Sunday, July 31, 2011

Yeats, Pound and Bram Stoker (!)

According to Roy Foster's life of Yeats, in the winter of 1915 WBY and Pound were at Stone Cottage reading, amongst other things, Dracula.

it's in a list containing Norse sagas and Doughty's 'Arabia Deserta'. Yeats I understand..Stoker came from Dublin, was significant in the london theatre..and there's Le Fanu, the occult, folklore.

But Pound?

What did he think of it?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Geoffrey Hill, 'Clavics' (part four).

Peter at Enitharmon Press, the publishers of Clavics, drew my attention to this:

He wrote:

"As you will be able to see on the Enitharmon website, I've tried my best to write a proper blurb for Clavics, but it wasn't done in time to go on the back of the book. And I can say it's pretty scary to try and nail his recent work. Only by nailing my colours to the mast have I been able to say something which avoids being completely bland, and I've no doubt that many people will take pretty major issue with it." (See his comment on "Geoffrey Hill, Clavics, (part one)" for the full quote.)

But if you go and see what he wrote, I think he's done a fine job. It contains statements like:

"Clavics is a celebration of seventeenth-century music and poetry, yet is confrontational and sometimes shockingly modern. From one line to the next you may be pulled out of a potently evoked moment of history, thrust up against the wall of sexual politics and strained meaning in contemporary language, and then dropped back onto a battlefield."

Which gives you some idea of what to expect


"Geoffrey Hill’s work is at the centre of a debate about how poetry should develop to find its place in contemporary society. Should it embrace the superficial potency of much of modern culture or turn back in upon itself with ever more complex layers of meaning? Should poetry attempt to gain a broader audience and engage ‘the market’ or consolidate its role as an increasingly obscure bastion of the intellect? Since his election to the post of Oxford Professor of Poetry, Geoffrey Hill has not shied away from these questions in his addresses. Now in his first book since he took his place amongst the highest of poetry academics, he has provided his provocative answer."

Which puts the book in a context to suggest its larger significance. It also means someone who's never heard of Hill would know why they might find the book interesting, have some idea of what to expect and be alerted to the fact the man's work is seen as contentious.

(And I thought the copy of Clavics I had was a fine looking book, but I see there is a hand bound and slip cased edition. Books as beautiful objects containing beautiful things.)

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699

In 1699, what would you do if someone offered you “A Willing-Tit”?

The Bodleian Library, which previously published Cawdrey’s “First English Dictionary,” has now published an equally welcome edition of “The First English Dictionary of Slang, 1699” with an introduction by John Simpson.

It’s a great read, though not as sleazy as the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, and while claiming to offer explanations of Cant, it also includes phrases and other terms, some of which seem out of place.

For example: “Batter”: “The ingredients for a pudding or pancake, when they are all mixed and stirred together”. The OED gives examples of this from the fifteenth century. But Batter as a verb meant to beat against or bombard, and to call the stuff you beat “a batter” is an extension of meaning equal to Nooz’d: for “married”. The impression of words as static, solid objects independent of usage is a fantasy conveyed by dictionaries. Historical Slang dictionaries dispel the illusion. Not only do you get to see “standard usage” emerging from slang: “To box” is explained as “to fight with the fists” and “Bitter-Cold” is given what now seems an obvious explanation. The difference between “slang” and “standard usage” is one of convention.

The surreal effect of the dictionary is to create a context where the plainest of definitions start to seem suspect. “Rangle; when gravel is given to a Hawk, to bring her to Stomack”. Suddenly the nouns seem to be trying to hide. A hawk? It can’t be the bird? Rangle must have a hidden meaning that only an initiate, fully cognizant of the secret meanings of Gravel and Hawk can unravel. Which is off putting at first and then fun once you give in to it. (The OED explains Rangle; the gravel given to hawks to aid their digestion”). Meaning recedes down an endless chain of lexical paranoia?

If puns are the adulterers of semantics, then slang is often seen as the refuge for the demented escapees of the dictionary’s straight jacket, proof that Un Petit D’un Petit was right and you can make words mean what you want them to mean if you pay them enough. Proof too of the linguistic inventiveness of human beings and perhaps a counter argument to the idea that we are passive victims of the language we enter.

But Cant or Peddler’s French thought to be the secret language of initiate thieves, beggars, tramps and prostitutes, collectively called the canting crew. To modern ears, or mine at least, it has an odd mixture of menace, humour and daftness which I have been plundering for purposes of the current project.

Acoustically phrase and sense don’t always tally. It’s not just lexical meaning that changes but the feel of the shape and sound of the words. Something that may have once sounded downright nasty might sound silly to modern ears.
Darkman’s is the night, and the sinister Darkman’s Budge is a house creeper. That sounds rightly ominous.

The highest title in the twenty-five orders of rogues was a “Ruffler”, one step above an “Upright Man” who has a right to “Dells”. This just sounds suitably opaque to anyone who doesn’t know.

At times the words seem to have been deliberately forced in the wrong direction. “Well, you’re a dim-mort” sounds like an insult but is actually a compliment since a dim mort is a “pretty wench”.

But while I suspect the rogues and thieves of the 17th century would have been a scary bunch, the top man in the Canting Crew was called “The Dimber-Damber”.

“Right you, the Olli-Compoli says we’re taking you to the Dimber-Damber” just doesn’t sound like scary 17th Century Criminal talk. It sounds like something Sir Derek Jacoby would say during a visit to Makka Pakka and the Tombli boos in The Night Garden.

And a “Willing-Tit’? “A little horse, that travels cheerfully”. (and quickly to the OED in case “ a willing horse” means something other than a four legged animal.)