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Shadow language.

Of all the theses advanced to explain the incomparable abundance of Shakespeare's language, perhaps the most audacious--and certainly the wackiest--is that propounded some forty years ago by an Iraqi professor at the University of Baghdad. In a massive tome, the professor argued that the lone survivor of the shipwreck of an Arab merchant vessel washed up on the shores of Elizabethan England and made his way, wet, bedraggled, and famished, to the nearest village where he found hospitality and shelter. Establishing himself, there our mariner quickly mastered English and in short order was churning out remarkable poems and dramas. Relocated to Stratford-on-Avon and London, he rose to prominence in the theater, even winning the favor of the Virgin Queen. His original name had been Shaykh Zubayr, but (though there is no letter p in the Arabic alphabet) this was soon anglicized to Shakespeare.

This thesis, which would have delighted Jorge Luis Borges, rested not merely on fanciful historical supposition but on a mad, meticulous, and painstaking inventory of Shakespeare's vocabulary. The Iraqi argued, with the unassailable logic of the truly demented, that most of Shakespeare's language could be traced back to Classical Arabic. How else explain the unparalleled richness of the texts? By the fourteenth century, after all, Arabic could boast a colossal lexicon; one dictionary alone--the renowned Lisan al`arab or "The Language of the Arabs" by Ibn Manzur--required some twenty densely printed volumes (the size of the current OED) to encompass its lexical profusion, and this was compiled almost two centuries before Shaykh Zubayr's adventitious landing. Even more telling, our scholar detected scores, even hundreds, of borrowings and "cognates" in the Bard's works. To give but one example: the Arabic adjective nabil, which means "noble," occurs, naturally enough, throughout the plays and poems. Other such (false) cognates swarmed the Folios and clinched the case for our researcher.

This may not be the craziest treatise on Shakespeare, but it certainly comes close. And yet, consideration of it prompts an interesting question. Is there such a phenomenon in poetry as a "shadow language," that is, a concealed or tacit foreign language which exerts a strong and sometimes fruitful pressure on the native tongue of a poet? In one sense, of course, the answer is an obvious yes. Much of traditional English poetry would have been the poorer without the pressure of, say, Latin or French. Chaucer and Milton are unimaginable without such linguistic shadowing. When Chaucer writes in "The Knight's Tale" that
 Infinite been the sorwes and the teeres
 Of olde folk, and folk of tendre yeeres,


the pathos of the lines is enhanced by the interplay between the Latinate "infinite" and "tendre" and the plain English of"olde folk" and "teeres." Or when Milton, in "Lycidas" says,
 Were it not better done as others use,
 To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
 Or with the tangles of Neaera's hair?


we are enchanted by the brazen but delicate juxtaposition of "sport" and "Amaryllis," "tangles" and the alien "Neaera." These are of course standard devices in English poetry even in our own day (witness Eliot's "Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold," among many possible examples). Chaucer's deep familiarity with French, Milton's knowledge of Latin, Greek, Italian, and Hebrew, expanded the realm of aural opportunity available to them as poets. Their practice moreover was instinctual, not deliberate, and the effect was to nuance and complicate the sound-patterns of their verse in ways that nowadays seem virtually lost to most poets.

Foreign words or phrases may be introduced quite consciously as well, often to witty effect, as when the contemporary English poet John Fuller concludes one of the sonnets in his verse-novel The Illusionist with the lines:
 Lead me back gently from the brink!
 Restore me, and restore my drink!
 Restore the power of suggestion,
 Yield me the grandeur of your sex:
 De minimis non curat lex!


