Monday, March 16, 2015

Confessions of a Language Nerd

I have been to over a hundred Vemont libraries since my 2011 installation as Vermont Poet Laureate. In those visits, the question I’m most frequently asked is “Why doesn’t that rhyme?” I’ve considered that in prior blog posts, so in this one, I’ll look, at least to begin with, at the second most frequently asked: “Where do you get your inspiration?”

Well, fact is, I’m not quite sure I believe in inspiration. At least I have surely never believed some higher power had singled me out as a medium. But come to think of it, I do sometimes feel at that as if I were being drawn along in unexpected ways, and usually in surprising directions. That’s when I abandon myself to my own material, and such a development can pass in my case for inspiration. It is certainly the greatest payoff I experience as a writer.

Just what, however, do I mean by my own materials? Well, language of course. Its properties can be –indeed, they have to be– my guiding lights above all. Now I know that sounds vague enough. On the other hand, would we charge a painter with vagueness for referring to paint as her material? Who would question a composer’s saying that notes were his? From that perspective, it does seem strange that so many readers (not to mention literary critics and English teachers) hop right over so self-evident a truth as that poets’ primary material is language. Too often, in responding to poetry, they begin by snooping around for what must have been the originating “idea.” I should plead guilty, especially in literature classes, of the same error on a bad day.

But the plain truth, at least in my own experience, is that so-called ideas come after the fact. Word takes me to idea, not the other way around.

Much of this has to do, of course, with a certain proclivity of mine: I am a language nerd, and in fact I think poets need to be language nerds. That I am nerdy in precisely that way may explain my almost overwhelming delight in having taken part for three consecutive years in the Cabin Fever Spelling Bee, held at Montpelier, Vermont’s Kellogg-Hubbard Library, most recently on the final day of February this year. I have been pronouncer, definer, putter-into-sentences, and judge of the competition.

I’ve lately been pondering why, the moment that annual event is over, I start looking forward to next year’s. The subject of this column is my devotion to language. But such devotion, of course, is personal and not the prime ingredient in the great fun of the Cabin Fever Spelling Bee. There is always a full-house audience, and its members have a lot of pleasures to choose from or combine, not least the beauty and commodiousness of the library building itself. They also sense and contribute to the event as a genuinely communal event. Its meticulous organization is patent: with clarity and eloquence, library board chair Tom McKone explains the contest’s rules both to players and crowd; Rachel Senechal, head librarian, sees to every last detail of logistics; Rick Winston, Andrea Serota, and George Spaulding deftly assemble a list of words, which grows more challenging with each new round of the three.

Of course, the contestants make the event what it is in the end. They are divided into two groups: Vermont readers and Vermont writers. I especially enjoy the good-natured joshing between the camps, and between competitors and me. Before the event, all straight-faced,  the locally celebrated author and humorist Willem Lange asked me if English was my native language; during the game itself, he remarked that it resembled a cavalry charge: “Every time you look around there are fewer horses.” Sometimes the banter is actually among members of one team, and indeed in one case, within one family, slam master poet Geof Hewitt and his witty son Ben.

This year, for the second time in a row, the grand champion was young adult fictionist (and so much more), Roberta Harold; the runner-up, also for the second consecutive year, was reader Emily Tredeau. But there was keen competition right along. I think of the bright, poised 85-year-old Maxine Leary, a former school teacher whose student I would love to have been.

But in the end, my keenest attraction to the Cabin Fever bee may well be that language nerdiness of mine, all of which may have started, though I didn’t know it then, in 6th grade Latin class with Mr. Richard Cutler and continued, annually, through the class of Mr. Zygmund Wardzinski, Polish refugee and polymath. Though I was just the sort of adolescent student who made choosing not to teach at that level a no-brainer, I did do well in Latin. It seemed a silly thing to be studying, yes, but it came to me easily, and I could count on its providing me one of the few easy A’s (or any A’s) I got back then.

Little did I know that my grounding in Latin (and French, taught by the best instructor I ever had, kindergarten through Ph.D., the late Ted Wright) would be enormously helpful when I elected to teach myself Italian in my forties. Still less could I have predicted how stimulating it would be to sense, almost immediately, the etymological journey of most words I encounter. Though our ancestral Anglo-Saxon was the language of Germanic people in England from the 5th century through the Norman Conquest, its melding of  Teutonisms with Latinate idioms (which had already felt the significant effect of Greek ones) have made English a tongue that’s full of potential for poets, indeed for all us language nerds.

As words occur to me in a poem, then, they bear the freight of their own history, no matter my German is scanty and my Greek almost nonexistent. To consider that history somehow helps me to surrender to them in the way I’ve mentioned.

Consider, in fact, a word I used in that last sentence: I mean– “consider.”  Its first syllable, “con” is related o German “kennen” (to know) and Latin “sidus, sider” (star). Though in our time we use the word very casually, its originative value involved knowing the stars.

A related value attends our word “disaster,” which literally means an ill-starred occurrence, combining “dis,” connoting negation, or “dys,” meaning bad, with another root for star, in this case “astrum.” The Latin influence is patent (and of course “influence,” like “influenza,” means a flowing in, for good or ill, from.... the stars).

We could speak at length of that prefix, “dis” or “dys,” and in dis-cussing it, we would be harkening, awares or unawares, to its value up to and through Anglo-Saxon times. A discussion, derived from “dis,” in this case meaning “apart,” and the Latin verb “quatere,” “to shake,” became “discutere,” signifying, literally, a shaking apart. Given the nature of discussion in the contemporary U.S. Congress, say, one might almost believe the word is reverting to its earliest implications.

I could go on and on in this way. It’s a bit like finding a favorite song or singer on YouTube: you listen to it or her or him or them and you are reminded of other favorites; you look those up, and in the process come on a musician or a tune you hadn’t known. There may be more of my readers who can identify with such a reference (such a “carrying back”) than with my own nerdy gorging on etymologies and linguistic history. But there are clearly enough of the latter to fill up the beautiful main room of the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier.

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