Sunday, July 28, 2013

Let Us Name

It has been a longtime favorite thought of mine that poetic language is, by definition, naming things properly. I have alluded to this idea previously in conjunction with my own sense of calling on the Fling, and many other thinkers have dwelt on it and enriched my own understanding as well over the years. Adam's work as the first poet is implied, for example, in Bob Dylan's "Man Gave Names to All the Animals." The song ultimately demonstrates that our choice of words can have drastic implications. It begins with the typical Dylan, off-the-cuff whimsy:

He saw an animal up on a hill
Chewing up so much grass 'til she was filled
He saw milk comin' out but he didn't know how
"Aw, think I'll call it a cow"

However, the last stanza ends abruptly - and, more importantly, nameless.

He saw an animal as smooth as glass
Slithering his way through the grass
Saw him disappear by a tree near a lake...

We, after the fall, are left to finish the sadly obvious, the unsaid, the deadly. There has got to be some crucial relation between the thing itself and the thing we call it. If one is able to correctly use words (either spoken or written) to evoke and reflect an experience and it can be very good, then might improperly wielding words have the opposite effect? Or what are the consequences of simply failing to name correctly, as in Dylan's depiction of Adam, who retires in shamefaced silence? If only he had shouted "SNAKE!" to Eve in time...

At the end of last semester, I toiled through Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "The Poet" in the faculty room with a few other teachers. I say it was hard work because he obviously had some Very Large Pronouncements to make, being Emerson, but the most tantalizing tidbits were deeply rooted in large sections of dense prose. Such as, "the poet is the Namer, or Language-maker, naming things sometimes after their appearance, sometimes after their essence, and giving to every one its own name and not another's, thereby rejoicing the intellect, which rejoices in detachment or boundary." Whew. I get it, but wow. (There were plenty I didn't.) Or, "language is the archives of history...language is fossil poetry." This is what sometimes happens when poets try to write literary theory - opacity and metaphors galore. But the fact that it is "rejoicing to the intellect" to delineate here but not there is a gorgeous and true thought. And the fact that we humans do this with our words is even more stunning. It reminds me of that stirring passage in Job where God is re-telling how he created the waters, when he informs them in no uncertain terms :"This far you may come and no further, here is where your proud waves halt." Who is this, that even the winds and the waves obey Him? And yet, if we are to have dominion as His children and heirs, do we not engage in a similar activity? We point at things, perhaps tremblingly, and say: "After this preposition, and before this noun - this is where your proud waves halt."

All of this has been fresh in my mind this past week as I ground my way through the arduous task of naming and re-naming my book. As it happens, "working" titles can be dangerous. You just might find yourself a week before the publication date thinking to yourself: Hm. That's not it at all I read today that Gone With the Wind was originally entitled Mules in Horses' Harnesses. This gave me hope, but not until after the four or five days I spent sweating over the same set of a dozen words or so, arranging and re-arranging to find just the right fit. Thanks to a happy confluence of brainstorming friends and a one a.m. ah-ha moment which got me out of bed and back to the yellow legal pad, I think we've got it. Fledgling Song. I remember telling one of these very helpful friends that I was surprised at how much work it was to find a good name. If it was just the right thing, shouldn't it fall just into place? But no, apparently book titles can be a somewhat messy procedure.

As with naming anything, I suppose. Have you heard the nearly epic tales of parents who are trying to select a name for their child? I haven't been in this enviable position yet in my life, but if the book was any indication, it's going to be a long haul. It comes down to the fact that names do matter.  Proper names are only a subset of the larger human project of rightly naming all things, but it is the one that most people participate in over the course of their lives. You may never write a poem (though I hope you do), but you will probably name a child if you haven't already. The enormity of our responsibility as Namers is brought home to us in a myriad ways, but "baby names" are one of the most common, frustrating, and endearing ones.

But how about the discovery of an unknown sea creature? Or a new planetary moon? Or new facets of our own genetic code that we once thought to be non-essential and now calls for a nobler term than "junk DNA"? Or the feeling that you got that one time that made you gulp down your tears, because you had nothing to call it?

The frontiers lay in vast swaths in front of us. Let us, therefore, name.

1 comment:

Joyfulartist said...

Naming a piece of art you've just framed for an art show; it's agony.
No wonder composers and artists succumb to "Opus 1" and "Untitled". There are some names in artwork that are so overused that you want to scream for originality. Thanks for a very thoughtful piece about this process.