tessa Wong reports for BBC News on Kristang, a creole spoken by a community of people of mixed Portuguese and Asian ancestry in Malacca and Singapore:

Until two years ago, university student Kevin Martens Wong had never even heard of his ancestral tongue, let alone spoken it.

The Singaporean linguist was researching endangered languages when he stumbled upon Kristang in a book. As he dug deeper, he realised it was the language of his maternal grandparents. […]

A unique creole of Portuguese and Malay, with elements of Chinese languages such as Mandarin and Hokkien, it was spoken by at least 2,000 people across the Malayan archipelago at its peak in the 19th Century, according to Mr Wong.

But today there may be as few as 50 fluent speakers left, along with more in Malaysia where the language is also in decline.

The main reason for its decline is that its own community has come to see it as economically irrelevant. […]

But Mr Wong and a group of language enthusiasts hope to change things.

Their group, called Kodrah Kristang – “Awaken Kristang” – holds weekly free language classes. They aim to build a critical mass of fluent Kristang speakers who can pass it on to future generations. […]

But reviving a dying language is not easy. One main challenge is that Kristang is mostly a spoken language and has rarely been recorded.

There is no standardised spelling or pronunciation system […]

Kristang does not have words for basic concepts such as apple, nurse, station or camera. “But we do have several words for genitalia,” deadpans Mr Wong.

To solve this problem, his group invented new words with mash-ups of Kristang’s root languages. […]

Some of these linguistic inventions can take on a poetic bent – a camera is “pintalumezi” or “light-painting machine”, while grammar is “osulingu”, or “bones of language”.

The group has also organised visits to the Portuguese Settlement in Malacca, started work on a dictionary and textbook, created free online audio courses, and even done YouTube covers of pop songs in Kristang. […]

“One day we would like to see Kristang be recognised by the wider community,” says Mr Wong.

“There are no economic reasons for it to come back. But it’s part of our shared historical fabric and heritage.”

Good for them! And to head off the usual complaints about pointlessness, nobody is forcing these people to pointlessly try to revive their economically pointless language, but I don’t see that their efforts in that direction are any worse than, say, taking up needlepoint or canasta. Thanks for the link, Paul and Trevor!

A New Daodejing.

Longtime LH commenter John Emerson writes:

For about 40 years I have been studying the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching, Laozi, Lao Tzu) and am now writing a book about it. Eventually it will include a translation and commentaries, but right now I only have a reedited Chinese text. Please tell any of your Classical-Chinese-reading friends about it!

So here‘s his Haqelebac post with the text (“My editing might be called aggressive”); if you have any interest, go over and check it out, and if you are knowledgeable, JE will be glad of your input.

Six Polish Books that Should Be Translated.

I’m a big fan of pointing out good books that haven’t been translated, and Antonia Lloyd-Jones has a list of six that should whet translators’ appetites. I’m particularly struck by the first one, whose description makes me wish I read Polish:

1. A meticulously researched, epic historical novel set in Italy: Maciej Hen, Solfatara (WAB Foksal, 2015)

Solfatara is a dormant volcano just outside Naples. This is a historical novel, set in July 1647 in the Kingdom of Naples, over the eleven days of a popular revolt ‒ a real historical event ‒ when a new tax on fruit and other food was the final straw for the local populace, who rose up against the hated Spanish viceroy and his men. Led by a fisherman called Masaniello, it turned into a ten-day rampage of violence against the aristocracy. Of course he came to a sticky end, when his head was parted from his body.

The language is simple but sophisticated. This is Polish of the highest quality, lovely and rich. Solfatara not only pulsates with literary force, but also with the energy of the Neapolitan street.

The book has been meticulously researched, but the result is a rapidly moving adventure novel full of fabulous stories and colourful characters. It has 900 pages, and when I first saw it, I had doubts, but it kept me up until 03.00, eager for more. It’s not just the immediate time scale, describing the riots, that is vivid and thrilling, but Fortunato’s past too, his amorous misadventures as a musician among the upper echelons in Rome and Paris, and his discovery of his own dramatic origins as the son of a woman who was killed for a horrific but inevitable crime of passion.

Thanks, Trevor!

Dictionary of Canadianisms Online.

A decade ago I posted about the project to revise the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, whose first edition appeared in 1967. The revised second edition is now online here, free for anyone to access. As Dave Wilton says at Wordorigins.org (where I learned about it):

The new edition not only includes words that have appeared since 1967, the editors have also cleaned up questionable entries for older words—for example, the DCHP-1 had separate entries for toque and tuque, which are now combined into one. As well, many entries have full color, photo illustrations and charts showing the term’s use across the provinces or through time. […]

Users of the DHCP must be aware, however, that the dictionary only includes citations from Canadian sources. So when a term is older in other dialects, the older citations will not appear. This editorial choice, while a valid and justifiable one, means that users cannot rely on the DHCP alone, but must use it conjunction with more comprehensive sources like the OED. Still, this isn’t going to be a serious limitation to most users.

Hurray, say I!

The Oxford Comma and the Law.

I wasn’t going to post about this, but everybody and their brother (and my brother, for that matter) sent me links about it, so I guess I have to. Fortunately, Dave Wilton of Wordorigins.org has done an excellent post on the topic that begins:

The Oxford comma was in the news recently when a federal court interpreted a Maine statute regarding overtime pay for dairy truck drivers. In the case of O’Connor, et al. v. Oakhurst Dairy, the lack of a comma, or so the news stories would have it, resulted in a victory for workers’ rights. […]

The problem with the news reporting on this case is that the ambiguity does not rest solely with the lack of a comma. And, more importantly, the decision of the circuit court did not rest on the punctuation but rather relied on other methods to interpret the statute in question.

It ends:

To my knowledge, O’Connor, et al. v. Oakhurst Dairy is the first legal case that involves this particular use of the comma, and the courts ruled here that the punctuation is not dispositive. In other words, the Oxford comma cannot, at least in and of itself, be taken as determinative of meaning. In this, the news reports have been getting it wrong—whether or not one uses the Oxford comma just doesn’t matter all that much, in law or anywhere else.

And in between are all the details you could want, unless you want enough details to go to the decision itself (the third link — the second is to the NY Times story). Much as I would like to see a victory for the Oxford comma (in the same way I like to see the Mets or Huskies win), this is not such a victory. It’s just another labor dispute. (Insert your own joke about truckin’ or spilt milk.)

Two Words.

1) In a text I was editing there was a reference to “rhopalic verse.” Having no idea what “rhopalic” meant, I looked it up and discovered it meant “having each succeeding unit in a prosodic series larger or longer than the preceding one” (e.g., each line in a poem being a syllable longer than the preceding line). So far, so recondite, but it was the etymology that got me to post about it: it’s from Greek rhopalikos ‘like a rhopalon [ῥόπαλον],’ a club thicker toward the end. As Pound said, the natural object is always the adequate symbol.

2) I have long known the word exarch ‘a bishop lower in rank than a patriarch’ or ‘a governor of a distant province under the Byzantine emperors’; it’s pronounced /ˈɛksɑrk/, like a good Greek derivative (it’s from Greek ἔξαρχος). But looking for something else in my dictionary I discovered the homograph exarch ‘(of a xylem strand) having the first-formed xylem external to that formed later.’ I can only hope that’s pronounced /ˈɛksɑrk/ as well, because otherwise it would be excessively annoying; my dictionary doesn’t give a pronunciation.