No Word

It might have been said,
were there one to say it,
she was the last human,
but then she would not
have been the last one.

She’d been told to keep
by the river, the fresh fish
would grow and multiply.
The weather returned,
the goats and chickens.

She talked to the animals,
but she found life easier
if she kept silent, forgot
words, let go lingo and,
in the end, was no word.

On the Whole of Things

having cut it out [it, all its]
pleasure now without article
embellishment whole
some questions

consider blue hydrangea
yesterday transplanted
from pot to ground
root, stem, leaf, bud

in which will we find
whole plantness
cup without coffee
gives us to mark time

a day without hours
hours without minutes
minutes without seconds
where will we find time

for whole things
words opening
seeds, bulbs
into whole language

grown in pots
root-bound can
but describe
like mathematics
can not be


An Approach to Stylelessness

Language, the dress of thought,
words its buttons.
What are we trying to cover?
Nothing.

The dress interprets
the body,
its own reveal, skin and hair,
apparently lacking

something necessary
to complete the ensemble,
where sound means
stylelessly.

Dress, the body licensed
for use, the slow decay
its words describe,
its missing buttons.

“The Morning” & “Just Write Anything!”

Two Stories by Osvaldo Lamborghini, translated by Jessica Sequeria, just out from Sublunary Editions (Seattle), measures a mere 80 pages (4 and ½” by 7” by ¼”) and contains the pieces “The Morning” and “Just Write Anything!” and also an introduction (by Cesar Aira, translated by Adrian Nathan West), an acknowledgements page, a 4 page translator’s note, and 62 endnotes (in a font size so small this reader’s used eyes required over-the-counter reading glasses of +3.50 strength), almost as long as either story – indeed, a third story – as well as a Parental Advisory warning label (suitable for bookmark use), modified to read:

P A R E N T A L
A D V I S O R Y
OSVALDO LAMBORGHINI

One is tempted to form a review as response in a supposed style of the stories:

In the beginning was the word. And the ice dam(n) broke, the word escaped, and all hell broke loose, as in a Blow-up. A devil’s drool (“Las Babas del Diablo,” Cortazar). It was all done on a typewriter. That tin bell kept us awake. Its tintinnabulations. And he had to send his only son, or daughter, as the case may arise, to supply some endnotes, but he didn’t explain to what end. And the notes musical, in a sense, pleasant. One confessed to eating the plums. Bless me Father, for I have eaten the plums. They were purple. And the season Lent. We had given up meaning for the season, without reason. And the church filled with words, every pew stuffed end to end. And every word related. In each word all the genetic material of the language, of all the languages, of the uttered universe. Prokaryotic flagellum. To allow word movement. The words stood, knelt, sat, stood, and filed out, one by one, pew after pew, line after line. Some disappeared. Through the blank pages of the cosmos, along the gaucho trails along the green rivers in the gorged valleys below the ghastly ghostly mountains, seeping through the pampas and the full drainage basins, out to sea. The sea, the sea! Wordomics. This is my body, a comics: “To ourselves … new paganism … omphalos” (Joyce, Ulysses).

Of the two stories, “The Morning” and “Just Write Anything!,” the latter is perhaps the more accessible, comprehendible if not understandable, than the former, but the first, “The Morning,” one might find more enjoyable. The two stories might have been written for two different audiences (although Aira’s introduction suggests Lamborghini didn’t write to any particular audience), but neither seems within the purview of the common reader. But what is within the purview of the common reader? Slogans? Well, slogans are comprehendible, but rarely understood. They become like magic words, spells. In the US today, MAGA might serve as an example; an argument of proposal in no need of backing, it is not an argument at all, but an order, a command. Authoritarian. Enter, sex, and why we need a parental advisory. Sex, like politics, manipulative, special interest, you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours. For the working class, sex is one thing, for the middle class, something else. The middle class wants relief from guilt, a guilt the working class does not feel. The middle class wants to enjoy, to experience pleasure, guilty it has benefits others don’t, but not enough that it can’t also enjoy envy of those who have more. Thus the middle class craves perfumes and brands, must have fantasy and escape, ritual that includes punishments and rewards. The working class has not time nor appetite for values which can’t readily be seen, measured, felt. As for Peronism and whether or not readers need a background in Argentine history to appreciate Lamborghini, Peronism might not be substantially different from any other ism around the world seeking to exploit one class by numbing another class for the enrichment of a third class, except that Peron started out wanting to make all of the people happy all of the time. But of course there are always those who don’t want to be happy, or don’t care to be made happy. Politics is sex without love.

