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Mots justes: pick the perfect word in a poem


At Oxford, I was taught that every particle of a poem can amplify its meaning, and when poets get it right individual words can add volumes of sense. Trying to fill in some of their blanks is a useful lesson in this fine art

My favourite episode from Monty Python's Flying Circus features a trio of inept Spanish Inquisitors charging a little old lady with heresy. She doesn't understand, is pummelled with soft pillows, and when she is unaffected, is put into – gasp! – the comfy chair. She must remain there until lunchtime, with only coffee at 11 to sustain her!

I found this irresistible, at the time, because it mirrored some of my Oxford tutorials, during which my tutor continually challenged me with various torments designed to make me – a naive colonial in his eyes – feel uncomfortable, and perhaps to confess my dire lack of (English) sophistication.

One day, as I sat myself down in his comfy chair, and sipped my coffee, he asked me to open my Collected Poetry of Matthew Arnold, and to read To Marguerite.

Sensing a trap, I perused the poem anxiously, gingerly, took my time, read, reread, thought and rethought. I could feel him lurking on the sofa across from me, ready to pummel me with his soft pillows.

As adequately prepared as I could be, I looked up.

"There is only one line of genuine poetry in the entire poem," he announced. "Which is it?"

I could hardly have been more astonished if a golem had slithered down the chimney. I'd never heard anyone say anything like that, never regarded it as a thinkable thought: a substantial poem with only one line of poetry?

I was aware that it was an Arnoldian trick he was playing, for I had – only the previous week – offered him an essay attacking Arnold's notion of "touchstones" – lines of poetry that, according to Arnold, were in themselves enough "to keep clear and sound our judgments about poetry."

So what did I – smartarse American postgraduate student – have to say when invited on a touchstone hunt?

It never occurred to me to resist the question, deny its postulates, turn it around, sniff it all over, and reject it as as stale as last week's crumpets. "Goodness me," I might have said, "do you honestly think that is a reasonable thing to ask?"

He pounced. "It's obvious, dear boy," he murmured, citing the final line of the poem: "'the unplumb'd, salt, estranging sea'. Pure poetry, lovely."

On consideration, that seemed pretty poetic to me. (Certainly the poem ends better than it starts: the opening line is a clear contender for Worst Ever: "Yes! in the sea of life enisled"). But the more I thought about my tutor's answer, the more questions I wanted to ask. Had I had the nerve, I would have observed that, in his one line of genuine poetry, there is only one poetic word. "What is it, dear old thing?"

The key, of course, lies in the string of adjectives. There is nothing very exciting about calling the sea "unplumb'd": it gets pretty deep out there. Nor is "estranging" likely to give one much of an aesthetic thrill; indeed, it's a cliché. But "salt"? That is another matter, and rather wonderful. You don't need the concept of touchstones to make this point: the very nature of poetry should consist, as Coleridge put it, of "the best words in the best order". Arnold's "salt" is such a word. We do not expect to meet it there, and having done so are delighted, and teased into further thought and deeper admiration. When he rejects the obvious and inadequate adjective "salty," for a term that is at once adjective, verb and noun, the possibilities multiply incrementally.

We may first think of tears, and undrinkable, deathly water. Or perhaps pillars of salt? Yet the biblical connotations of "salt" are generally positive, coming as they do from a middle-Eastern context. If you salt something you may enhance it, preserve it, disinfect it. Salt was used as an offering, or a symbol of friendship. Newborn babies were rubbed with salt to greet them into the world, and to protect them. Arnold knew this, and was drawing upon it. Thus "salt" which seems to confirm the bleak emotional register of "unplumb'd" and "estranging" – as might seem appropriate in a poem which is a lament for the transience of love – also opposes the pervasive sense of hopelessness. His sea, at the final moment, is estranging and connecting, a symbol of life and death, of love and the failure of love.

So we have the best word in the best place. You might make this point pedagogically, and dramatically, by using a fill-in-the-blank method.

"Here is the last line of a poem. What do you think goes best in the blank space?"

   The unplumb'd, ________, estranging sea.

