The Life of Words.

David-Antoine Williams was kind enough to send me a copy of his book The Life of Words: Etymology and Modern Poetry last year, and it looked so interesting I didn’t want to rush through it, so shortly after starting it I set it down for a minute and… well, things happened, it slipped out of my field of view, and (to my shame) I forgot all about it. Fortunately, a reader sent me a link to Stephanie Burt’s review for the University of Chicago Press Journals, so I can bring it to your attention that way. She begins:

Neither the sound of a word nor its history provides a metaphysically or intellectually reliable guide to its present-day use and force. Poets, however, sometimes write as if such a guide could exist, or as if their poems could provide one: these imaginary guides stand behind, or direct, some recent poets’ major works. So David-Antoine Williams concludes in this learned, careful, insightful study of how these poets take account of etymology: not only the histories and the origins of words, but also the stories we tell about them, whether or not we believe them.

According to a durable myth—or story or philosophical axiom—the present-day meanings of words, along with their sounds, conceal the truths in their Proto-Indo-European (PIE), or perhaps Edenic or Hebrew or archaic Greek, beginnings. To reactivate the history of a word is to make available for one’s own modern poem these truths, to return the phonemes and graphemes that make up a language to their nonarbitrary, cosmic roots. Martin Heidegger sometimes seemed to believe as much, with his hope to connect “origin, truth, primacy and propriety” (31). So did the Christian Hebraists of John Milton’s time, and the “Latin-speaking early Christians” who heard malum (sin) in mālum (apple) and saw more than coincidence or pun (27). So did such ambitious modern poets as Charles Olson, who promised his followers a way of writing (and reciting, and even breathing) that could extend “from the root out,” from the “Aryan root, as, to breathe” (“Projective Verse” [1950; repr., Poetry Foundation).

Such claims run exactly counter to Saussurean linguistic theory, and to modern historical study, with its emphases on “the non-teleological nature of linguistic development” (35). Signs are not referents, not even in PIE. We have, instead, only words and their empirically, imperfectly researchable histories. And yet those histories give—as Williams shows—contemporary poets ways to make poems: etymology, false or true, conjectured or historically supported, mystified or demystified, supports the verse-making strategies—and the various attitudes toward truth and art—in Williams’s chief subjects, Seamus Heaney, J. H. Prynne, R.F. Langley, Geoffrey Hill, and Paul Muldoon.

I’ll quote a passage on J.H. Prynne, whose poetry I have come to love (see this thread):

This kind of work, in Hill, reveals his own compelled struggle to comprehend our fallen selves. In Prynne it appears to comprehend, well, everything: “elements that cohere in our present reality (such as electricity, or current social conditions, or language itself) or have cohered in our past (such as literature, or philosophical systems)” (142). Prynne’s 2011 prose poem Kazoo Dreamboats, or On What There Is becomes not only “a dream vision” like Piers Plowman but also an “extended attempt at the establishment of an alternative ontology, which might form the basis for an alternative metaphysics, and ethics” (140). These ethics, in turn, emerge from—that is, they emerge as Prynne makes his art from—“the whole prior history of the language community,” as the poet himself has said (137).

Such goals are—to quote the cartoonist Allie Brosh—“alot,” and like Brosh’s cartoon beast the alot, the implied author in Prynne’s later poems is “better than you at everything”. Using his knowledge of etymology and historical linguistics, along with his command of electromagnetics and Mao Zedong thought (145), this immensely learned and—in Britain at least—influential writer sets himself up as the man who understands (albeit dialectically) everything that can be understood, constructing (what has failed all working physicists so far) a Grand Unified Theory tying the undeniable depredations of modern capital to the internal workings of subatomic matter-energy, as “each of the contradictory aspects within a thing transforms itself into its opposite,” “rolling like wheels contrary within themselves” (145). That’s not Miltonic, and it’s not historical, and it is only coincidentially linguistic: it may be Hegelian, or Yeatsian, or Maoist, though W. B. Yeats (or perhaps George Yeats) famously admitted that the systems of A Vision had come to give him metaphors for poetry. Prynne writes as if he has learned how the world really works; his latter-day readers may choose whether we can believe him.

(Do click the “better than you” link; it’s fun.) So now I’m looking forward with renewed enthusiasm to actually reading the book — thanks, rozele!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    I used to have a flatmate who was better than me at everything.* This would have been more bearable, if he had not also been alot nicer than me. (I’m still bitter, after forty years …)

    * Yes, really.

  2. @David Eddyshaw: He would have gotten over it long ago.

  3. DE, do you think you could persuade him to start commenting here?

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    We’re no longer in contact. I was too traumatised.

  5. The epigraph itself is wonderful:

    For men believe that their reason controls words. But it is also true that words retort and turn their force back upon the understanding…Hence it happens that the great and solemn controversies of learned men often end in disputes about words and names. But it would be wiser (in the prudent manner of the mathematicians) to begin with them, and to reduce them to order by means of definitions. However, in the things of nature and matter, these definitions cannot cure their fault. For the definitions themselves consist of words, and words beget words…
    Francis Bacon, The New Organon, 1.59

    “But it would be wiser (in the prudent manner of the mathematicians) to begin with them, and to reduce them to order by means of definitions.” Heh. Interesting that Williams does not refer anywhere to Confucius and the rectification of names, which for convenience I show here (Legge translation):

    A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.
    Analects, Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4–7, Analect 13.3

  6. Stu Clayton says

    But it is also true that words retort and turn their force back upon the understanding

    “Intemperance in talk makes a dreadful havoc in the heart.”

  7. I liked this Alot alot

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    Time was of the League of Cambrai

  9. For an example of how much of Alot Prynne can be, here’s my lead in to his poem /Kazoo Dreamboats/:

    Kazoo Dreamboats; or, On What There Is, a dense, paratactic, metastatic, anacoluthic prose poem of some 10,000 words, in which the ‘faults and cleavages’ are overtly syntactic. As the mixed-register title signals, the poem is heterogeneously and heteroglossically a dream vision, language experiment, social commentary, and extended attempt at the establishment of an alternative ontology, which might form the basis for an alternative metaphysics, and ethics. The givens of this new philosophy—its base elements—are the core principles of electromagnetic and linguistic theory. Within this unlikely fusion of knowledge domains, the poem performs a vision of existence modelled on Langland’s visionary Piers Plowman. As in that poem, in Kazoo Dreamboats the phrase ‘I saw’ is a frequent prosodic marker, occurring twenty-nine times, including in the opening sentence, or challenge: ‘Along the corridor of near frequency I saw willing and discrete the season not yet for sorrow advanced, nearby not yet even so inference to claim’ (PP, 639). Here the ‘dialectical argument of poetic form’ takes place not at the ragged right-hand margin, but in the synapse between lexical recognition and syntactic breakage. 
    Clearly this will be a poem with which we will struggle to communicate, from which inference will be hard won and fractional. But it is not a poem that has renounced communication….

  10. David Marjanović says

    The alot is a classic. But the one who has trained to be the best at everything is Batman.

  11. Saussure is a funny lens to look at poetry through. It leads you to randomize all a poem’s word-to- meaning assignments and call that the same poem.

  12. David Eddyshaw says
  13. There is much discussion of Saussure’s nuttier side here.

  14. / Don Paterson has called Saussurean arbitrariness a ‘monstrous dogma’ which ‘poets know to be sheer madness’ and has pointed to Saussure’s interest in anagrams and phonetic miming as a sign of subconscious self-revolt. /

  15. Interesting!

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