In other words, for the working class, the word innuendo means exactly what it sounds like, while for the middle class, it can only suggest what cannot in what is sometimes called polite society (on the endangered species list) be directly talked about, and must be submersed in ambiguity, doubt, and mistrust. Enter Peron, that is to say, to wit, an imputation that what is valued most in each class can somehow be conjoined, but the ballroom can’t hold everyone.

Click here, on the belly button, where you were tied to your mother, treading water in the salt marsh. You were still nullifidian then. All gills and fins. Your mother’s voice coming muffled through the cloudy water. And then your cry, and then your sucking, and then your sleep, and then the tin bell, and the rhythm rolling. The next time you awake, you are swaddled in the bottom of a dory, your father at the oars, your mother tending a fishing line, all against a muddy current in coastal waters.

Lamborghini’s writing is probably not egalitarian, not as evidenced by these two stories or the three poems appearing in Firmament No. 1 (Sublunary Editions, Winter 2021), not that it needs to be, yet it contains all the characteristics readers generally value. Humor surrounded by horror. The sweets and sours and bitters and salts of life. It is a writing of associative addition, one image conjuring up or giving way to another, the narrative like a bus ride, the bus stopping at the end of every sentence to let someone off and to take on another rider. Though these riders are not necessarily characters – they may be ideas, or props. Repetition is therefore valued, and memory encouraged. So that at the end of “The Morning,” if asked what it is about, we can say it is about a character savaged. But the common reader wants her back scratched, not whipped.

The form (forms) of these two short stories appears very different in each, the one on the open sea, the other back and forth where the rivers spread in the tidal marsh. Jessica Sequeira’s “endnotes” are indispensable, and actually a pleasure. For one thing, it’s comforting as a reader to know you’re in the same boat as other readers, translators, critics. That is to say, the difficulty is not yours alone, not yours at all. You are now able to read. And while the endnotes clarify, elucidate, inform, they also project, surmise, guess.

Sublunary Editions is an independent press out of Seattle. You can find a copy of Two Stories by Osvaldo Lamborghini here.

Baseball, the Canned Crowd, and the F Word

At first, I couldn’t find the Dodgers on TV last night, the second game in a series with the Giants in Los Angeles beginning the 2020 shortened season; apparently wasn’t available on the MLB channel in Portland. The Mariners were on the local Root Sports channel, and I was glad to hear the same folks doing the play-by-play as if nothing has changed. Then I was surprised to find the Dodger game on some obscure cable channel. I watched an infield grounder, the batter thrown out at first, a routine play, and then I heard it: Canned Cheering, a canned crowd.

To be canned is to be thrown out, maybe deriving from the US English garbage can. The 2020 season, delayed about four months by the pandemic shutdown, is being played in stadiums full of empty seats, no tickets sold, unless you count the selfie cutouts available from the Dodgers. That must be where the noise is coming from.

If you’ve ever played a game of street or backyard whiffle ball, or a game of over-the-line in the local park, you might know you don’t need an audience to enjoy baseball. Rules vary depending on the venue – over the house is a home run, but a foul ball over the fence, falling into the street, is an automatic out.

“I’m the Dodgers. Who are you?”
“I’ll be the Giants, Juan Marichal on the mound.”

The game is on, all a foot, the fantasy as real as real ever gets.

Because Major League Baseball as viewed from the stands or television is not exactly real. The real game is played behind a facade of hero, dream, and cleanliness. Maybe the canned crowd was brought in because of plays like the one in which Dodger Joc Pederson, on his way to being thrown out at first in the fanless season opener, doubles the F Word while running down the line, his voice fairly clearly picked up by the TV mics in the quiet stadium and broadcast into living rooms around the US – where, what, no one ever uses the F Word?

