I have been thinking about neologisms in poetry while working on an essay on Maggie O’Sullivan’s Palace of Reptiles (published by Nate Dorward’s Gig press), and then writing some notes on the hoobla-hoobla-hoobla-how lexicon in Wallace Stevens for the MLA. How and why all this hoobla? These are the opening lines of O’Sulllivan’s “Birth Palette”:
Lizard air lichens ivy driven urchin’s pry to a pounce.
Scribbled terrestrial traor, the paw actions tainy blee
scoa, blue scog. In eat, gashed harmonica stresses to
skull icon, jigged but shower, Crushtative bundles,
Doe, Owl, the Hare mantled in a planetary pivot.
Vulture-Jar, dragonfly & waterbeetle are we,
each veil of the glide species.
The sounds elicit that tangle bank Darwin describes, as they enable us to catch audible traces of other creatures in this “terrestrial traor”, and when listening to O’Sullivan read each word hangs momently separate in its phonemic glory, the syntactical time and logic line faint or non-existent. Seeing the words on a page, a reader familiar with the Pound tradition (that stretches on to Susan Howe at least) is likely to stop at the first unfamiliar word, the “traor”, and head off to the dictionaries. What does this mean, or is it a pure sound word, or a word in another language that can be translated? The first word I find in my OED, just visible in the field of the magnifying glass, is the word “blee,” about which the dictionary is unusually disparaging: “a purely poetical word in M.E., which gradually became obs.in the course of the 16th or early in the 17th c. (not in Shakspere); but being frequent in ballads and metrical romances it has been used by one or two modern poets.” Blee is clearly a word which the OED regards as unnecessary, “purely poetical,” and one which could have been conveniently been forgotten if not for these annoying poets—that “one or two” says it all. This entry is a reminder that there is a politics and economics of the lexicon, and some words are entrpreneurial while others are virtually unemployable.
Although recent literary theory and linguistics has insisted on a functional equivalence of signifying capability distributed amongst all signifiers equally, writers and even lexicographers often tacitly recognize that words vary in their power to do cultural work. The dictionary has no listing for “tainy” but it could be an adjectival form of “tain” (tin) which is listed, although this adjectival or adverbial form would be even more unusual than this already obsolete noun. “Traor” doesn’t figure at all, and is probably all that is left after the word “extraordinary” perished, appearing where we might have expected some such phrase as “extraordinary landscape”—or history or life. “Scog” is tricky. The dictionary lists a range of words, “scoggin”, “scoggery”, “scogh” and a whole range of variant spellings, although not, as far as I can see, the simple root “scog,” and provides a series of meanings including buffoonery, a wood or copse, a valve, and branchings of these core meanings. No wonder the dictionary occasionally has a go at poets. The boundaries of individual words are hard enough to demarcate, their spellings, pragmatics and semantics all promiscuously mingling over time, usage and misusage with others, without the poets keeping alive obsolete words that were never needed in the first place, or what is worse, improvising their own. I hope no-one sends a copy of Maggie O’Sullivan to the office of the dictionary. If they see this and her other volumes they may have a panic attack.
Daniel Rosenberg has recently argued that the preoccupation with neology during the French Revolution marks the “consciousness of change so crucial to the period.”(367), and that its opponents thought that language was one of the most active zones of conflict.[i] One of the most unusual attempts to set the revolution on its proper course, to improve the expressiveness and articulacy of the language available to the new nation, was the dictionary of Louis-Sébastien Mercier, La Néologie, ou vocabulaire de mots nouveaux, à renouveler, ou pris dans des acceptions nouvelles (1801). The issue was where power over language lay, with the arbitrariness of institutions or with the people, and a prime target was the authority aggrandized by the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française. “Neologers,” he says, “are everywhere, in the market halls just as in the Roman Forum, in the stock exchange, just as in the Senate. They are everywhere where liberty makes genius fruitful, where the imagination operates without constraint upon the models of nature, where thought can enlighten authority and defy tyranny.”(376) Mercier’s great work is set out as a dictionary because he believes that this force of change lies in the word rather than grammar and syntax, and it offers a list of words that he believes the world needs: anecdotiser, ininventif, ininflammable, inabstinence, paroler, républicide, scribomanie, are a few that give the flavour of his inventions (compare O’Sullivan’s coinages such as amuletic, engouled, outlered, unheavied). To make neologisms was to celebrate creativity, freedom and a confidence in a revolutionary future—all ambitions that partially explain the anxiout tut-tutting that most linguistic and literary authorities direct towards neologisms.
H.W.Fowler, in his classic account of good usage, sums up most of our common-sense beliefs about neologisms at the start of his book The King’s English (1908) whose title underlines the nationalist sentiments that support his views of language. It is old-fashioned now yet gets right down to the issues that still trouble such usage:
Most people of literary taste will say on this point “It must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh.” […] The progress of arts and sciences gives occasion for the large majority of new words; for a new thing we must have a new name; hence, for instance, motor, argon, appendicitis. […]A 'nonce-word' (and the use might be extended to 'nonce-phrase' and 'nonce-sense'—the latter not necessarily, though it may be sometimes, equivalent to nonsense) is one that is constructed to serve a need of the moment. The writer is not seriously putting forward his word as one that is for the future to have an independent existence; he merely has a fancy to it for this once. The motive may be laziness, avoidance of the obvious, love of precision, or desire for a brevity or pregnancy that the language as at present constituted does not seem to him to admit of. The first two are bad motives, the third a good, and the last a mixed one. But in all cases it may be said that a writer should not indulge in these unless he is quite sure he is a good writer.
So if you write neologisms you are supposedly making a tacit claim to literary excellence, unless you use nonce-words. Is that what O’Sullivan is doing, playing the nonce? Or are these words tokens of “progress” in some sense? Is this poem futural in its articulation, looking back from an impossible location from which “paw actions tainy blee scoa” would be a familiarly meaningful representation of vital life? The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (1993) would strongly disagree: “Neologisms (new coined words) tend now to be associated with novelty more than freshness, and sometimes with strained effects.”
In his interview with Manuel Brito, Ron Silliman discusses an acoustic neologism of Robert Grenier’s, saying: “Here, thumpa is a ‘non-word’ that points to a surprisingly large body of other ‘non-words,’ all of which exploit the social category of the non-word as an aspect of their own agency the onomatopoetic loses its force if we don’t acknowledge its special condition and thus becomes ‘only’ a word.” O’Sullivan is a neologer, her acoustic neologisms are sound poetry that has considerable social scale as articulate expression, taking purely poetical words and emplacing them in history again. What makes these neologisms especially interesting is that they are neither deliberate names of officially progressive elements, no argon or uranium, nor are they ideological seeds of further revolution, yet they hum with some of those energies. I am still puzzling over how to think about their agency.
[i] Daniel Rosenberg, “Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s New Words,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 36:3, 2003, 367-386, 367.