Foreign words may lurk as aural shadows just below the boundaries of our common speech. Joyce (to cite a prose master) does this with Arabic in an early passage of Finnegans Wake:
 Our cubehouse still rocks as earwitness to the
 thunder of his arafatas but we hear also through
 successive ages that shabby choruysh of unkalified
 muzzlenimiissilehims that blackguardise
 the whitestone ever hurtleturtled out of heaven.
 Stay us wherefore in our search for tighteousness,
 O Sustainer, what time we rise and
 when we take up to toothmick and before we
 lump down upown our leatherbed and in the
 night and at the fading of the stars! For a nod to
 the nabir is better than wink to the wabsanti.


Allusions to the Ka`ba with its sacred black stone, the Plain of `Arafat where Muslim pilgrims congregate, the Prophet's own tribe of the Quraysh, the caliphs, among many other punning references, would not have endeared Joyce to our dour and dogged Iraqi. But this form of pastiche, for all its genius, is not quite the effect I wish to define. In Joyce we are always conscious of the artifice, and the humor arises from this awareness. I have in mind something at once subtler and more organic; a kind of lexical and syntactic impingement that gives a new texture and color to the surface of verse.

When I first began writing poetry I found myself seeking out this elusive quality in the work of others. Certainly I found it in Shakespeare and Milton and Tennyson and Eliot, but it was rarely discernible in the verse most contemporary poets were writing, whether they subscribed to the Beat "aesthetic" or to more formal codes (Robert Lowell and Richard Wilbur struck me then, and still do, as the great exceptions). Why did most American poetry after Crane and Moore and Stevens seem so thin and monotone compared to, say, Baudelaire or Virgil, whom I was also reading at that time in the originals? When I read a poem new to me, I always looked at once for the feel and texture of the language, even though it may have been the subject matter that first drew me. If the poem was uninteresting to my mouth, I stopped reading it; that is, if it did not in some way seduce me into saying it, into forming and re-forming its particular aural configuration, I immediately lost interest in it. I was looking for lines like Milton's wonderful:
 their lean and flashy songs
 grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw.


That was undiluted pleasure for the ear, not only because of the infinitely interesting collocation of syllables, but because of its perfect aptness for its subject. But where in most American poetry of the 1960s would I find anything like that, or like Baudelaire's "Les morts, les pauvres morts, ont de grandes douleurs," with its plangently modulated vowels? Even then I knew that the imitation of such effects could lead to comical grotesqueries, but I continued to be intrigued by the narrowness of the American vocalic palette and the, as it seemed to me then, incomparably richer and wider aural possibilities offered by others. When I began to study other languages, not only French and Latin, but Greek and Italian and German, I was still further stimulated by the contrast between my own meager resources and those available to speakers of other tongues. In those days, mostly during the Sixties and Seventies, it seems to me that I drenched myself in as many strange, alien, and outright exotic vernaculars as I could, not only Hebrew, modern as well as biblical, but Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Syriac. Some of these, such as Arabic, I ended up learning well; in others I merely dabbled. But with all of them it was the poetry in its original language that fascinated and, indeed, obsessed me.

During this period I laid my hands on an old Folkways recording entitled The Sound of World Poetry which contained recitations of classical poems in a dozen different languages, including Chinese. Without understanding a single word, I played this LP again and again, sometimes memorizing the Russian or Tagalog or Bengali stanzas by the sheer force of repetition. The strange rhythms, the intricate prosodies, the pitches and tones, the wealth of rhyme, all held me spellbound. A curious gluttony of the ear kept me rapt to those incomprehensible but shapely patternings. To this day I do not mind, in fact, I enjoy, hearing poetry in languages I do not know and will never learn. This may sound impractical and even pointless, but I continue to believe that it helps a poet to expand the limits of his or her aural universe and that the best way to do this is by a kind of precise but trancelike attentiveness to the entire panoply of verbal music the human mouth is capable of uttering. Certainly I had no intention of smuggling Kirgiz or Malayalam accents into my own poetry; it was the fascination of the sounds that mesmerized my ear. Nevertheless, this relentless exposure to other vocalic realms, this palatal globe-trotting, did, I think, eventually work an influence on my own writing, though not always a benign one. (I've never sought confirmation of this practice, but I was pleased to find it in the superb English poet James Fenton's recent book An Introduction to English Poetry where he writes, using the example of listening to songs in languages we don't understand: "Genuine language, even when we do not know what it means, sounds different from cod language, real words from nonsense words.")

