Last week the assignments in Daily Themes required students to consider diction, to write without what Ezra Pound called "emotional slither," to write a theme using all the connotations of a chosen word (I saw good ones on "light" and "strike" and "run"), to write a theme in which each sentence included a word the writer had never used before (one or two themes used words I had never seen before), to describe the same scene with two different registers of discourse (the assignment that met with the best results overall), and to write a theme about a slang term ("totes," "fugly," and "Altzheimer" were some of the new terms I learned about).
Prof. Deresiewicz's lecture began with this quotation from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia: "If we had never heard anyone else, we would not sound more like ourselves, we would sound like Kaspar Hauser the savage infant, on the day he was rescued from solitude. In the matter of style, freedom lies in all the ways we have been a prisoner of someone else's example. He might only have been a school bus conductor with a gift for sardonic verbal abuse. She might only have been the woman who stamped your card at the lending library. But they gave you the gift that comes next after the gift of speech: the gift to give it shape."
I don't know about learning style from such ephemeral contacts as James imagines. But I do know that I was certainly marked by my father's ability to kid, to say things for comic effect, and by my older brother's penchant for verbal epithets and nicknames, often derogatory. In fact, his ability to name things was valued highly and was something that all his younger siblings emulated to some extent. We could say he originated the practice because he was the first of us, but it seems just as likely that the skill we all showed for such things is one that for some reason is endemic to the family. Something in the genes I guess. I might go so far as to say that "the genes" for that particular gift of language come from the Irish grandmother of my mother that none of us ever saw. And who knows, maybe I owe something to her for finding -- as I said yesterday -- so much fascination in the works of JJ.
But I do like James' idea that our language is never our own, not only in the obvious sense that someone has already used every word we've used, but also in the sense that some sort of model exists for what we try to do with the words we use. I think this is so in our daily speech, in speech-making and lecturing and teaching, and certainly in anything we write. The more literary our writing becomes, the more it owes to the literary effects that have left a mark on us.
In the class, it's an interesting week to see how students work with connotations of words, and if they succeed in not sounding like themselves -- an outcome that can be good in breaking bad habits (e.g., trying always to sound like 19th century ideals of elegant prose), but also in demonstrating, as I said to some students, a range -- as though they were singers and we had to see how high or low they could go and still stay in tune.
The assignments also make me reflect on how much poetry, as the supreme use of language, is almost wholly a matter of diction (and rhythm, of course). One or two themes managed to sound like prose poetry to me, and that's high praise indeed -- for the control of diction so that its effects become, in part, the point of the piece is to move to a level of writing where how things are said takes on a life of its own in the ear and in the mind. Something that fiction achieves too seldom, for me.
I start to spin the tale / You complain of my diction
You give me friction / But I dig friction
-- Tom Verlaine, "Friction" (1977)