Sunday, August 3, 2008

What's in a Name

Thinking about things tonight instead of writing an essay on Jane gentry's book Portrait of the Artist as a White Pig. I don't find this collection particularly impressive, though there are a few poems I think are stellar (like "The Concept of Morning"). It's just uneven - many leave me flat, uninterested, and walking away thinking, "So what?"

Which is, in my opinion, the worst sort of reaction.

Anyway, I'm also reading Maxine Kumin's How to Make a Prairie, which is an interesting collection of interviews and essays and such. In one of her answers in an interview with Virginia Elson and Beverlee Hughes, Kumin says, "Naming things is a way of owning them, I guess" (page 5). And she's right. In a world where we are all too stressfully aware that our "things" can be destroyed, repossessed, or lost, the writer - and I would argue, particularly the poet - has a special power as a Namer of Things. There is a comfort that comes from the ownership of language to the degree that you can take a thing - any thing - and slap a moniker or description onto it that works just as well, if not better, than the original.

I've been trying to think of examples of this, and the first thing that comes to mind, for me, is fog. Fog appears in innumerable poems, I'm sure, but I remember two poems describing it so vividly that I cannot think or hear the word fog without them coming out to peek from my memory. The poems are Carl Sandburg's "Fog" from his Chicago Poems:

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
on harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Admittedly, I only actually immediately recall the first two lines and had to look up the rest. But still, it is a poem that stuck with me. The other fog mention in a poem is, of course, T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock" and can be found in his The Waste Land and Other Poems:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the windowpanes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle upon the windowpanes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep. (pages 3-4)

There is a power in naming a thing so well that upon calling a thing by its name, someone remembers your description of it. There is an immortality in that. And there is a power that comes from the hubris of deciding to re-Name a thing yourself. It is a matter of imposing your will onto the world. Besides, the question "What's in a name?" does have an answer. Everything - and nothing. "Colleen" works if you know me, because it offers a bit more of the whole of me. "Librarian" leaves a good deal out, but so does "poet," and "daughter" and "lover." There is infinite room to re-Name things, including people.

It's a godlike power, because naming a thing is, in essence, re-creating it. God, after all, made the world by speaking, didn't He? It is a comfort when you cannot afford to buy a country or an island, when you cannot command an army, and generally when you can't make the world bend to your will. And I am always thrilled to find a writer who accepts this mantle of power and uses it well. I aspire to be one of those writers, and I wish you all well in becoming one of the Army of Namers.


Helen Rickerby said...

That's so funny - here I am on virtually the other side of the world in New Zealand, and I'm reading the same book: How to Make a Prairie. I skipped to her essays on poetry, and particularly enjoyed her essay about poem endings - it sent to Eliot too, but to the fabulous 'The Hollow Men', which she mentioned. I'd been meaning to read for a while - partly because I enjoy Eliot, and partly because it is referenced in the movie Southland Tales (which I loved, even if everyone else hates it).

Colleen said...

Helen - *grin* I'm just getting to her essays now. I also haven't seen Southland Tales, but it's now on my 'to-watch' list!