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In memoriam: William Safire, a gem of a wordsmith

By Abigail Deutsch

ws

Was William Safire a poet?

No.

He was a Nixon speechwriter, a conservative pundit, a four-time novelist, and a funny, fastidious observer of English usage.

But can we detect his influence, however great or small, on such dextrous manipulators of contemporary verse as Matthea Harvey, Heather McHugh, and Paul Muldoon (among others, perhaps including you, dear commenter)?

Yes.

And could anyone encounter a poem about a bartender, say, without recalling Safire’s column on bartenders, barmen, barmaids, barkeeps, innkeepers, and so forth?

I certainly can’t.

Some background:

Like you, I attended the scariest high school in the world. Like Safire, I attended one of New York City’s “specialized high schools” for science and mathematics. In my befuddling ninth-grade math class, I didn’t appear special so much as dyspeptic – but during those lessons, to paraphrase W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” William Safire was my Tums, my Maalox, my Zantac, and my Prevacid.

My math teacher’s hair would flop like a fish as he dodged around the classroom, explicating proofs in a gruff Brooklyn accent. Weathering his whirlwind of charts and graphs, probabilities and equations, I comprehended little, save that he loved Safire’s “On Language” column. Every now and again, he would pause to mention it, and one day he asked whether any of us read it, too. I said I did.

That moment struck like lightning in a storm, bringing with it illumination and connection. Suddenly my math teacher – let’s call him Mr. Carp – seemed just like me. He, too, marveled at the distinction between “enormity” and “enormousness,” and preached the equivalency of “comprise” and “include.” He knew that language, like people, could stumble, march, or dance, and that in Safire’s column, language jitterbugged. He evolved from challenger to ally, from stranger to friend.

I fancy I evolved in his eyes, too – from perennially baffled to potentially curable. True, I continued to sweat at the touch of a tangent, to squint at the squiggles and arrows of logical proofs. But I did learn that the logic of wordsmiths functions as follows:

IF a lackluster math student loves William Safire’s “On Language” column, AND a devoted math teacher loves William Safire’s “On Language” column, THEN an unlikely bond will develop between them.

I daresay even that:

An unlikely bond will develop between a lackluster math student and a devoted math teacher IF AND ONLY IF both love William Safire’s “On Language” column.

That bond expressed itself most frequently when we encountered an infelicitous phrase in a word problem. The scene usually played out as follows:

Mr. Carp reads a problem aloud while I think about lunch. He concludes: “Hopefully, the ladder will still be upright when the boy returns an hour later.” He points at me. I gaze back, alarmed. He announces: “As Abigail knows, and as Safire would surely point out were he in class with us now, the adverb ‘hopefully’ could suggest the ladder is itself hoping for something, which introduces an unhelpful vagueness. The sentence should read, ‘The boy hopes the ladder will await him when he returns.’” An approving nod in my direction. And then a return to the swirls of sines and confusions of cosines.

Perhaps Mr. Carp, who hopped around the room enforcing rules of logic, wasn’t so different from the amateur linguist who jauntily emphasized accuracy along with creativity, flexibility within form.

***

Now, a selection of wordplay-centric reminiscences of Safire — and an invitation to add yours below:

The columns, many collected in books, made him an unofficial arbiter of usage and one of the most widely read writers on language. It also tapped into the lighter side of the dour-looking Mr. Safire: a Pickwickian quibbler who gleefully pounced on gaffes, inexactitudes, neologisms, misnomers, solecisms and perversely peccant puns, like “the president’s populism” and “the first lady’s momulism,” written during the Carter presidency.

There were columns on blogosphere blargon, tarnation-heck euphemisms, dastardly subjunctives and even Barack and Michelle Obama’s fist bumps. And there were Safire “rules for writers”: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!! — Robert D. McFadden, The New York Times

But he delighted in the infinite variety and power of language and covered the subject from all angles: the arcane origins of newly vogue phrases, acceptable grammatical innovations and lamentable passings, jargon and, his word for its blogosphere corollary, “blargon”; metaphors, euphemisms, malapropisms and “bonapropisms,” a word he coined for serendipitously appropriate misspeaks. Safire was an early victim of alliteration-addiction syndrome. — Lynda Hurst, Toronto Star

It wasn’t that the words were unknown, although “nabob” was a stretch, derived, as it was from an antique term from India’s Mogul empire. But when they were strung together — “nattering nabobs of negativism” — and issued from the mouth of Spiro Agnew, they became magically, memorably, melodically meaty. Turned on the critics of the Vietnam war, they were like the thrust of a foil, the stroke of a clever, graceful warrior. — OregonLive.com

Credit Safire with preserving his loyalties. For years, he relished making mincemeat of liberals as much as refusing to mince his puns. In 1994, Safire was calling the Clinton White House “the Whitewater House.” He wrote of Agnew in 1995, His two-timing was out of joint.” — Todd Gitlin, The New Republic

Comments (12)

  • On September 29, 2009 at 7:45 pm Chris Piuma wrote:

    Though, of course, that “Hopefully” example you bring up: It is hogwash. “Hopefully,” as the introduction to an English sentence, has basically one meaning, and is not as ambiguous as you or your teacher or Mr. Safire, RIP, would have had us believe. Notably, only “hopefully” got called out for this rough treatment, while other sentence-modifying initial adverbs got a free pass. Etc., etc.

