Scott King on Pattern in Language and Pattern in Nature

H. L. Hix: Two aspects of your book seem to me in dynamic tension: in subject matter, the “natural” is a pervasive presence (most obviously in “Physiologus,” but throughout), but in technique, alliteration, what many people would consider an “unnatural” or “artificial” language pattern, is prominent (most obviously in the selections from Wynnere and Wastoure, but again throughout). Why are they together in this book?


Scott King: Let me start with a quote from your recent book, Lines of Inquiry, to orient my response and to step in line with your thinking about poetry. In thesis #84 of ‘Is Not’ you suggest that “poems are a technology that furthers our ability to perceive and understand reality,” and that “formal devices [are] the ‘lenses’ of the poem.” Using this metaphor, alliteration is a lens, and a vintage one at that. The glass of this lens, ground many hundreds of years ago by anonymous craftsmen, imparts a texture, both aural and visual, upon our perception of reality.


There are fingerprints and smudges all over it, put there by poets such as Shakespeare, Dunbar, Blake, and Hopkins, and more recently by W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Thomas McGrath, and others. It passed into my possession almost by happenstance, nearly dropped from the pages of Endeared by Dark (The Porcupine’s Quill, 1991), the collected poems of George Johnston, when I opened that book to the alliterative poem ‘Ecstatic’:


When basswood blows       bees make in it,

mill in midsummer       myriad pillage;

probing to pull out       pollen and sweetness


Of course this fancied literary lineage doesn’t exactly explain why I’ve placed the subject of nature and the technique of alliteration together in my book. So let me start again.


First, there’s the precedent of previous poets. In fact, many of the poets I just listed have used alliteration to great effect in describing the natural world. Think of The Pearl poet who wrote in that poem of how “The glittering meadows, the woods and water / all healed me and drove out the dark of my sorrow” (Draycott translation). Think of Hopkins who wrote, in ‘The Windhover’, “I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding…” Think of Thomas McGrath’s “Green permission” given in his long poem Letter to an Imaginary Friend, “Juneberry; box elder; thick in the thorny brake / The black chokecherry, the high broken ash and the slick / White bark of poplar.” The odd man out, seemingly, is W. H. Auden, who pointed the lens of alliteration in the opposite direction in The Age of Anxiety, describing life in the city in time of war, arranging the quotidian and the mundane world of man into music. But even there we find lines such as these: “A world of detail. Wave and pebble, / Boar and butterfly, birch and carp, they / Painted as persons, portraits that seem / Neighbors with names; one knows from them what / A leaf must feel…”


Second, there’s a bodily connection between pattern in language and pattern in nature (see Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories and Why Lyrics Last). Even though language, when held up to nature, might seem artificial, a step or two removed from bird call or beetle click, the patterning of language mimics—at least to some degree—the sounds and repetitions one hears in the woods and fields. Think of the clever mnemonics devised by ornithologists to remember bird songs: the white throated sparrow’s Old-Sam-Peabody-Peabody or the hermit thrush’s O-holy-holy! O-clear-away-clear-away! O-clear-up-clear-up! (the latter from John Burroughs). Alliterative poems, with their repeated and recurring letters, with their run-on and ringing lines, might, in this one aspect, be less artificial than the patterning of language encountered in other verse forms, say sonnets or sestinas. I think the combination of sharp observation and linked letters is not so much unnatural as undervalued, though admittedly somewhat out of fashion. There’s no reason to judge this combination ineffectual or slight, but rather an attempt to capture a richness with richness.


Mostly, when it comes right down to it, I simply step over the “explanatory gap” and write the kind of poem I want to write, preferring a poem that clatters and accumulates both sound and sense, that is messy, yet meaningful, something akin to the road dust, the glittering and bouncing tools, and the work gloves that cluttered the dash of the station wagon I rode in on the farm as a child. Like the bee in Johnston’s poem, I want to probe and pull out a certain sweetness, to make “myriad pillage” of the world. Alliteration is one very good way to heap this pillaged sweetness into a poem. In addition to the generic “tree” you get the buds and branches and bark, all the names and then some. So, out of sheer enthusiasm, I’ve played up the alliterative line throughout my book, finding it to be a good fit and a pleasure. And, as Gertrude Stein so stylishly defended the craft of writing, “Why should a sequence of words be anything but a pleasure?”


Scott King.  All Graced in Green.  Thistlewords Press, 2011.


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