Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity in a letter to another Horace—Mann—dated January 28, 1754. The occasion was pretty unremarkable—it was a happy accident, after all—and almost archetypally British: Walpole had used a talisman to discover a link between two families by investigating their coats of arms in an old book. At least Walpole was aware of the dullness of his eureka moment: “I have nothing better to tell you,” he writes, before launching into the fascinating etymology of his new word. It would take nearly two centuries for the adjective form, serendipitous, to come on the scene—its first recorded usage was in 1943. —D. P. Read More
- Proust’s madeleine is one of modernism’s essential images—a cookie whose unique taste, whose absolute singularity, could conjure for the author a whole lost world. So it’s downright disturbing, then, to learn that the cookie was damn near something else: “A first draft of Proust’s monumental novel dating from 1907 had the author reminiscing not about madeleines as the sensory trigger for a childhood memory about his aunt, but instead about toasted bread mixed with honey … A second draft, the manuscripts showed, had the evocative mouthful as a biscotto, a hard biscuit.” Nostalgia is hereby ruined for everyone. Condolences.
- Rivka Galchen has been spending a lot of time singing lullabies, which has given her ample room to consider their origins, their mysteries, and the plangent sadness they sound: “What, really, is a lullaby? We can define it functionally—a song used to lull a child to sleep … Another function is to let the singer speak. Maybe this is one reason the lyrics of lullabies are often so unsettled and dark. One way a mother might bond with a newborn is by sharing her joy; another way is by sharing her grief or frustration … When even relatively happy, well-supported people become the primary caretaker of a very small person, they tend to find themselves eddied out from the world of adults. They are never alone—there is always that tiny person—and yet they are often lonely. Old songs let us feel the fellowship of these other people, across space and time, also holding babies in dark rooms.”
- Looking for a way forward, young writer? Embrace Ottessa Moshfegh’s scatological philosophy, and find truth in the ouroboros of your gastrointestinal tract: “My aim was to shit out new shit. And so in writing, I think a lot about how to shit. What kind of stink do I want to make in the world? My new shit becomes the shit I eat. I learn by digesting my own delusions. It’s often very disgusting. The process requires as much self-awareness and honesty as I’m capable of having. It requires the courage to be hostile and contradictory. My creativity seems to gain traction out of this relationship with reality: I hate you, I hate myself, I love myself, you love me, I love you, I hate you, ad infinitum. I am interested in my own hypocrisy. It provides the turbulence for me to change.”
- John Clare, cast off in the nineteenth century as a minor poet, is today one of our most essential, especially in his treatment of nature: “He saw tragic ironies all over the place, but he never sought verbal ironies himself: he is about as sincere (if not naive) as poets get. Clare seems to have benefited from few of the changes wreaked on the planet since the invention of the steam engine and cannot be blamed for whatever brought them about: he may be the last significant white Anglophone poet for whom that was true.” Accordingly, poets like Lisa Fishman, Matthew Dickman, David Morley, David Baker, and Donald Revell have opened up a kind of dialogue with him in work that directly addresses his own: “Clare’s apparently unorganized—but minutely observed—poetry looks like a model for poets who want to stay true to a material world while rejecting the hypotactic, well-made structures that earlier generations preferred.”
- You’ve probably spent hours in your toolshed puzzling over the etymology of monkey wrench—who hasn’t? Relief is at hand: you may now learn more than you ever thought you wanted to know about the history and origin of monkey wrenches, and their mystery runs deep. Charles Moncky, the alleged inventor of said wrench, is often believed to have inspired its name, but “he would have been only twelve years old in 1840 when the earliest known accounts of monkey wrenches appeared in print.” The answer may lie in a popular toy, the monkey stick—you decide.
Learning a word from John Ashbery.
It started, as things sometimes do, with an Ashbery poem: “Staffage,” from his book A Wave.
The poem is more than thirty years old now, and it’s remarkable how well it captures the generation then just being born: “I am one of a new breed / Of inquisitive pest” (the poem makes clear-ish that this is a pest from the perspective of the older speaker, not in the eyes of the poet himself) “in love with the idea / Of our integrity, programming us over dark seas / Into small offices, where we sit and compete / With you, on your own time.”
