Sunday, February 27, 2011


My favorite suffix in the English language is -ness.  Since our language was in its Germanic infancy, some kind of -ness has been used to turn things (usually adjectives) into nouns. The -ness suffix is one of many little game-changers and word-makers that help give English its flexibility, potential creativity, and seemingly never-ending productivity.

Here is -ness in the OED:
Forming abstract nouns from adjectives, participles, adjectival phrases, and (more rarely) nouns, pronouns, verbs, and adverbs.The following are examples of some distinctive nonce-uses of the suffix since the 19th cent.
1804    S. T. Coleridge Let. in Lit. Remains (1836) II. 414   The exclusive Sir-Thomas-Brown-ness of all the fancies.
1853    ‘G. Eliot’ in J. W. Cross George Eliot's Life (1885) I. 319   Dislike-to-getting-up-in-the-morningness.
1859    G. A. Sala Gaslight & Daylight iv. 43   An irreproachable state of clean-shirtedness, navy blue-broadclothedness and chimney-pot-hattedness.
1901    Academy 8 June 495/2   Southport, with its sponge-cakeyness and school-girlism is surely worth study.
1949    P. Grainger Let. 23 Nov. in All-round Man (1994) 240   You are a love-child moving towards art. I am an artist moving towards love-child-ness.
2000    Guardian 24 Mar. (Review section) 21/1   The numbskulled singalong-ness of Oasis.
As the OED mentions, these examples are all post-1800.  I think the 19th century must be when -ness really came into its own. In fact, English language productivity was at its all-around highest in that century.  (If you log on OED look at the "Timelines" link.  Fascinating!)

Now for the examples.  "Sir-Thomas-Brown-ness"!  Hilariousness.  (Thomas Browne wrote rambling and ornate inquiries into how snails' eyestalks work, among other tidbits of 17th century prose. That particular appellation is not all that descriptive, but doesn't "17th century prose" just sound tortuous?)  And as for George Eliot's "Dislike-to-getting-up-in-the-morning-ness," I have once before mentioned that as one of my favorite examples of anything in the whole GD OED.  The others are fine examples too, with the exception of the music review from 2000.  "Singalong-ness"?  It's clumsy.  "Sing-songy-ness" would have been better.  Which brings me to a different point.

The suffix -ness has been abused and overused as of late.  I think it started innocently enough, being appropriated by youths to coin or re-introduce nouned adjectives such as "awesomeness," but now it's all the time popping up in commercials and TV shows, used clumsily and for humorous effect (e.g. "Family Guy-ness" on TBS).  Granted, it is a funny suffix, and there seems to be something inherently funny about changing parts of speech, especially now that constructions such as "noun of noun, noun of noun..." are rare to obsolete.  But changing the part of speech is not a joke in itself.  The -ness has to add something new to the meaning for it to really work.  And it has to sound good!  Coleridge fluently nouns the essence of a 17th century writer.  Eliot heroically nouns an undesirable personal characteristic that we still joke about today.  Their uses are unique and productive.

Another acceptable thing to do with -ness, is to distill something into a noun (rather than string-together-nouning ad infinitum).  Adding -ness to a quality possessed by a person makes it carry more weight.  Unfortunately the advert writers use this method too, to make jokes by hyperbole.  It doesn't work very well, and again they wrongly think "the clumsier the funnier."  I think the Grainger example above fits this distillation type of -ness use, though this example, like almost all the OED examples, appears to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek.  Commercials and sitcoms aren't capable of such subtlety, and by that shortcoming, as well as others, they don't let -ness do its best work.  And like so many other words, it begins to fall out of my favor because its ubiquitousness. 

I won't give up on -ness, not on a suffix with such a long and colorful history!  I am optimistic that it can be reclaimed and be allowed to do its work.  Unlike so many Old English suffixes that have left us, and so many new suffixes and prefixes from the French and Latin that infected Middle and Modern English, perhaps -ness will live with English until English breathes its last gasp.

