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Published: Mon May 21 2018
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destrución de los Huricanes en Guatemala / Hurricane Destruction in Guatemala (detail), 2010, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
To Purify the Language of the Tribe

The French poet Stephane Mallarmé once opined (and T.S. Eliot would echo him in his magisterial Four Quartets) that poetry’s objective was to “purify the language of the tribe.” I’ve been thinking about that lately—less, though, in response to any poetic text than to a wonderful prose one, Henry Beston’s _Northern Farm (1949), _a chronicle of seasonal life in and around the house that the author and his wife shared on Lake Damariscotta in Maine.

Anyone who has ever considered her- or himself in the least a naturalist writer knows Beston’s classic The Outermost House; by her own account, for example, this was the only book that directly influenced Rachel Carson’s composition of Silent Spring, itself so influential. Yet I was ignorant of Northern Farm until it turned up on a shelf at my late, wonderful mother-in-law’s house in western Massachusetts. Much of the author’s prose simply stuns me, and I am in sympathy with many of its tendencies. Consider the following:

“One of the greater mischiefs which confront us today is the growing debasement of the language. Our speech is a mere shadow of its incomparable richness, having on the one hand become vulgarized and on the other corrupted with a particularly odious academic jargon. Now this is dangerous. A civilization which loses its power over its own language has lost its power over the instrument by which it thinks.”

Amen, said I to myself as I pondered these assertions…a response that among other things surely proves, as I must acknowledge, how men and women of an age like mine have always thought and will always think the world nowadays is going to hell. But.

But think of automobile ads, just for one indicator. What is meant, say, by “Chevrolet, an American revolution”? Was it General Motors that impelled Washington across the Delaware in that cold, crucial winter? Or “Love– it’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.” Did Dante drive an Outback? Or, astoundingly annoying, “Guts. Glory. Ram,” as though to own a pickup truck were an exaltation. There are myriad other examples in other domains, of course, but you see where I’m headed.

This is the sort of thing that Beston called vulgarization. Loathsome though it be, however, it can’t compare to a passage like the following, painstakingly and agonizingly constructed by a professor—Lord, help us—of English at a prestigious university; some years back, it justly won a Bad Writing Contest originated by Professor Denis Dutton:

“If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.”

Contemporary literary theorists such as our professor here have pointed out that words never bear more than an oblique relation to what they are meant to signify. (To arrive at this conclusion, evident to any poet or fiction writer within the first day or so of trying out her art, the intelligentsia must have invented a reader so dumb or so rapt as perhaps to have seen a written word like “hamburger” and then tried to eat it.) But it is unclear to me exactly what the obfuscatory words just cited may refer to, even obliquely. Harumph. I was raised and educated to believe that lucidity in expression was a virtue, not a sign of simplism.

In reading Henry Beston, in relishing his straightforward yet lyrical style, it occurred to me—hardly for the first time—that alienation from the tangible world, including the alienation of language from that world, is, as he says, dangerous. I am more and more convinced that the farther we get from our physical realities, the more radically we make the (false) distinction between our bodily and spiritual lives, the more we pay for it.

We can turn to—well, blather, the kind evinced, in my opinion, by the unreadable prose of the English professor just quoted, though his is only an instance, and sadly not an overly extreme one, of the argot used by the academic theorists who have carried the day in our humanities departments. These tend to be men and women who speak so densely and abstractly—and all but exclusively to one another—that their language bears no palpable relation to the world of people who live in very different circumstances. Theory among the academicians, I surmise, is so motivated by their need to say something new (an imperative that would have baffled, even alarmed, the scholars of antiquity, by the way) that I can’t help supposing they must themselves at times feel suspicion of their own assertions.

Here’s Henry Beston again:

“When I am here by myself…, I read the agricultural papers and journals which have been put aside in the kitchen cupboard for just such a solitary night. I never read (these) without being struck by the good, sound, honest English of the writing, by the directness and simplicity of the narratives…Whether the topic be tomatoes or ten-penny nails, their writers know how to say things and say them well.”

But wait: I am not mounting an argument for simplism any more than Beston is; I scarcely regret that Emily Dickinson, for instance, was not a poultry farmer. I am simply reiterating my claim that disembodiment, alienation from our physical and natural world, results not in higher thinking but in impoverishment or obfuscation or, again, blather. This seems to me even truer for poetry than for most modes of discourse. I’m put in mind of Ezra Pound’s claim, which, granted, is only a half-truth, even if the true half is deeply compelling: “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.”

Speaking of which, could anyone, as poet, fictionist, or practitioner any other sort of language, be more eloquent than Beston in this passage from Northern Farm?

“A gold and scarlet leaf floating solitary on the clear, black water of the morning rain barrel can catch the emotion of a whole season, and chimney smoke blowing across the winter moon can be a symbol of all that is mysterious in human life.”

Yet there are greater dangers than mere inanity, and I fear they grow ever more acute in a technologized age. Blather can offend, and even wound, to be sure, but not so much as certain modes of cool calculation. The drift into disembodiment allows us to imagine the victims of military attack, for example, as statistics, not as living and breathing organisms, to look at citizens as parts of this or that voting bloc, not as individuals with their own idiosyncratic virtues and flaws.

Blather, that vicious cool, or—what? I guess the word that comes to mind is creepiness. On a recent trip to our Maine cabin, my wife and I picked up a Bangor paper at the village store. In its so-called family section, a young woman who had just borne her first child described how she was going to chronicle the little girl’s early years. The first thing she did was to open a Facebook account for her daughter, which would be waiting for her when the time came. She likewise established an email for the child, to whom she had been writing e-notes every two weeks. There were other cybernetic measures she meant to take, but I have mercifully forgotten them by now.

I am no Luddite, mind you. I have become more dependent on the Internet than I’d have dreamed even a decade ago. At the same time, just as we did our children, my wife and I have lately been savoring our little grandchildren, six of them now. This involves not only the (wearying) fun of frolicking, at a playground, in the woods, on the living room floor or wherever, more than snuggling close to them as we read bedtime stories and entertain their wonderful comments and questions. It also involves giving baths, wiping chins and bottoms, feeding and cleaning up after them– all those physical gestures, pleasant and otherwise, that go into close human interrelationships.

Emailing the kid before she can read a word? That is creepy, right?

Or am I just a superannuated, sentimental old fool?

The truth lies doubtless somewhere in between. Wherever it may lie, out my window just now, I see a small grebe diving under the surface of our pond and re-emerging, making small ripples that clash mildly with the wind-driven wavelets. The duck’s behavior seems enough, when I get right down to it, to make a day.

Sydney Lea is the author of twenty-four books: a novel, five volumes of personal essays, three of critical essays, and fifteen poetry collections, including the forthcoming What Shines (Four Way Books, 2024). A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Poets’ Prize, he is founding editor of New England Review. He served as Vermont’s poet laureate from 2011 to 2015, and in 2021, he received the state’s most prestigious arts distinction: the Governor’s Award for Excellence. (updated 4/2023)

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