It’s a kind of prophecy Ashbery can still pull off, for instance with the artisanal children of today in a poem from 2015’s Breezeway called “Seven-Year-Old Auroch Likes This”: “Will research tell us tomorrow / of normal morals? Take a Brooklyn family / in fracture mode, vivid, / energizing, throbs to the earlobes … Exeunt the Kardashians.” I predict this poem will make perfect sense in thirty years. Read More
There is a coffee shop in my neighborhood called the Sensuous Bean. This is obviously a great name, and perhaps one key to the store’s longevity; it’s one of the few small businesses in the area to have lasted over thirty years. I think it’s tops. No precious nonsense here, but the smell of roasting beans and the clutter of brewing paraphernalia is like a comforting hug.
I’ve always hoped that their name was one of the few accurate Miltonian uses of the word sensuous in modern signage. After all, Milton came up with sensuous specifically to evoke a sensory experience innocent of leers and winks. And it didn’t really take. As Oxford Dictionaries would have it:
The words sensual and sensuous are frequently used interchangeably to mean “gratifying the senses,” especially in a sexual sense. Strictly speaking, this goes against a traditional distinction, by which sensuous is a more neutral term, meaning “relating to the senses rather than the intellect” (swimming is a beautiful, sensuous experience), while sensual relates to gratification of the senses, especially sexually (a sensual massage). In fact, the word sensuous is thought to have been invented by John Milton (1641) in a deliberate attempt to avoid the sexual overtones of sensual. In practice, the connotations are such that it is difficult to use sensuous in Milton’s sense. While traditionalists struggle to maintain a distinction, the evidence suggests that the neutral use of sensuous is rare in modern English. If a neutral use is intended, it is advisable to use alternative wording.
What is poetry? Etymology provides more questions than answers.
T. S. Eliot, who once famously called National Poetry Month the cruelest, was also one of many to point out the hopeless semantic tangles that ensue because “poetry” has two opposites. Poetry can be the lined stuff, often with rhymes, as opposed to sentences and paragraphs; poetry can also be the good stuff, as opposed to the plodding or simply informational. But if good prose can be poetic, a novel can be “pure poetry,” and poems can be prosaic, then it’s not clear what anyone is talking about, really. Or rather, it’s clear except to theorists trying to come up with definitions. Poetry is what’s thrilling, while a poem is that poor thing with eleven readers, eight of them members of the poet’s extended family.
Etymology doesn’t help—it only highlights that the apples and oranges here are how the thing is made and how it moves. Poetry is from the Greek poiein, “to make”: a poem is something made, or in English we would more naturally say crafted. Yet everyone agrees good prose is well crafted, too. Prose means, literally, “straightforward,” from the Latin prosa, proversus, “turned to face forward” (whereas verse is all wound up, twisty and snaky, “turned” in every direction except, apparently, forward). Yet we all know that poems can be clear and direct, too, especially when they’re songs. Read More
But shouldn’t that be the other way around?
Like Thomas Wyatt, who can’t quite let go, I can’t quite let go of that Wyatt poem about what she hath deserved. He says in it that love was not just a dream: “It was no dream, I lay broad waking.” The last two words are an obvious yet pleasantly unfamiliar double-synonym for wide awake.
But what’s so wide about it?
To see the link between alertness and vast side-to-side extent—and why we’re also said to be speedy asleep—the place to start is with awake. The “a-” is a weakened form of the preposition on or in, by the same verbal laziness that turned one into the article an, and then before consonants into a, pronounced “uh.” To go on board or on shore, to be in bed or on a slant, is to be aboard, ashore, abed, aslant, not to mention astern, abreast, ahead (originally nautical as well), afoot, aloof (on the luff side, to windward, steering clear), far afield, run aground. We don’t think of them as contractions of preposition + noun anymore, but many of our location and direction words have this form: afar, amid, atop, athwart, askew, awry, gone astray, and less obviously across, away, apart, around, aside, taken aback.