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on connotation

By Stephen Burt

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes words can be replaced, without loss, by any synonym or dictionary defintion. In poetry, though– and in many cases outside poetry– connotation matters: the force a word has includes the force of its associations, the emotions and situations we associate with its prior uses, the cloud of light or dust a familiar term, like a comet, trails as it moves.
I was surprised by connotation three times yesterday: once by Canadian words inside a poem, once by an Internet brand war outside any poem, and once by a horrid symbol at the center of a continuing ethical and political mess. More on each below the fold.

Yesterday I was teaching Merrybegot, a superb book of poems by the Newfoundland (Canada) poet Mary Dalton, who spun the whole, moving and memorable collection of lyric poems from the oral traditions of Newfoundland– from the sayings, folkways and words particular to that remote part of Atlantic Canada, and especially to the fishing villages (“outports”) and the older ways of life they have contained. Because Newfoundland is so far away from everything, because it was so poorly integrated with the rest of Canada until recently (it was its own dominion until the 1940s), and because both its immigration patterns (Scottish and Irish) and its economy (cod!) have been so consistent until recently, Newfoundland maintained a recognizable brand of (heavily Gaelicized) English, with enough terms to produce its own dictionary, now searchable online.
For this book– still her best, I think, though I do like her newer one too– Dalton took the dictionary, and took her own memories of her Newfoundland youth, and spun original poems. Sometimes the poems use the words in ways that make their force relatively clear, as in “Old Roman Candle”:
That water-nipper hauled for us
All fall in the woods. Seventy and spry
As a kitten. He swung those buckets.
Spangles of water all over
His red bush of a beard.
And sometimes they don’t– the mystery, if you are a non-Newfoundland reader, is part of the charm the poem exerts, at least at first. Consider “Sterricky”:
Those young gamogues
Fast as a Mobile goat–
They got the horse–
And she a sterricky horse, Moll,
Set in her ways and prickly
As a high-summer teasel.
Sometimes you can look the words up directly– click on “gamogues” for the definition– and often, in this wired age, you can look them up with a bit of effort: I’m pretty sure that sterricky in Newfoundland English is the same as sterricky in Manx English (scroll down for the definition). This reader in Nunavut wonders why Dalton didn’t bring up the dictionary at the front of the book, rather than at the back; Dalton herself discusses the way she built the poems around bits of dialect.
The odd language comes to us (we who have never lived there) as part of a complete way of life, as part of an ethos, like Synge’s Aran English, which Dalton’s language in Merrybegot can resemble. I find it harsh and winning and absorbing. And yet I know that because I’ve never heard terms like sterricky or janneying (the title of another poem) in use, I may be missing important bits of the poems: is “Janneying” more negative than “Mumming,” for example? Does it connote more youth, more enthusiasm, more mischief, than its several synonyms?
This matter of connotation– of the freight a word or a symbol carries, freight that we don’t notice or can’t handle unless we’ve already encountered the word, so to speak, in its natural surrondings– isn’t just a matter of remote places and their word-hoards. It’s also generational and subcultural. Connotations form around brand names, around symbols, around almost anything– and connotations change, both through new usage and through surprising losses of historical memory.
I’ll end with two instances of evolving, and mysterious-to-me, connotation outside poems, one frivolous, one a shock.
First, the relatively frivlous. The author John Crowley, I’ve learned, has a blog: since I’m teaching Crowley in my other class this week, I gave my students Crowley’s blog’s URL– and they laughed. Why did they laugh? Because this adult, respectable, moderately famous author has his blog hosted by livejournal, a site my students associate quite strongly with teens and with fan fiction, rather than with “respectable” professional adults. That’s part of the connotation that, for a collegiate population (but not for me), livejournal (as a word and as a site) now has. I asked them whether they would have laughed if Crowley had a blogspot blog; they said no.
Another instance of misunderstood connotation– and of how connotation can change within and among generations– may have had far more serious consequences lately: it has to do with the Jena Six case, which Kwame Dawes blogged eloquently here last month. According to this journalist who lives in Jena, and whose wife teaches at Jena High School, the white students who set up the notorious nooses with which the Jena 6 story began may not have known what nooses meant: these white teens, according to local investigators, thought they were hanging lassos, not nooses, as a prank directed at the school rodeo team. Black students, this argument goes, would have known the horrible connotations of a rope, tied in that fashion, around a tree– but the white kids,who got the “lasso” prank idea from an episode of the television show Lonesome Dove, had no idea. (More on sometimes unintended lynching symbolism here, and here: right in time for Halloween.)
This case reminds me that the source of connotation in words, and of meaning in symbols, is often context and experience. And here the lack of context and experience isn’t just in Jena; it’s in me. I’ve never been near that town, nor have I (knowingly) met any students from there. When I think about the number of outrageous excuses made to cover up racist violence throughout American history, I wonder whether this Jena journalist is just making more excuses– I’d like to think that every American has to know what a noose means. But when I think about how little history– local, national, recent, distant– most Americans seem to know, about how quickly relevance becomes irrelevance, and about how kids acquire, or fail to acquire, information (would the history of lynching be dinner-table conversation for white families? would they have studied it in middle school? would they have paid attention?), I wonder. It wouldn’t be the first time young people shocked adults by how much they didn’t know.

Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, October 31st, 2007 by Stephen Burt.