Alexis Chema

Punning in Pure English

One of the most compelling things about Daniel Tiffany’s essay for me is the way it opens ground for troubling the common account of plain style as whatever is left of language once “poetic diction” is stripped away. This is the story plain style tells—and has always told—about itself, embedded in the term and in the powerful metaphor it alludes to: language is the dress of thought, and like dresses, it can be simple or ornate. Wordsworth extends the reach of plain style by desynonomizing poetry and poetic diction. Poetry is not elevated language but elevated feeling. If the “countless examples (by many different poets) of the plain style in poetry” find their (recognized or unrecognized) intellectual source in the Wordsworthian turn away from “poetic diction” in favor of “the language of men,” the influence on all other genres of writing (and writing pedagogy) can be felt, as well. The standardizing prescriptions of the 20th century’s most ubiquitous composition manual, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style (Prefer the standard to the offbeat – Use orthodox spelling – Omit needless words) are accompanied by a strikingly figurative rationale: only bad style comes from dressing up language. Good style, unencumbered by offbeat, unorthodox, and needless words is “the Self escaping into the open.” Again, the influence of Wordsworth is felt: “If words be incarnation of the thought, but only a clothing for it, then surely they will prove an ill gift” (Essays Upon Epitaphs). 

Tiffany’s focus on diction rather than style (or form) opens up an altogether different prospect. Plain style ought to be considered, rather, a “manufactured simplicity” aimed at the positive achievement of a voice and a language whose social markers are not so much erased but “masked” by words. In the face of the accreted and self-effacing tradition of associating plain style with expressive transparency, this redescription is welcome on its own. But there’s more. If “plain” or “common” words can do the masking, so can the non-overlapping lexicon that goes by many names: “poetic diction,” “hyper-lyrical diction,” “poetic kitsch” “banned poetry words.” Tiffany describes the latter category not as that which marks poetic expression as special, as is suggested by the discourse of ornamentation, but as that which makes it characterless. Plain style and poetic-diction-style are no longer at opposite ends of a stylistic continuum, but instead come into a surprising alignment. Each register “operat[es] without the social characteristics of race or class,” each defies “particularity and nuanced analysis.” Wordsworth’s version of plain style as the “real language of men” might, then, have a corollary in Tiffany’s version of poetic kitsch as the “real language of poetry” (a mashup of Wordsworth and Gray). In both cases the notion that these “languages” are “real” (that is, really representative) can be contested in countless ways but nevertheless signals the insistence upon neutrality that characterizes both discourses.

Wordsworth’s big experiment in Lyrical Ballads was to test whether poems written in his version of plain style could impart pleasure. It didn’t take him long to declare his experiment a success, writing in the preface to the second edition that not only could such poems please, but that his poems did so in earnest: “I pleased a greater number [of my readers] than I ventured to hope I should please.” It’s hard to imagine anyone today doubting at least the possibility, as the pervasiveness of the plain style in contemporary poetry attests. What about poems written in the generic and cliched “language of poetry”? What kinds of pleasure might they impart, even in their mediocrity? 

In proposing this question in light of Tiffany’s essay, with its sense that Sianne Ngai’s concept of the aesthetic gimmick might be relevant to deployments of poetic kitsch, I’m  reminded of the nineteenth-century enthusiasm for literary enigmas, charades, rebuses, and anagrams, popular forms of parlor and magazine verse that strategically deploy hyper-lyric language for punning—perhaps gimmicky—ends. A famous example, attributed for many years to Lord Byron, begins “‘Twas whisper’d in Heaven, and mutter’d in Hell, / And Echo caught softly the words as they fell” and ends “But in shade let it rest, like an elegant flower— / Oh! Breathe on it softly—it dies in an hour.” In between are commonplaces that are made mysterious by the poem’s deictic play but that never depart from high lyric diction. Indeed, the poem invites being read as a metapoetic statement reflecting on the ephemerality—and also the omnipresence—of the lyric voice.

Like all enigmas, this poem takes a common thing (ans.: the letter H) and describes it using language that crosses categories and registers. “Breathe on it softly, it dies in an hour” confuses the alphabetic with the botanical—the flower that blooms once and dies—and the botanical with the human, specifically the sentimental figure (the poet) who dies too young. Once the answer is discovered, the poem can be reread and a new gloss emerges: the letter h is whispered, or aspirated, in the word heaven, by speakers of standard English, who are good and who go to heaven. The letter h is dropped in the word hell by Cockney speakers (or mutterers), who are bad and who go to hell. The poem’s solution thus acts as a thematization of discourses of linguistic purity that operate implicitly in any high lyric poem. 

The “answer,” in supplying its new meaning, reduces the poem to a shibboleth. As such it seems like an elaboration of Brolaski’s take on poetic kitsch as ornament that hides a disappointing sense. Brolaski’s “most banned poetry word,” aperture, stages the gap between not only elevated poetic word and vulgar common word (“for fear of saying hole”), but also between word as res and word as verba: aperture claims to be a noble thing (a res) while it is really hole, a blank, a word, and no thing at all (a verba). In the case of “Lord Byron’s enigma” (which was actually written by the little-known poet Catherine Fanshawe), the reduction is more jarring still: “it” is not a whole word (not even hole)—much less an important thing—but a meaningless letter; and it is not even any letter, but the “non letter” of mere breath: h. 

Exasperating, no doubt. But Ngai’s theory of the gimmick posits something that applies to the deflation of the literary enigma: the aesthetic object that works too hard while also working too little is often irritating and endearing. It produces “the feeling of the comical” when the mind realizes that what it anticipated as strenuous is actually easy to understand. The eighteenth-century poet Anna Letitia Barbauld associated this same experience with the pleasure produced by successful riddles; once discovered, their solutions ought to appear unmistakable. (Taking up a line suggested by “Theory of the Gimmick,” we might call the literary enigma the Rube Goldberg of poetry.) Crossing linguistic registers is how riddles produce this effect. The most formulaic of poetic diction is not restricted in such crossing—and very possibly invites it with particular insistence. Here we find another expression of hybridity free to operate within poetic lexicons (and certainly not limited to the “real language of poetry”) that the refreshed critical approach to diction that Tiffany proposes positions us well to attend to. 
Alexis Chema is an assistant professor of English at The University of Chicago. She is writing a book about Romantic theories of poetic ornamentation.