Respect is born out of shame, shame a form of control. Language is contumacious; it swells and breaks and rolls like the restless ocean. Words are turbulent, irrepressible. At the same time, cussing is often the evidence of a lazy tongue. That is why I decided to omit the F Word from “Penina’s Letters,” with the exception of the discussion in the chapter titled “Henry and the Punctuations”:

“The experience of war can not be told in words,” I said, “but when F-words fill the cheeks with froth, a fascist has infiltrated the mind.”
“Who the fuck talks like that?” Bucket scrunched his eyebrows over scowling lips.
“My friend, Henry,” I said. “It’s a game we play.”
“Clever,” Gabbia said. “But getting back to the common soldier, surely words like fuck and shit are as common as cigarettes and coffee. Part of his mess kit, I shouldn’t wonder.”
“That’s right,” I said. “And, like the mess, rationed.”
“But surely the unfixed tongue is one of the few freedoms the foot soldier feels, and in the fire of the fight, is a weapon he can unleash to gratify his fear.”
“To be frank, no,” I said. “But, the foot soldier does make efficient and effective use of his F-word vocabulary.”
“Do tell,” Gabbia said (148-149).

Photo: With my brother John at a Dodger game, September, 1975. Photo by Susan.

The Poet’s Tale

The poet is born in squalor, his first love. Some of the poet’s favorite words include seedy, shabby, seamy. These are words made with a hissing sound. In phonics, that sound is called a sibilant, and is produced by forcing the tongue toward the teeth, with the lips near closed, forcing air out like a snake whistling. But opposite words are equally valued by the poet: classy, stylish, exclusive. Even if the reader uses words without really caring about words as such much. The poet is not primarily concerned with getting a point across, and is held harmless if some point hurts its object in the bargain, even if so much the better. If an annoying sound appears to sharpen the point, there’s value added. The poet is in love with words.

But it’s easy to confuse poetry with sarcasm, satire, or irony. And the true cynicism of poetry often gives way to stoicism. This may occur when the poet realizes there is no point to anything, including his own poetry. Innuendos may still be highly valued (particularly where points may be scored), for all words have their beginning in figures of speech, which is to say, metaphor. That is precisely what an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is meant to solve. Words disallow mistake when artificial trade-offs are refused. But language is no place for despots, try as they might to exert control, to establish absolute authority. Who controls the movement of words over space and time?

Words are all substitutes. No one can claim dominion. One is as good as another. Language is democratic. And that is why the poet is married to shame, his own mother, at once virgin and harlot (that is to say, vagabond, a beggar for words). In a truly democratic society, where everyone is equal and all words hold common sway, and competition without compromise is useless, it may begin to appear the only way to have a-leg-up-on is to attempt to subject another to shame. But shame has never worked as a measure of control. And that is why poetry can be so hard to get, and why hard times come so often to poets.

The poet stands accused of nothing and nonsense. His love of words and sound and color is scorned and mocked. He is the scapegoat for confusion.

Penina’s Paginations

For some, grammar might be understood as an attempt to control language, or to control a speaker. But the only way to establish complete control over a language is to kill it, which is probably or nearly impossible, because language possesses, like the planarian, the ability to reform or regenerate from a tiny piece of itself. I point to an object, and that is how grammar works. The object could be the sugar bowl on the kitchen table, the moon, or a running man. I link to it for the purpose of linking you to it also. But first, I have to get your attention. Of course, I can always point to myself, or point to an object by myself, like talking to myself, which might be one origin of poetry. When the objects we point to disappear, or others claim to be unable to see them, we come to the first existential crisis of language, where we find ourselves in grammar school, the subjects of rote repetition in an effort to create memory. In grammar school, we learn to wear a uniform.

We learn to number our clothes. The hat, number 1. Or maybe we start with the shoes, the socks being a subset. First we put on the right sock, then the left, then the right shoe, then the left shoe. Never mind it’s a sunny day and we were thinking what fun it would be to go barefoot. To go barefoot, in grammar school, is one of the first examples of being ungrammatical. We are assigned a seat, a number in a numbered row, alphabetized and numbered in the numbers book. Having a number is essential when everyone looks alike.