Note: I didn't link to the OED because it "lives behind a paywall" as they say.  You have to log in through your university's library database list. The wealth of Englishness that awaits you is well worth the two minutes it takes to figure that shitz out.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Gatsby Gaining Ground

A stout, middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles, was sitting somewhat drunk on the edge of a great table, staring with unsteady concentration at the shelves of books. As we entered he wheeled excitedly around and examined Jordan from head to foot.
“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.
“About what?” He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.
“About that. As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.”
“The books?”
He nodded.
“Absolutely real — have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and — Here! Lemme show you.”
Taking our scepticism for granted, he rushed to the bookcases and returned with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”
“See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too — didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”
He snatched the book from me and replaced it hastily on its shelf, muttering that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse.

--from The Great Gatsby, Chapter 3

Friends and colleagues have grumbled at me over the years, for being openly indifferent about The Great Gatsby.  Thanks to a class discussion about books as physical objects, I discovered a single page in the text (the book) that might be the beginnings of salvaging the whole thing for me. 

Why have I resisted Gatsby for so long?  First, it's all the symbolism!  Crammit down your throat symbolism.  I could forgive that, though, if it weren't for the people of average intelligence for whom the book is a testament to what they think is their own interpretive genius.  The fact that there are so many easy ways into the novel (er, symbols), means it has a following of people who habitually read things that are easy to read, and perhaps are only capable of really getting into reading things that are easy to read.  I've come to realize that this is not a flaw in itself.  No fault of Fitzgerald's that he writes simply and in modern English. So to better put my finger on my distaste, it's one of those not liking the fans situations.  

This in no way means that there are not thousands of well-read, highly intelligent people who love the book.  I think most of them do, actually.  Unfortunately no fellow student of literature has ever presented me with a critical defense of the thing.  Besides the aforementioned causes of my aversion, I am, again, mostly indifferent, and therefore open to argument.  I just don't see what's to get excited about. I welcome any illumination on this topic. As long as you're not going to tell me it's all about the symbolism.

You know, this might just come down to "to each her own," so I hope I can be forgiven.  I study 19th century British novels, I have a newly flourishing fondness for Milton, and I like my 20th century mean and dirty.  Gatsby isn't any of those.  Maybe I'm flawed because I need to read things that contain a certain percentage of either obsolete or offensive vocabulary.

Now that you're cursing me, vile Gatsby-doubting miscreant that I am, I'll tell you why I like this page.  And you can be sure it has nothing to do with the "owl-eyed man" and his likeness to the big dumb eyes on the billboard (although I do like his dialog, and I like that he shows up at the funeral).  I like it because it only made sense to me once I knew what the uncut pages mean.  You see books are put together out of lots of folded up pieces of paper, not one page at a time.  Duh, right?  But we children of industry never really think about how the top fold gets opened up.  So after all this talk of books as things in my bibliography class, we held and molested an old uncut Italian book that the professor had brought in.  Obviously he's never read it, but he keeps it for just such an occasion -- letting graduate students manhandle a book in its pre-20th century pre-machine-cut form, and ruminate on all the implications of page cutting.  What involvement the readers of yesteryear would have had with their books!  A personal, tactile involvement.  Violent even, in a way.  

The fact that Gatsby did not cut the books was actually a testament to his character -- as disingenuous as he may be, as easily as he could have afforded to pay his help to cut all the pages open, as careful pains he took to stock his massive library with real books, "pages and everything," he's not going to pretend he's read them.  That would be going too far.  I love that the man calls it "realism."

This page is also evidence, to me, that books are worth going back to every few years, especially ones you had trouble with.  I've read it three times (in sophomore year of college, last)  and I'm considering another go at it, just to be sure I'm still indifferent.  If I missed this scene, maybe I missed something else -- and it'll be fresh in my mind when the Gatsby defenders attack. It's only nine chapters.  And yeah, it's an easy read.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Our Bailiwick

At work I have an idea, pull off a post-it, and scrawl it down: "To write: Bloom confirms my suspicions of Miltonic Bardliness among the Romantics and Moderns." Another fragment of a thought: "Angle-lond in the Springtime, the Pastoral, and Oxford lament." I look at these things on the post-it, briefly, then go back to my descriptions of sunglasses, snow goggles, and biker t-shirts. As I write about fielding road debris and shredding the gnar, I imagine someone finding my post-it note and reading it. It wouldn't make any sense. It would appear to be the ravings of a weirdo, or something with so little context for the reader they would wonder at its origins. But maybe most people aren't that curious. Or observant. Nor do they read things they find lying around.