A poem, I thought, is a physical object, as tactile as a statue. I began to consider poems in textural terms; there were shaggy surfaces, knobbly ones, mere veneers as sleek as glassine, but my favorites were those in which a complex and tensile music prevailed. It goes without saying that such surface texture is not all that goes into a good poem, but it is, I think, an indispensable element. I would not subscribe to Archibald MacLeish's well-worn dictum, in "Ars Poetica," that "A poem should be palpable and mute/ as a globed fruit" but palpability at least must be present. Whatever William Carlos Williams or the Black Mountain School may have proclaimed, a poem is not common speech; it stands apart. An inescapable artifice, which begins in the patterns of vowels and syllables, sets a poem above and beyond mere conversation. We may confer the effect of speech, but it remains an effect. Though it sounds colloquial enough, no one would be likely to say, "Whose woods these are I think I know." The magic lies in the deftly burnished illusion of actual speech.

As I strove to enlarge and complicate my own meager harmonies, I fell into all the pitfalls of the sound-besotted novice. Thus, in one earlier poem (now happily suppressed), I hit upon the phrase "barnacle-manacled bottles," which strikes me today as something a Glaswegian with the hiccups might pronounce. The description was apt enough; the sound was atrocious--all those gasping glottal stops! But on a few other occasions the results, I felt, were more felicitous; as, for example, when I tried to describe a group of tough teenagers I had once overheard singing pop songs by The Platters in a tenement hallway and wrote about "the arpeggios of hooligans in stairwells." Whether this line succeeds or not, it seemed to me that I had possibly caught something of what I was striving after. I hadn't consciously sought to juxtapose words derived from Italian or Hindi with English but the combination gave the line the mixture of ironic affection and humor I had found in the scene itself. At the moment of writing, what captivated me was the play of the crunchy double g of "arpeggio" consorting with the long oo of "hooligan" capped by the lovely English compound "stairwell," together with the alternation of quick and slow vowels. Again, in a poem modeled on the Arabic, about the Caliph al-Hakim, I wrote:
 And sometimes, in the pitch-light of the bazaar
 God's shadow baited bears or egged men on
 To braggadocio or fisticuffs, or spied upon
 Their most secretive gestures, their least
 Askance innuendoes, their cupped whispering;
 Till, surrogate, he evanesced on the
 Muqattan Hills
 One evening, leaving only slivered veils behind.


Here it was not only the texture of the words themselves but the cadence that provided what interest there might be in the lines; for I wanted to complicate the measure in a way that suggested, but didn't imitate, Arabic meters. Though my aim is more modest--to show how this process might work "from the inside"--if I continue to quote myself, I will begin to sound like a Classical Arabic poet for whom such shameless self-citation was often de rigueur.

Shadow language appears sometimes unexpectedly and in unlikely places. The contemporary poet Timothy Murphy, who farms in North Dakota, writes a wiry, poised, almost runic verse that owes as much to Latin and Anglo-Saxon (he is a translator of Beowulf) as to Landor, Housman, and Richard Wilbur. This is the first stanza of "Hadrian Bereaved:"
 The White Nile falls. Osiris dies.
 Egypt wails under winter squalls.
 In the embalmers' pungent halls
 My lover's mummy lies,
 Marvel of mortuary art
 With myrrh and spikenard in its veins.
 A gold-enameled cask contains
 The ashes of his heart.


The tightness of the diction, the perfect rhymes, the gorgeous vocabulary saved from preciousness by the severity of the cadence, reveal the shadings both of the English grand tradition and of the larger classical tradition that nourished it; and yet, it is a shade that has been assimilated and made an integral part of the poet's blood and craft.