So it was with a tremulous motion I finally approached my MS Word file containing my first published novel, “Penina’s Letters,” to correct a few unintended consequences. The first printing had contained an unacceptable number of typos, and the front matter setup has always felt a bit clumsy to me. The chapter listing page, for example, showed the chapter titles but no page numbers. And the ISBN didn’t show on the copyright page. But why the tremolo? Why not just go in and make the changes? I did manage one corrected copy upload, after the first printing back in 2016, ridding the book of most of the obvious errors, mistakes which, it pains me to admit, I had failed to spy with my little proofreading eye. But a few issues remained, as additional readings revealed, but the thought of entering the MS Word file again and resubmitting for revision to CreateSpace for approval with the hope of not making matters worse was all more than I felt up to. Besides, I now had other projects underway that required my attention.

Then, a week or so ago, I was notified that CreateSpace was closing its doors and all texts migrating to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). So I took the opportunity to become acquainted with KDP by reworking the front matter of “Penina’s Letters” and fixing a trio of what I recognized as outstanding mistakes.

My first submission of a redo file for KDP’s approval was rejected – something to do with pagination errors. Mercifully, the rejection came within the 24 hours promised, and I went back to work on the Word.doc before motivation waned, resubmitted again, got approval, ordered a proof copy, and voila! No page numbers at all.

Suffice to say, after all that preamble and bramble, that for the past several days I’ve been immersed in a kind of MS Word pagination purgatory. Changes to a text often cancel out other changes, or sit on top of them, burying them below – but that suggests there is a top and a bottom to the thing, and of course there is not.

I got page one to say 1 but could not get the other pages to follow suit. I got every page to say 1. And so on, nothing acceptable. I began to think, rationalizing and trying to come up with some creative solution, why bother paginating at all anyway? Does the common reader really need page numbers? And isn’t a page number a kind of mar on an otherwise illuminated manuscript page? I got page numbers to show, but not in the footer where they belong. I toyed with “different front page,” “link to previous,” “create section break,” erase all and begin again. Deeper and deeper into an MS Word morass I sank. I entered “document,” “paragraph,” the journeyman’s “tools.” Suddenly blank pages and huge gaps in the text began to appear throughout the manuscript. I fixed and corrected and proofed. At one point, I had a file with pagination complete that seemed correctly formatted. I resubmitted yet again to KDP, and the proof file came back still with no page numbers.

I took a break from the project. I remember McLuhan saying something about pagination beginning with the printing press. The fall is into the printing press. Is there a page 1 to the Internet? In a mosaic, one may enter and exit anywhere. Page numbers are useless. There are no pages. There is the infinite scroll – over, under, sideways, down.

“Backwards forwards square and round.
When will it end, when will it end,
When will it end, when will it end,”

the Yardbirds sang.

“We don’t need no stinking page numbers,” I can hear Puck Malone of “Penina’s Letters” saying. But in the end I managed somehow to successfully place page numbers on the outside edge in the footer of even numbered pages, in sequence, every other page. I seemed to recall seeing books numbered only on every other page. I looked through some books. Saul Bellow’s “The Actual” places page numbers only on the odd numbered pages, right edge of page, in the margin, spelled out, in italics: page one. Enough.

Interested readers may utilize the “look inside” feature at Amazon to get an idea of how the new printing of “Penina’s Letters” came out.

 

 

Fantasy Democracy: Notes on Capital, Politics, and Voting

fantasy-democracyLouis Menand’s “The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University” (2010) questions why forms of higher education have been so intractable against change. One reason suggested is the surprising conservatism revealed of professors as a group, surprising because professors are often associated with more liberal stances and presumed to understand the connections between one’s views and why one might hold those views. Understanding and questioning one’s own assumptions and presuppositions are important antidotes to the poisons of propaganda. Menand describes the 2007 national survey conducted by Gross and Simmons of full time faculty members. Part time instructors were not included, a group that no doubt would have presented particular “methodological challenges” (134), because the adjunct does not share homogeneous characteristics to a group of tenured professors. In any case, more important to notes on a fantasy democracy is Menand’s reference to an older study of the population as a whole.

That study found that

“In the general population, most people do not know what it means to identify themselves as liberals or conservatives. People will report themselves to be liberals in an opinion poll and then answer specific questions with views normally thought of as conservative. People also give inconsistent answers to the same questions over time” (134 – 135).

In footnotes, Menand explains the primary sources of his research: “Gross and Simmons used a number of measures to confirm the self-reporting: for example, they correlated answers to survey questions about political persuasion and political party with views on specific issues, such as the war in Iraq, abortion, homosexual relations, and so on” (134), while in “the classic study [of the general population]…results have been much confirmed” (135). That study, by Philip Converse, titled “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” was published in Ideology and Discontent, in 1964.