So instead I imagine finding the post-it note myself, at someone else's desk. (I am curious, and I do read things I find lying around.) I almost get that tingly feeling in my head. It would be really, really strange to find a post-it note like that.

So I tried to imagine a situation where a post-it note, like mine, would be normal. At the university library? Still seems weird. Dropped on the floor in the English building? Maybe. The only place my post-it seems at home is on the book-piled desk of a student of English. And maybe only a graduate student of English.

I suppose this is what happens to anyone as they specialize in their field of study or their line of work. Thoughts are given over to more and more specific topics, ergo notes they may write end up more and more out of context with anyone else's reality. Technical specifications on a plastic extruding machine, a dated list of names of some erstwhile Earl's ten children, even a scrawled staff with speculative musical notes adorning its wayward lines… these are all things we might find at someone's desk.

But the word speculative catches my eye. There is something so speculative about "Englishing," and not only speculative but inward looking, reflective, and considerate of its subject and its object (assign those bugbears whichever roles you choose). If we showed our notes to anyone, even our fellow graduate students, it might be embarrassing. Embarrassing how unsure the notes are, embarrassing how much they reveal about their author's internal life… Yes, sharing research in English has the potential to be very embarrassing.

This is our bailiwick, our chosen path (or for some, like Milton, a calling). Even when we make connections along the way, or have a traveling companion for a time (be it a mentor, a research partner, or an adviser), the road is lonely. I don't think all graduate students experience it that way, even if they are very independent. They may bolster themselves with a front of professionalism, which is attractive and effective in some, and frightening and pernicious in others. One student in my program interacts with others in an extremely professional manner, even on discussion boards that are meant for "Considerations." (Other than her thesis style considerations and careful diction, she is friendly and open, not competitive or anything. I see other first-year students emulating her posts.) But I just pour stuff out on the message boards, and stay conversational as always. (As if I'm capable of any other kind of voice!) Perhaps the fastest travelers keep steady to the road because they are surrounded by a company of their own fractured personalities. That sounds mean, but I don't intend it that way. Some of us only work one way, and it makes the road a little more winding, and it makes the passers-by and pilgrimage companions a little fewer and farther between.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

NIU Attitude

That's supposed to look like NEW attitude.  Did it work?

I am three or four weeks (who's counting?) into my first semester at Northern Illinois University, but my second semester as a graduate student.  That last semester was spent writhing in discomfort at DePaul University.  Now the consummate relief of being here, out past the corn fields, a Midwestern wind farm (and some farm farms) on the horizon, is bathing me in some much needed serotonin.

I met with the graduate director today, to introduce myself, to make a plan for this next year and a half, and to make sure it's okay that I'm taking Milton even though I'm a professed Victorian.  Breadth is rewarded in early graduate study here. ( I can even take three philosophy classes toward my master's degree!)  We're not all supposed to know what we're doing.  We're just expected to have a general inkling about it -- and to be curious.  The graduate director is approachable, friendly, open, and taught one of my former professors.  She says it's a family here, that the incoming teaching cohorts bond together and share war stories.  You should see the graduate assistant offices.  Workspaces packed in like Tetris blocks, eager student/teachers facing one another over back-to-back hulks of 1960s steel that used to pass for desks.  I think it's a beautiful thing, housed in a mid-century hall full of creaky wooden doors, outmoded split-level floor plans, and gorgeous vintage wall-to-wall linoleums.  It looks like nothing from the outside. Blase university architecture.  But inside it's a protective cave!

So today I told the DGS about my DePaul experience. I had planned to gloss over it, but she asked to hear about it.  I had rehearsed a thousand times in my head how to explain this awful, awful fiasco.  Would she, upon hearing about my fearful exodus from another school, kick me out? Refuse me a teaching job?  As I ran down what was uncomfortable about the DePaul program, the professional students, the distant professors, the inexplicable competitiveness (there's not really anything to compete for), she seemed to understand.  There was no disapproving "hmmph" or anything like that.  Just a reassurance that that's not the way things work around here.  At NIU, we're all in this English thing together.