We find this effect as well in such older poets as David Jones and Basil Bunting. Jones was of course steeped in Latin and in Welsh, and Bunting had Persian, in addition to French and Latin. There is something paradoxical in this admixture of tongues that brings forth the toughest, strongest, most resonant English in each poet's best work. Jones is too diffuse to cite, but Bunting illustrates exactly what I have in mind, when he writes, in Briggflats:
 Dung will not soil the slowworm's
 mosaic. Breathless lark
 drops to nest in sodden trash;
 Rawthey truculent, dingy.
 Drudge at the mallet, the may is down,
 fog on fells. Guilty of spring
 and spring's ending
 amputated years ache after
 the bull is beef, love a convenience.
 It is easier to die than to remember.
 Name and date
 split in soft slate
 a few months obliterate.


At first glance this appears quintessentially "English": the monosyllabic thrust of the lines, the blunt and serviceable verbs, its gnomic terseness; and yet, it would be easy to show that it is more Roman and lapidary in its origins and has behind it a fierce chiaroscuro of ancient epigraph and inscription, a Latinate granularity of texture. It is the shadow of the hidden languages that casts the poem's rude Anglo-Saxon vigor into the light.

Easily the greatest master of such dense, melodious, and chiseled verse now active is Geoffrey Hill. In reading his last collection The Orchards of Syon I was startled to realize that Hill has been writing his incomparable poetry for over fifty years now and that each new book of his has been a fresh, and sometimes unexpected, triumph. The combination of immaculate poetic skill with intense originality is always rare, and never more so than in our diminished age. Perhaps this explains why Hill has been so largely ignored by the purveyors of accolades and fat cash awards; while bevies of mediocrities stagger under their unmerited laurels, Hill continues to compose his grave, raucous, piercing, and marmoreal lyrics, drawing on a huge range of reference to many cultures and languages from antiquity to the present. His moral depth and formal accomplishment have earned him a category all his own, which may be, in the end, acknowledgment enough. For me at least he stands in the same relation to our last half-century as Eliot and Montale, and a very few others, stood to the first half of that hideous time.

Hill plays constantly with shadow language. Moreover, in his recent work, he has begun to introduce surprising new accents, drawing not merely on German or Hebrew or Latin but on American demotic which he, as a transplanted Englishman, hears in perhaps a different manner than we do. Hill's first efforts to incorporate American speech, in The Triumph of Love, struck me as clumsy; however, in The Orchards of Syon, he slyly employs even "Valley Speak" to salt his metaphysics. In the last of the seventy-two magnificent poems of that collection--one for each year of his life--Hill writes:
 Pollen and basalt--Dame Rainbow, ancient
 lover of water, immortal
 for want of a better term; self-remnant
 in each element of the same desire.
 Not as she once was, metaphysical
 and, like, wild. Weigh the importunate
 nature of being | with a light
 husk, the grasshopper's, tall
 storyteller of the Hesperides ...


The insertion of "like" in line six represents no mere ironic undermining of the resolutely stately lines that surround it but rather, an attempt--successful, in my view--to extract from that otherwise meaningless colloquialism its fullest measure of resonance. (The vertical downstroke in the next line is Hill's device for marking the caesura.) Hill is here trying to "purify the dialect of the tribe" with the result that Dame Rainbow is no longer wild but, even better, no longer "like, wild," and this almost infinitesimal shift of register, instead of seeming incongruous, somehow makes that luminous old dame vivid in her vagueness.

Throughout The Orchards of Syon and even more so in his preceding collection Speech! Speech! of 2000 (perhaps his finest achievement to date), Hill weaves together multilingual puns, historical references, allusions to poets he respects (Celan, Ingeborg Bachmann, Andre Frenaud, and Frank O'Hara [!] among others), with his own clangorous and unmistakable voice. Sometimes it all seems overwhelming, as in the 46th poem of Speech! Speech!:
 Champ d'honneur versus Schlachtfeld: from this
 affray | Prussia emerges the clear victor.
 IS VECTOR now more widely used--if so,
 how exactly? Die Zuckerzange, Bitte!