Why would the explanations of the average person on the street not correlate, be inconsistent, even incoherent? Menand says,

“This is because most people are not ideologues – they don’t have coherent political belief systems – and their views on the issues do not hang together. Their reporting is not terribly accurate” (135-136).

That they nevertheless vote for people and issues they think they understand but probably don’t might simply create some random noise in the results, filtered out by some law of large numbers; or, what we think of as our democracy is a kind of fantasy, but one that, like fantasy sports teams, is based on a reality, and can be a lot fun, lucrative, or provide for any number of teachable moments and lessons learned. Outcomes often include random or chance influence.

An example of the questioning of assumptions and presuppositions as important to understanding causal correlations can be found in Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (2014). At the end of his Introduction, Piketty says,

“The history of income and wealth is always deeply political, chaotic, and unpredictable. How this history plays out depends on how societies view inequalities and what kinds of policies and institutions they adopt to measure and transform them. No one can foresee how these things will change in the decades to come. The lessons of history are nevertheless useful, because they help us to see a little more clearly what kinds of choices we will face in the coming century and what sorts of dynamics will be at work….Since history always invents its own pathways, the actual usefulness of these lessons from the past remains to be seen. I offer them to readers without presuming to know their full import” (35).

Piketty’s primary statement, his argument, is expressed in a simple formula that illustrates a fundamental inequality in the creation and distribution of wealth that promotes ever greater risk of variance or disparity between the wealthy and the rest of society. The formula is

r > g (where r stands for the average annual rate of return on capital, including profits, dividends, interest, rents, and other income from capital, expressed as a percentage of its total value, and g stands for the rate of growth of the economy, that is, the annual increase in income or output)” (25).

What happens when r is much greater than g? Piketty says that

“it is almost inevitable that inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labor by a wide margin” (26).

And what when that happens? The divergence of inequality reaches

“levels potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies” (26).

In other words, inequality reaches such an extreme that democracy is at risk of becoming a fantasy. There is of course much more to Piketty than appears here (his book runs to 685 pages). But how might politics and voting influence wealth divergence such that r does not become overly concentrated and grow at a rate that increasingly continues to outpace g, undermining the very structure on which the accepted values (what is wanted) of the society in question are based, undermining the structure to an unsustainable level, and the whole system collapses? Collapse is what Karl Marx predicted.

Was Marx wrong? “Not yet,” says Louis Menand in a recent New Yorker article:

“Marx was also not wrong about the tendency of workers’ wages to stagnate as income for the owners of capital rises. For the first sixty years of the nineteenth century—the period during which he began writing “Capital”—workers’ wages in Britain and France were stuck at close to subsistence levels. It can be difficult now to appreciate the degree of immiseration in the nineteenth-century industrial economy. In one period in 1862, the average workweek in a Manchester factory was eighty-four hours.”

And wages are once again at stagnation, benefits at a minimum, if any level at all, pensions something your grandfather once had, and if you’re an adjunct instructor, your 84 hours are made up working on eight different campuses simultaneously.

“How we think and evaluate,” said S. I. Hayakawa in his Introduction to “The Use and Misuse of Language” (1962), is inextricably bound up with how we talk.

“If our spoken evaluations are hasty and ill-considered, it is likely that our unspoken ones are even more so….the unexamined key-words in our thought processes, whether ‘fish’ or ‘free enterprise’ or ‘the military mind’ or ‘the Jews’ or ‘creeping socialism’ or ‘bureaucracy,’ can, by creating the illusion of meaning where no clear-cut meaning exists, hinder and misdirect our thought” (viii).

The use of “unexamined key-words” permeating portals such as Twitter and Facebook, both of which are largely venues for “unspoken evaluations,” provides a contemporary example of Hayakawa’s example of how

“all prejudices work in just this way – racial, ideological, religious, natural, occupational, or regional. Like the man who ‘doesn’t like fish,’ there are the ideologically muscle-bound who ‘don’t like the profit system’ whether it manifests itself in a corner newsstand or in General Motors, or who ‘reject government intervention in business’ no matter what kind of intervention in what kinds of business for what purpose” (viii).