If you gave this to 100 very smart students, poets and critics – having allowed them read the rest of the poem – not one of them would come up with "salt," though a good few of the less able might have suggested "unplumb'd" or "estranging" if the blanks had been there.

But it's not enough that we be surprised, of course. It may be necessary, but it is hardly sufficient, else we might have the distinctly surprising, but inappropriate, "pancreatic," or "buxom," or "left-wing" – the kinds of random adjectives that computer-generated poetry spews out.

For what we need, in filling in this blank, is not merely a word – the best word – that is appropriate to the sea, but also necessary to the sea in this particular poem. Else you might suggest "snotgreen" or "scrotumtightening," which work pretty well in Ulysses, but would shipwreck To Marguerite.

Let me give another instance, keeping with the image of the sea, this time not the last line of a poem, but the first:

   She sang beyond the ______ of the sea,

We don't have much to go on. We may be looking for a spatial concept, or one involving physical qualities like sound, or wetness. There might be a reference to the emotional effects of being at the seaside – the sorts of feelings carried by "unplumb'd" and "estranging" – but we have, as yet, no information. To Marguerite's three adjectives conclude the poem, this single word will give us a crucial early insight into what the poet is going to be up to, and – if it works – suggest a deal of what is to come.

OK. You've made a list. There are a vast number of possibilities, many of which might work, given that we have nothing much to go by. But in the light of a knowledge of the whole poem, the chosen word is, if not inevitable, then merely perfect:

   She sang beyond the genius of the sea,

Not many of my panel of 100 would have got this, which is why they are just guessers and our poet is Wallace Stevens (and the poem The Idea of Order at Key West). "Genius" is a remarkably rich word, which can be made to work – as it does here – in a variety of ways. We associate it with brilliance, depth and acuity, but it also refers to an essence, ability or influence. In Middle English a genius is an attendant spirit, somewhat later the term may refer to a disposition, and later still to a special capacity. All of these possibilities are tossed into the air in the opening lines, and the poet is going to make various uses of them.

Already we are engaged and intrigued: What might it mean to be "beyond" the genius of something? What does singing have to do with it? Who is "She?" In eight words the poet has captured us entirely, suggested myriad possibilities, and revealed almost all, and almost nothing, of what is to come.

I have done this analysis sketchily and too quickly, of course, for such an exercise requires time, and concentration: the leisure to point to this, and then to that, to consider and to reconsider, to connect one thing to another, and both to something else. To me this is what good reading necessitates, and why it is so rewarding. I was trained, all those years ago, in what Americans called "new criticism," and the English – prompted by IA Richards – called "practical criticism". The loving and unstinting attention to the words on the page. I learned to read like this, and I have spent a reading lifetime being grateful for it.

Not many people read like this anymore. The university departments of literature caved in to the newly fashionable structuralism, post-structuralism and deconstruction. Feminist and post-feminist, gender and queer theory, and post-colonial interpretations were put forward as evidence of right "readings". I found this then – and continue to find it – alien, and diminishing to the primary authority of the author and of his or her words on the page. I am sometimes engaged by feminist or post-colonial interpretations of literature, but what I object to is the prevailing tendency to substitute this mindset for one which engages carefully with literary language itself. When I read such commentary, or exegesis of a poem or work of fiction, the fact that it is literature disappears. The texts are appropriated, and converted into instances, signs and symptoms of this, or that, or the other. These judgments are too frequently delivered in voices oozing the self-righteousness, self-referentiality, and self-satisfaction of the true believer. And the attendant contempt for non-believers.

I'm reminded of the wise words of John Kenneth Galbraith: "Much literary criticism comes from people for whom extreme specialisation is a cover for either grave ____or terminal _____, the latter being a much cherished aspect of academic freedom."

The blanks?
(1) "cerebral inadequacy"
(2) "laziness"

You might well have guessed those.

And, yes, there's an irony here. As my tutor's Arnoldian reading was superseded by my generation's new criticism, so were our reading ways overtaken by post-structuralism and various ideologically-driven modes of interpretation. It's a fact, it may be the essential fact, of human life: things come, and they go. But I don't have to like it, or to accede gracefully. I seem to get saltier in my old age.

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