The foreign phrases, the puzzling allusions, the use of the acute accent to signal the stress, make such passages hard going, and Hill has been criticized recently even by his erstwhile admirers for such antics. How strangely reluctant we have become to accord to a major poet like Hill the toilsome patience exegetes once were willing to lavish, and still lavish, on such lesser works as Paterson or even--God help us!--the unreadable Maximus Poems of Charles Olson. Part of this may have to do with Hill's unabashed erudition, part with his unflagging nobility of tone. But there is a deeper problem. For Hill, poetry stands as a sacred tongue, and what could be farther from our coddled demotic? Thus he can claim that
 Poetry aspires
 to the condition of Hebrew.


I take this to mean not that poetry constitutes a "dead" language but a language in incessant need of revival; a language at once inviolable and immutable but also sinuously malleable and expansive, utterance in which the vowels flit like the living breath amid the firmly fixed pillars of the consonants. Poetry is not, cannot be, the sacred and God-given tongue but it can aspire to that condition; can be the medium in which a word like Hewbrew luach connotes both a blackboard and the Tables of the Law; a form of daily converse overshadowed by an inescapable aura of sanctity.

In the first poem of the sequence Hill challenges us:
 Watch my hands
 confabulate their shadowed rhetoric,
 gestures of benediction; maledictions
 by arrangement.


From The Triumph of Love of 1998 through his last two collections, Hill has been "confabulating" a kind of testamentary epic in which the entire history of English, and European, poetry is subsumed, and in which the squalid horrors and sporadic glory of our own age are fitfully mirrored. In so doing he has availed himself of every resource of form and genre and verbal music to fashion his "shadowed rhetoric." Sometimes the music is full-stop in such lines as "To summon from drone-tomb/commotions of calm" and at others, it is jagged, splintered, wailing--"a skirr and pash of shingle"--like the rime aspre of Dante:
 My mind, as I know it, I still discover
 in this one-off temerity, arachnidous,
 abseiling into a pit, the pit a void,
 a black hole, a galaxy in denial.


The bleakness of Hill's vision (which is, nevertheless, unflinchingly Christian at root) is offset not so much by sunny passages as by subtle instants of attention, in the interstices of vision, to the small and unregarded--garden herbs, the sudden glance of a landscape, bird calls--and these proffer amid the horror tiny semaphores of grace, however fleeting:
 Curlew and kestrel trek the fell-sides,
 the Hodder burls, a pheasant
 steps from its thorny hedgebank beside us,
 the stooped pear-tree honours us with its shade.


I would not argue that the presence of such shadow language as we find throughout Virgil or Dante or Milton or Pound or Hill is itself a guarantor of great poetry. Certainly there have been many great "unshadowed" poets (think of Wordsworth or Frost). The firmament of poetry is too vast to be reduced to a single mode. And the constant accompaniment of another tongue can be not only burdensome but destructive. The example of the late Joseph Brodsky, whose English verse is almost always farcically inept, stands as an especially distressing caution. For all I know, the graduate students at Baghdad U., under the tutelage of the discoverer of "Shaykh Zubayr" are even now combing through Hill's oeuvre and speculating as to how he washed up in Boston Harbor. Even so, in an age when too many poets in North America, whether writing in free verse or strict measure, tend towards the etiolated and the tinny, and when the chatty has supplanted the sublime, it is good to know that Geoffrey Hill is still crafting his shadowy polyphonies.

Eric Ormsby's most recent book is Facsimiles of Time: Essays on Poetry and Translation (The Porcupine's Quill).
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Title Annotation:poetry
Author:Ormsby, Eric
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Words:3685
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