This was a talk written for the AWP panel “Congeries of Voices: Vernacular and Diction in Contemporary Poetry” — with Carmen Gimenez Smith, Joanna Fuhrman, Samuel Amadon, Lara Glenum and Rodrigo Toscano)
In a recent interview in AWP’s Writer’s Chronicle, Mark Doty says, “If you write a poem with the aid of a thesaurus, you will almost inevitably look like a person wearing clothing chosen by someone else.” I think he means this in a derogatory way, that someone who wears clothes chosen by someone else must look tacky and that if one betrays one’s prerogative to pick T-shirts one betrays the self. I have been thinking about this quote in relationship to poems that play with various levels of diction, that shift wildly from the “highs” of Latinate jargon to the “lows” of pidgin slang, and the way that poets might look for words to appear out of place within the poem, might chose to embody (or mimic) the awkward relationship to language of one who feels outside of it, of one who notices that certain discourses and types of diction are associated with power. Ah, what beauty there is in wearing language that doesn’t quite fit, in wearing words ironically, the way one flaunts the ugly pink reindeer sweater that was a gift from one’s aunt. And what joy there is in those moments when the irony suddenly vanishes or flickers the way it does when that sweater is seen in the green light of a car crash through the motel window. I believe that this kind of ragged, mismatched language, used with unstable irony or tossed about in moments of wild playfulness, can not only enlarge what we think of as a self, but create poetry more mimetic of our fractured experience.
One, of course, doesn’t have to use a reference book to find words alien to one’s persona, but one must have a sense that language isn’t ever completely one’s own or something that is easily a part of one’s self, that it is always haunted by the culture and history that created it. Many of the poems I love that contrast language borrowed from jargon with the lyrical remnants of imagery and slang use these shifts in diction to mimic the fissures between what the poem’s speakers are “supposed” to think and what they actually feel, or to mimic the movement between embracing the mercurial nature of emotion and trying to numb one’s feelings by intellectualizing them.
In an email to this panel, Carmen talks about certain aesthetics as “anti-capitalist.” I am not comfortable saying this because I think all poems are anti-capitalist in the sense that they exist outside of the market of what can be bought and sold. If I give you a page with my poem on it, it is worth less monetarily than a similar blank page, despite the hours I may have spent fiddling with the words. That said, both so-called “anti-capitalists” and poets who play with levels of diction see what they think of as a self as a complicated mixture of what appear to be “authentic” desires and culturally constructed wants. Poems that play with diction wrestle on a word-to-word level with this struggle. When we notice shifts in diction, we notice the poet becoming aware of the materiality of language and are reminded that language itself and our feelings about it are always subjects of the poem.
Every semester in my undergraduate poetry workshops, I teach a segment on poems that play with levels of diction. I always start our discussion with Gwendolyn Brooks’ sonnet “the white troops had their orders but the Negroes looked like men.” In this poem Brooks uses Latinate, jargon-like diction to show white soldiers trying to justify racism to themselves. She uses shifts in diction to show us the difference between received wisdom and what the white soldiers actually observe and feel when they meet black men, most likely slaves, for the first time. The poem begins,
They had supposed their formula was fixed.
They had obeyed instructions to devise
A type of cold, a type of hooded gaze.
But when the Negroes came they were perplexed.
These Negroes looked like men. Besides, it taxed
Time and the temper to remember those
Congenital iniquities that cause
Disfavor of the darkness.
While there is some variation, most of the words in this section, such as “devise” “perplexed” and “congenital inequities,” are high-diction, fancy-pants words. The one exception is “These Negroes looked like men,” which is also the one phrase that contains the most truth, the moment when the men are seeing the reality in fr0nt of them instead of relying on the “official version.” It is not a coincidence that this is also the moment where the language is the most colloquial.
