Keep them long enough and they turn into poetry.
HappenStance subscribers recently received a complimentary copy of Preparing to be a Beautiful Lady. This little A6 production, written and designed by Jenny Elliott and originally printed by her own Shed Press, is a mixture of poem and ‘found’ poem, with graphics and adverts dating back to 1945, the year the Second World War ended.
Antique objects acquire value simply through age – from coal scuttle to paper knife. The same is true for words. What was ordinary, acquires curiosity and charm, especially when rescued and polished up by someone with an eye for such things.
In Jenny’s pamphlet “her nerves pay for it”, originally a phrase from an advert for cocoa, grows into something more than itself. It’s not just the rhythm and cadence of the words that render them attractive, it’s the acquired irony. Nothing wrong with the fact that cocoa “soothes frayed nerves / and aids digestion” – but in the age of obesity, we’re less reassured by the “body building protein, / energy-giving carbohydrate, and fat.” Fat?
Meanwhile “Mrs Futura’s wedding cake” is “baked by a valve”. How odd-sounding – how very odd! But “valves have solved many industrial problems”, and if you think about it, this must be true. Meanwhile, “the Doctor’s son, David” is benefiting from a concoction known as “humanized trufood”, an oxymoron if ever there was one.
We don’t see the curiosity, the oddness, the beauty in the language under our very noses. But what charm it can have nearly seven decades later! We hang onto old objects – silver spoons, rings, vases and Toby jugs – and endow them with both sentimental and financial value. The same is true of old words: they acquire power as they roll along.
I was baptized and confirmed in the Anglican Church, in the days when church was a social outing, and the church youth club was the event of the week. So that’s what we did on Sunday morning – Matins, and sometimes, if the attractions of the choir boys were sufficient, Evensong as well. We did a lot of praying and kneeling, and we did most of it using words from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, with our stories and parables drawn from the ‘Authorised Version’ of the Bible, the version of King James’s edition finalized in 1769.
I liked those words. I liked them because of their strangeness, their ancient rhythms and turns of phrase. I liked that it wasn’t ‘you’ but ‘thou’ and ‘thee’. I liked the old forms that cherished the ‘th’ sounds: “Here endeth the first lesson.” I liked the way we raced to the end of the Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the kingdom, the powerandtheglory, foreverandever, Amen.”
We had no idea that “amen” (used in Hebrew, Christian and Islamic prayer) meant ‘so be it’. And yet, of course, we did know. We knew it in context. ‘Amen’ meant what it meant. It meant ta da. It meant shut the door on the end of that prayer. It meant nearly time to get out of church. Most importantly it was part of a special language we didn’t use at home.
In my late teens, church congregations were already getting smaller, though we didn’t notice. Some clerics thought the impenetrable language was to blame. We began to get readings from The New English Bible, and I remember my mother acquired a copy about this time.
Then our old vicar died or retired, and we got a new one. The old one was called Mr Harris. He used to visit parishioners regularly, and if you were out, he used to slip a card through the door. The card read: “The Reverend and Mrs Harris called and found you out.” No-one knew whether the double meaning was deliberate.
The new vicar didn’t want to be called ‘Mr ….’. He wanted more familiar terms, and as a result, my father always referred to him as ‘Callmejohn’.
Matins turned into Morning Prayer, Evensong to Evening Prayer. Instead of using the piles of well-thumbed prayer books (though we knew the prayers by heart), ‘Callmejohn’ brought in new versions on printed leaflets in ordinary English with the thees and thous banished. I liked him. But I preferred “the quick and the dead” to “the living and the dead”. I preferred “Hear ye the comfortable words . . .” to “Listen to the words of comfort”.
In effect, I liked not knowing what it all meant. (People probably felt the same when the language of prayer shifted from Latin into English.) As the vocabulary of my church became more and more accessible, I became less and less attracted to it. Soon I could no longer join in ‘The Creed’ – at least not all of it – because I’d started to think what the words meant and, as a result, found I couldn’t believe them. Eventually, I stopped going, even though I had to sacrifice singing hymns and psalms too.
I began by talking about poetry, and in my head I haven’t strayed from that theme. If you love poetry, what you look for is something special in the language – some beauty, oddness, or curiosity. And certainly what most people recognize as ‘poetry’ is not meaningless expression, but it is a form of words from which you can infer great possibility. The church language did that for me, and its phrasing and cadences shaped me in ways I don’t suppose I can rationalize. It made me love words and their functions: the virtue of repetition, the comfort of litany, the ancient shadows of something stretching back through language to pre-language. Language bound me.
If you write poetry, you look for a way of using words that preserves and exploits their essential strangeness. Much contemporary poetry draws on the vernacular, the common speech that surrounds us. In fact, we are averse to old phrasing in poetry and regard it as a Bad Thing. The danger with common usage, of course, is that it sounds too common, too ordinary for ‘poetry’, which is why many people still hanker after outmoded terms. It was so much easier for the old poets, even the early modernists, who could still draw on church language, already high and mysterious in register.
But the strange thing about common speech is how uncommon it is. It is threaded with ancient and modern. It changes as you look at it. You hardly, when you really think about it, understand it at all. You have to translate it for yourself as you go along, and often you translate it into a feeling, not a meaning. It is full of poetry, whatever that may be.
Wolcum be ye that arn her,
Wolcum alle and mak good cher,
Wolcum all another yer,