Saturday, 31 January 2015

Spells for Enchantment

Smitten by the "strange idiolect" in Lucie Brock-Broido's Stay, Illusion, Helen Vendler reflects on the effect of linguistic "deviation" in poetry:
Deviations in language, though not rare in poetry, awaken mixed reactions. Ben Jonson, repelled by Spenser’s archaisms, said, “Spenser, in affecting the Ancients writ no language,” and yet a few lines later allowed for the attraction of unfamiliar words:
Words borrow’d of Antiquity, doe lend a kind of Majesty to style, and are not without their delight sometimes. For they have the Authority of yeares, and out of their intermission do win to themselves a kind of grace-like newnesse.
Deformations and deviations, generations later, become less peculiar; nobody flinches now at Dickinson’s subjunctive grammar and metaphoric definitions (“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”); nobody finds Dylan Thomas’s “a grief ago” strange; and even the words of “Jabberwocky” have entered the common sphere. The constant refreshment of language (not necessarily by deviation—think of George Herbert) is the stressful obligation experienced by poets. In one of his Dream Songs (#67), John Berryman explains the oddity of his own linguistic performance: “I am obliged to perform in complete darkness/operations of great delicacy/on my self.” Brock-Broido’s “operations,” like Berryman’s, often emerge from a darkness (of bewilderment, of pain, of loss), and produce linguistic distortions peculiar to the necessities of each poem, spells for enchantment.

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