Hayakawa was concerned not with the “correctness” of people’s talk, but with “the adequacy of their language as a ‘map’ of the ‘territory’ of experience being talked about” (vii).

That territory is now pockmarked with unhappiness and anxiety across the whole landscape of voting experience, as the “keywords” of its mapping search features illustrate: “pussy,” “locker room,” “wall.”

Where a pussy might be an opening in a locker room wall. I had a bit of juvenile fun on my own Facebook page recently. And it’s always interesting to see what keywords incite what reaction when they trigger the unspoken. I was working with satire and sarcasm (one difference being that satire usually has a target, while sarcasm is closer to farce, which is comedy without a target). Anyway, here are the posts I put up over the span of a few days:

Trump tries to woo Nobel Committee, says, “I’m going to make poetry rhyme again!”

Trump to dig moat around his locker room and fill it with crocodile tears.

English majors organizing to protest musician winning Nobel for Literature.

Trump to build wall around his locker room to keep Media out; meanwhile, Hillary advocates for Locker Rooms Without Borders.

Trump to defecting GOP supporters: “Wait! I’m going to make Mud Wrestling great again!”

Trump to open new restaurant franchise called Locker Rooms, to compete with Hooters.

Leak reveals Trump’s locker room not as big as he claimed.

Regent University to name new Locker Room after Trump. Says Robertson, “We’re going to make locker rooms great again!”

Trump on the Issues: “I thought they said ‘tissues.’ Stay on the tissues. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about!

But where do the fundamental keywords that move thought from the unspoken sphere to a spoken realm come from?

In “Love’s Body” (1966), Norman O. Brown suggested words and ideas come from the body. Thus, we have a “head of state,” who sits at “the seat of government,” trying to control the “body politic”:

“’A Multitude of men are made One person.’ The idea of a people is the idea of a corporation, and the idea of a corporation is the idea of a juristic person. ‘This is more than Consent, or Concord: it is a reall Unitie of them all, in one and the same Person.’ Out of many, one: a logical impossibility; a piece of poetry, or symbolism; an enacted or incarnate metaphor; a poetic creation. The Commonwealth is ‘an Artificial Man,’ a body politic, ‘in which,’ the Soveraignty is an ‘Artificial Soul; the Magistrates, and other Officers of Judicature and Execution, artificiall Joynts,” etc. Does this ‘Artificiall Man,’ this ‘Feigned or Artificiall Person, make ‘a real Unitie of them all”? Are juristic persons real, or only legal fictions, personae fictae? ‘Analogy with the living person and shift of meaning are the essence of the mode of legal statement which refers to corporate bodies.’ Is the shift of meaning real? Does the metaphor accomplish a metamorphosis? ‘The Pacts and Covenants, by which the parts of this Body Politique were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that Fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.” Or like the hoc est corpus meum, This is my body, pronounced by God in the Redemption. Is there a real transubstantiation? Is there a miracle in the communion of the mortal God, the great leviathan; a miracle which gives life to the individual communicants also? For so-called ‘real,’ ‘living,’ ‘natural’ persons, individual persons, are not natural but juristic persons, personae fictae, social creations, no more real than corporations.”

Hobbes, Leviathan, 3-4, 136, 143.
Wolff, “On the Nature of Legal Persons.” Hart, “Definition and Theory in Jurisprudence.

Ruddy Rubescent Red

RedIf you’re thinking about figurative language (and who isn’t?), you’ve probably bumped your head on the thought words have meaning, but whose? And too much meaning for their own good, or ours. We pick words like bananas, firm but yellow, not too green, ready to eat. We try to narrow our meaning, so as not to be misunderstood. Ambiguity is not valued in certain kinds of communication, but confusion is hard to avoid because readers puzzle over variations in a word’s meaning, and may disagree or simply read differently the meaning or significance of even the simplest of words.

It’s hard to stop words from connoting, from loitering. Words hang about, and we’re unsure what they’re going to mean next. Words are two-faced, and when you talk out of both sides of your mouth, you’re really asking for trouble. Denote this, literally, as if we are running our tongue around an auricle. The connotative meaning of a word is its suggestive, associative meaning, definitions farther down the word’s trough in the dictionary, the entry to the word corral. You might find a connection in its etymology between a word’s denotative and connotative meaning. The suggestive meaning of a word might include a cultural, technical, auditory, or personal source. Connotative meanings may be widespread and commonly understood, or limited to idiomatic or idiosyncratic inflections understood by only a few.