I'm writing this three or four weeks into the semester because exactly three weeks into the semester at DePaul I knew I could not stay there.  Now, after the same number of meetings with the faculty and students of NIU, I know I'm in the right place.  Fancy it is not.  No one is throwing dinner parties in DeKalb.  Prestigious, maybe not. I'm lucky to be in a discipline where your writing and intellect are much more important than where you earned your degree(s).  Comfortable, practical, friendly, and even exciting are apt words for this program.

At NIU, conversations are had before class and at break, rather than fake smiles being exchanged as well dressed women pile out of the classroom to pretend to buy something in the vending machine.  Professors say "Great discussion!" at the end of class, rather than "Let's see how many of you are left at mid-term."  The PhD students are helpful and encouraging when they spot a new student.  Faculty offices have chairs arranged for students to sit and talk with them, and bowls of candy sitting out, rather than having to move all their research work off a buried chair just to find you a seat before rushing you out of the office with your head in your hands after five minutes of berating your work. There are schools like that.  And then there are schools like this.  I'm so glad to be here!

I'm in the library (a former favorite blogging/procrastinating hangout for me in undergrad) for the first time.  There is an escalator in the middle of it.  Things are of huge proportions on a state school campus.  It doesn't bother me, because I'm on my way up to the rare books room to learn about the history of the book.

P.S. My research class is what brought me to the rare books room, where I learned that not only does the library specialize in collecting George Eliot, but also science fiction, from the pulpy to the "serious."  The head of special collections seems devoted to making that genre something of scholarly interest.  Consequently, NIU owns one of the largest H.P. Lovecraft collections outside of his hometown of Providence.  I can have my Victorians and my colorful space-traveling blobs too! 

Thursday, February 3, 2011



"For truly, the bard is sacred to the gods and is their priest."

In Milton's "Elegy VI," which isn't really an elegy but a letter in Latin verse to his "BFF" Charles Diodati, Milton makes an important distinction between a "poet" and a "bard."  For those of us who don't get into every kind of poetry, this distinction might be helpful.  Most of us in class hadn't thought about it this way before.

The back-story of "Elegy VI":  Charles had been feeling down after partying all winter break, and had asked a 21-year-old John to send him a letter to cheer him up.  Charles felt his poetry (the two had been exchanging verses) was suffering from all the wine and women.  John, having no truck with wine or women at the time, could not offer any real advice for his friend except to assure Chuck that his poetry must be even more beautiful because of his Yuletide reveling, and that the combination of lively spirits within young Charles had a "potency" that "brought forth sweet songs."  After painting a lovely picture of Charles getting smashed and writing poems with Comedy, Bacchus and the bunch, Milton puts on his serious voice and begins a sermon of sorts.  That is, after describing (and almost vicariously living) Diodati's poet's life, Milton has to contrast that by writing about himself -- the austere, chaste, spare-eating bard.

What, according to Milton, makes for bardliness?  The bard cleanses himself of earthly contaminants, shuts himself off from earthly distractions, and makes ready to receive a message that must be told.  His preparation is like that of the priest in training. His words give form to what was already being said, draw on themes from all of spiritual history, and have a way of stopping time.  Not the way the poet stops time -- the poet might stop time to show us the particular, to let us contemplate it.  The bard pulls a nunc stanza. That is, all time converges to a single point, enabling Milton to deliver his gift of verse back through time to the infant Christ on the wings of the Holy Spirit, and enabling the reader to take in the beginning and the end and all time, all at once. (The poem delivered to Christ is Milton's On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, which he was in the middle of writing when he sent Diodati this elegy on poets and bards.)  It's funny that Milton loves to write "occasional" poems, that is, on the consideration of some occasion or other, i.e. the death of a friend.  This seems very topical and particular.  But, in Milton's words the occasion becomes an everlasting, ever-recurring event.  So to put it simply and perhaps incompletely, a bard is a poet of epic proportions -- one who writes our epics.