Later in the poem, as the men realize how wrong their preconceived idea of race was, Brooks writes, “Who really gave two figs?” This is the moment when the poem is not just telling a story, but enacting an emotion. When the language slips into slang, it feels like a Band-Aid being pulled off. The emotion comes not from what the words signify, but from the verbal gesture, the feeling of interruption in the poem’s high diction. I think this technique is similar to what Jakobson describes as the emotive function of interjections. He writes that interjections “differ from the means of referential language both by their sound patterns (peculiar sound sequences or even sounds elsewhere unusual) and by their syntactical role (they are not components but equivalents of sentences.)” When Brooks uses the phrase “two figs,” it isn’t, strictly speaking, an interjection, but, like “Ow” or “Ouch,” its impact is derived from its sound rather than any denotative (or connotative) meaning the phrase carries. In this poem, the power of the phrase “two figs” has nothing to do with the image of the fruit. Rather, it is a verbal gesture, freed from the nostalgia of denotation. Also, the phrase’s fricative sound has an interjection-like onomatopoeic effect. The two short words pop out in contrast to the more languorous sound of the rest of the poem. The sudden shift in diction creates a shift in tone, allowing a reader to feel what the speaker feels by experiencing the same sense of interruption. The words stop referring and become the event.
In my own poems, when I use high-level diction, it is almost always ironic. I find myself employing it to write about ways in which a Spectacle culture constrains our relationship to our bodies and emotions, but also as a way to make fun of my own narcissistic navel-gazing. It’s a technique obviously borrowed from poets like John Ashbery and mid-career James Tate, but hopefully with a feminist perspective—or at least a girl’s. I am going to share a short prose poem, but leave the close reading to you.
The best thing about this lipstick called Self-Pity is that you can wear it with both active wear and a couture chemise. Apply it slumped in your igloo with your panda bear oven mitts and/or regally in the powder room of the Silver Spoon Lounge. No one will care that you spent your teenagehood riding a leaf blower to the Model UN or that when you stagger to the window in your stacked claw heels, you resemble an elderly palm tree, swayed by millennial breeze.
I know people like to bash irony as hipster posing, as a comic gesture detached from emotion. But how could one write about “self-pity” without giving into its banality? For me, the ironically elevated diction gives me a way of signaling an awareness of the triviality of our first-world problems. My hope is that I have balanced this awareness with some pathos and that the two tones can ricochet off each other to create something new.
I find myself intrigued by my contemporaries who use shifts in diction in a way completely different from my own. Usually when I talk about shifts in diction in my own work, or even when I teach it to my undergraduates, I tend to think of “high diction” as somehow inherently less honest or true than low diction. I tend to think of fancy words as “jargon” and lower-level words as “truth,” so it’s interesting to me when I find myself moved by poets like Julian Brolaski and Jennifer Moxley who use higher-level diction in a non-ironic way, as a gesture towards negative capability.
I want to end by sharing a poem by Noelle Kocot, who uses higher-level, almost archaic diction as a way to elevate her subject, not to make fun of it. If the poem only used this kind of diction it might feel stiff, but the shifts to a lower-level diction are a means of signaling a playful, joyful approach towards language and life.
Ode to My Cat Euclid
Mackerel sky above my dinner bell,
A chicken flies across the sun.
A tail floats around a corner in smoothest luxury.
Loving fool, you are no surf among my kingdom.
Piano keys breathe onto your lamp
As gravity wraps its vectors around your bones.
In the next life, I see you batting
At the noon-toiled flies into your eyes.
For now its jazz can swat down woo-wee!
Just glinting like a moon-child,
Scooting like a scooter should.
I love that Kocot can include the archaic-sounding “Surf among my kingdom” in the same poem as the slangy, jazzy phrase “swat down woo-wee.” The high diction here serves to elevate the majesty of the speaker’s lovely cat, while the lower diction brings us back to earth. The ending’s playful vowel sounds and heavy alliteration remind us of the roots of poetry—those nursery rhymes and lullabies we first heard in the crib. This combination of “baby talk” with elevated diction creates a speaker who is both old and young, and the sense of a limited self is broken open. The tone is silly and playful, but not ironic. The diversity of dictions suggests an openness to all the language in the world, a sense that the past and the present live together in the same moment, that the world is fecund with language and we should be grateful for its messy multiplicity.
— March 2013
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Joanna Fuhrman is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Pageant (Alice James Books 2009) and Moraine (Hanging Loose Press 2006), as well as the chapbook The Emotive Function (Least Weasel Press).
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