Try on, for example, the word red, the color, one of the three primary colors, located on the color wheel between orange and purple. What are some connotative meanings of the word red? Ideas, emotions, or things we might associate with red: shame, fear, or embarrassment; danger, risk, or emergency; love, passion, or temperature; emotion, anger, or temper; communism, US Republican states, or wine; blood, sacrifice, or courage; prostitution, fast cars, or valentines. Of course we think context is also a kind of corral, but its fences are weak.

Figurative language involves more than connotative meanings, but the difference between denotation and connotation provides an effective illustration of the difference between literal and figurative language, and since one of the characteristics of literature is the conspicuous use of figurative language, an early awareness that words may mean more than we want them to mean is useful. At the same time, literature involves more than the use of figurative language. Flaubert is very much interested in literal meaning and in literal descriptions. A Simple Heart might be described as a realistic portrait. But when Flaubert describes Felicite early in the novella, she is said to wear a red dress all through the year. A perspicacious reader may ask why a red dress? Why not a blue or green or white dress?

The narrator of “The Custom House” introductory chapter of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter seems to be a perspicacious reader:

But the object that most drew my attention, in the mysterious package, was a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded. There were traces about it of gold embroidery, which, however, was greatly frayed and defaced; so that none, or very little, of the glitter was left. It had been wrought, as was easy to perceive, with wonderful skill of needlework; and the stitch (as I am assured by ladies conversant with such mysteries) gives evidence of a now forgotten art, not to be recovered even by the process of picking out the threads. This rag of scarlet cloth, — for time and wear and a sacrilegious moth had reduced it to little other than a rag, — on careful examination, assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter A. By an accurate measurement, each limb proved to be precisely three inches and a quarter in length. It had been intended, there could be no doubt, as an ornamental article of dress; but how it was to be worn, or what rank, honor, and dignity, in by-past times, were  signified by it, was a riddle which (so evanescent are the fashions of the world in these particulars) I saw little hope of solving. And yet it strangely interested me. My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. Certainly, there was some deep meaning in it, most worthy of interpretation, and which, as it were, streamed forth from the mystic symbol, subtly communicating itself to my sensibilities, but evading the analysis of my mind.

At first glance, we want nothing past denotative meaning. We get the literal meaning, forget the word, and move on. We don’t even bother rolling the word around in our mouth, tasting it before we swallow a meaning, minding our manners. The sentence got us to where we wanted to go; no need to get out and look under the hood. And we often keep connotative meanings, when we do experience them, to ourselves. And denotative meanings are fairly reliable, often going unchanged for long periods of time, while connotative meanings may change relatively quickly. We might first associate the color red with love, roses, and amorous adventures, but when Stephen Crane titled his novel about the Civil War The Red Badge of Courage, we may safely assume he was thinking the color of red might suggest something more along the lines of fear, blood, violence, and sacrifice. In the earlier parts of the 20th Century, and particularly during the 1950’s in the US, the word red was often used to suggest an association with communism, as in “the Red Scare”; a reference to a “red state” today appears to reverse that connotation. And then there’s true blue, Mary’s color.

For some reason, for Robert Burns, in his poem “A Red, Red Rose,” a single red was inadequate. Why does he repeat the word red in the title and the first line? Does he simply mean a very red rose?

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June…

For William Blake, in his poem “The Sick Rose,” primary red also seemed inadequate. How might our reaction to the poem change if Blake had said “Of red joy” rather than “Of crimson joy”?

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

Is Burns’s rose blushing? Is Blake’s crimson closer to the color of blood than red? How might our reading of Blake’s “The Sick Rose” change if the line read “Of bloody joy”?

Even if we don’t make an effort to think consciously about the effects of words upon our reading experience, connotative meanings influence our comprehension and reaction. It is difficult to avoid the effects of connotation, of suggestive meanings. Remember the effect of the sound of fingernails being scraped on edge across the face of one of the green chalkboards back in grammar school? Words make noise. Noise soothes or grates. Words have texture and color and flavor. Some words are soft, mushy, others strong, firm. We like some words; we dislike others. When we get a bunch of words together we don’t like, we might say poetry, and spit them out. Or there’s been a stampede, words running ruddy and rubescent, out of the corral. But we can always brush away the ruddy gnats and make banana bread.