But aren't epics a little out of style?  Surely we have Romantic and twentieth century poets (I skip the Victorians because while their verses are beautiful I haven't read any that seem bardly) that live up to Milton's definition of bardliness.  Perhaps we need to update that definition, or update how we think about the poet and the bard in contrast to one another.  While Milton may have been a bard poet and only a bard poet, Il Penseroso with seldom a hint of L'Allegro coming through, later and modern poets probably led decidedly more complex psychological lives.  Not that Milton's brain wouldn't have made an interesting case study, but back in the day (the seventeenth century that is) men kept their alternate personalities and secret desires a little better under wraps than a Wordsworth, a Whitman, or a Yeats would have had to.  To write textbook epic poetry today, would be to deny one's self of expressing those earthy, visceral sentiments and tensions we know writhe under the surface of every poet, no matter how baroquely his words flow.  So in an era when strict self-monitoring for the purpose of remaining pure enough to receive the lyrics of one's poems from on high might have been something to strive for, we don't do that today.  If we did, we would be diagnosed.

Perhaps it is not just the modern poet's complex psychology (with which he is comfortable) but the modern poet's secular philosophies that make him seem less "epic," like less of a bard.  I can see how many poets since Milton would fit nicely into his "just a poet" category, and make it hard to argue that they are indeed bardly at all.  William Carlos Williams -- okay, so much depends upon a wheelbarrow.  Lovely, but epic?  Not really.  Robert Frost, who's frosty verses I find wonderfully soothing, may paint an idyllic winter scene, but bardly he is not.  Emily Dickinson?  Hmm.  It's not a hard and fast distinction for many poets, but it does provide a fun way to try to classify them when you are learning a new poet or trying to get a handle on the kinds of themes a poet uses.  In no way is denying the title of "bard" a slight to a poet -- in "Elegy VI" Milton was pretty much telling Diodati that Diodati is not a bard.  But he loved and praised Diodati like no other. In fact, Milton sometimes seemed to pine for the kind of experience to be had by writers of "sweet" poetry (he uses "sweet" a lot, to describe the words and temperaments of the non-bards). In L'Allegro he does not run short of lively characters and sweet poets to call on.  While Il Penseroso is also filled with names, the only "bard" he mentions outright is Plato.  Hardly a maker of sweet songs!  Perhaps Milton felt he traveled a lonely, bardly road.

A simple test for bardliness would be to look for the traits of the epic poem, toned down or humanized as they may be in post-seventeenth century poetry.  Some epic traits are allusions to myth, saints, proverbs, invocations of deities to help tell the tale, catalogs of characters (since the tale can span all time), and a narrative distance that is at once far above the event and right in the moment.  But we can't reduce our search for epics and bards to mythological allusions and angelic hosts.  The bard's "secret depths of his soul, and very lips alike breathe forth Jove." And again, we aren't as likely to find angelic hosts hanging around in poems these days.

I would say Wordsworth is an example of a later bard (Ode is the best known example), and some of his Romantic contemporaries might be candidates for bardliness as well.  As for 20th century poets, maybe even Yeats is a bard.  Yeats is much more in the moment than Milton, of course, but his occasional poems give a similar "all-encompassing time" feeling to Milton's occasionals, even though Yeats's are on much more localized and personal events ("Easter 1916," "Among School Children").  (That's not to say that Milton didn't write on personal events, i.e. the death of his newborn niece, but he would take care to universalize them.)

Forgive me for not listing any obscure poets or more minor poems here.  When one is looking for bardliness (as scholars have certainly continued to do since Milton's time), it's bound to be already bound in a thick tome of major works.  You'll also notice I didn't mention The Bard.  I don't know if Shakespeare would have fit Milton's definition, or even an updated version.    Milton wrote of him in L'Allegro, calling him "sweetest Shakespear fancies childe/Warbl[ing] his native woodnootes wilde," (l. 133-4) which suggests Shakespeare does not fit the bardly mold like the speaker of Il Penseroso, the writer of the Elegy, Milton, would. Shakespeare is something completely different -- a cerebral, humanity-enthused kind of genius.

Who is your bard?