Cadmean Victory

They do not want for something to sayTree at top of park.
They run around and play all day
Syllabicating back and forth
No one asks what another is worth

At night they climb trees to sleep
They dream of mouths of lips and teeth
And breath of a land where speech
Is silly and fluid and free

Having no bowels they don’t see
The lithe ape thinking in a tree
Who would trap them in a man
And call himself can

A Year From The Use and Misuse of English Grammar

We learn grammar when we learn to speak, we know grammar, we pause where we want, when we want, pulling words like fish from our Pond of Vocabulary and stringing them on the line, one after another, one to a hook, using commas instead of periods when we don’t want to be interrupted, YELLing when someone is so rude as to keep on talking when we are trying to interrupt – we fall silent, dashed, a period of rigour-tunge follows (our tongues rigged with rules), then we bounce awake, trim our sails, for we’re surrounded in the Bay of Prescription, the murky waters of communication, with boats of advice all bopping this way and that (there goes the “Do This,” firing across the bow of the “Don’t Do That”), the pond stormy on a storm swept night if there ever was one.

In Wendell Johnson’s “You Can’t Write Writing,” (The Use and Misuse of Language, 1962, S. I. Hayakawa, ed.), we learn that bad grammar, baby, ain’t our problem: “The late Clarence Darrow, while speaking one day to a group of professors of English and others of kindred inclination, either raised or dismissed the basic problem with which his listeners were concerned by asking, ‘Even if you do learn to speak correct English, who are you going to talk it to?’ Mr. Darrow was contending…the effective use of the English language is more important than the ‘correct’ use of it, and that if you can speak English ‘correctly,’ but not effectively, it does not matter very much ‘who you talk it to’” (101).

This has implications for those who would aspire to teach writing, and Johnson continues, “The teacher of English appears to attempt to place the emphasis upon writing, rather than upon writing-about-something-for-someone. From this it follows quite inevitably that the student of English fails in large measure to learn the nature of the significance of clarity or precision and of organization in the written representation of facts” (103).

Grammar is the least of our worries, argues Johnson: “So long as the student’s primary anxieties are made to revolve around the task of learning to spell, punctuate, and observe the rules of syntax, he is not likely to become keenly conscious of the fact that when he writes he is, above all, communicating…his first obligation to his reader is not to be grammatically fashionable but to be clear and coherent” (103).

Hayakawa, in his introduction, has already explained his interest with regard to how people talk: “We are not worrying about the elegance of their pronunciation or the correctness of their grammar. Basically we are concerned with the adequacy of their language as a ‘map’ of the ‘territory’ of experience being talked about” (vii). And, ultimately, for the reader interested in more than mere prescriptions on how to write, emphasis is placed “not only on what the speakers said, but even more importantly on their attitudes towards their own utterances” (vii).

Hayakawa sums up his concerns as follows: “What general semanticists mean by ‘language habits’ is the entire complex of (1) how we talk – whether our language is specific or general, descriptive or inferential or judgmental; and (2) our attitudes toward our own remarks – whether dogmatic or open-minded, rigid or flexible” (vii).

Whenever I hear some self-appointed cop of language (or worse, someone with the badge of a degree), attempting to arrest a speaker’s tongue, putting it in the handcuffs of some prescriptive rule, I think about Hayakawa’s The Use and Misuse of Language.

But, unforlorn, I’m inclined toward and recline with an infuzen of John Cage, who sums the problem up nicely in his A Year From Monday (1969), which begins with “DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD (YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) 1965

        I.               Continue; I’ll discover where you

                            sweat  (Kierkegaard).            We are getting

rid of ownership, substituting use.

Beginning with ideas.            Which ones can we

take?            Which ones can we give?

Disappearance of power politics.            Non-

measurement.”

Related:

“You Can’t Write Writing”
Baseball and the Parts of Speech
Stanley Fish, Full of Ethos
Kicking E. B. White When He’s Down
The Bare Bodkin of the English Major
How to Teach College Writing to Nonreaders