  • On September 30, 2009 at 6:59 am Tom Degan wrote:

    First Bill Buckley now Bill Safire. Two of the few remaining intelligent conservatives within the space of so short at time. The voices of reason within the conservative movement are dwindling by the day.

    Meanwhile the movement that the two men were so identified with – the movement they both tried to save from the kooks, criminals and fools who have hijacked it – continues to implode.

    Isn’t life wonderful?

    http://www.tomdegan.blogspot.com

    Tom Degan

  • On September 30, 2009 at 9:41 am Teri G. wrote:

    Slate disapproves:

    “Safire refused to observe the usual journalistic standards because he never really thought of himself as a journalist. A human hybrid of flack, hack, speechwriter, book author, novelist, and politician, he answered to nobody but himself, and for all his alleged skill as a reporter, he never asked himself any tough questions.”

    http://www.slate.com/id/2229855/

  • On September 30, 2009 at 9:52 am Eric wrote:

    The fact that William Safire had some superficial cleverness with language is far overshadowed by his colossal folly as a political “thinker.” Like Buckley, Safire was far more successful at playing the role of an intellectual than at actually being an intellectual. Safire argued forcefully for the US invasion of Iraq, insisting that the resulting Iraq war would be easily won, and he stubbornly insisted that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (even long after this crackpot theory had been thoroughly debunked by all the US intelligence agencies). I see little that is admirable about this man.

  • On September 30, 2009 at 9:54 am Don Share wrote:

    A novel thesis. Notwithstanding any ostensible influence on our poets, the most striking thing in my opinion that he did was compose a speech for Richard Nixon lamenting the loss of the Apollo 11 astronauts on their historic mission to the moon. That loss, of course, did not actually occur.

    You can read the text, which can only be admired by fans of alternate-universe American history, here:

    http://gawker.com/5369364/william-safires-finest-speech

  • On September 30, 2009 at 12:59 pm Mathias wrote:

    But what do you think of Roman Polanski, Eric?

  • On September 30, 2009 at 10:14 pm Terreson wrote:

    No. I respect the man’s passing. The notion that he added anything but poisonous to the language in public discourse is revisonist. He added nothing.

    Terreson

  • On October 1, 2009 at 11:21 am Abigail Deutsch wrote:

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments on this post and the complex man who inspired it. I want to share an insight that Yale scholar David Bromwich published today regarding Safire’s moon speech (which both Don and I link to above). He hears in Safire’s phrasing an indebtedness to World War One poet Rupert Brooke, and uses the allusion to structure his own response to the speech:

    “Rupert Brooke, a poet of the First World War, wrote in the opening lines of a poem that Safire must have learned in school, ‘If I should die, think only this of me;/ That there’s some corner of some foreign field/ That is forever England.’ Compare ‘some corner of another world that is forever mankind.’ He fished up the sob of the shining line from his stock quotations to send the astronauts to their eternal rest. But consider the deeper poetry of the moment. The man most gifted in his time at summoning a literate audience to twitch, heave, and submit to the voice in the megaphone without regard to the man behind the curtain, had been asked to bury the first explorers of space. And what came into his mind? A paean of self-sacrifice lifted from the high age of Europe’s empires. The astronauts, as Safire saw them, were soldiers of the next empire. It is good that they lived to make this speech unnecessary. But it is good, too, in a way, that we have this speech — a lasting testimony of the limitless ambition of mere words.”

    Read the full article here: http://original.antiwar.com/david-bromwich/2009/09/30/william-safire-wars-made-out-of-words/

  • On October 2, 2009 at 7:26 pm Terreson wrote:

    Well, Ms Deutsch, if poetry is required, depended upon, to produce another young soldier willingly entering the killing fields I just might have to, and equally as willingly, cut out my tongue, since, poetry would have become a betrayal to me.

    For every R. Brooke poem there is a Sassoon and Graves and Rosenberg and Akhmatova and Hemingway and Apolinaire and Mandelstam and Montale and Tsvetayeva and Ungaretti and Jarrell poem drawn on war.

    I respect the man’s passing. I less respect the writer’s rhetorical bending of truth to fit an agenda. But then much the same could be said about poets too.

    Terreson

  • On October 3, 2009 at 7:26 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    I shudder to think of space explorers as soldiers. The stars needed, nor need– no kindred travelers to be toting arms. Peace makers, yes.

    And Rupert Brooke had wiser and more poignant sentiments than those you, or Mr. Safire might reference, Amanda…”Imagine my non existence. Best love and goodbye,” –Rupert Brooke.

    margo

  • On October 3, 2009 at 7:27 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    apologies, slip of the key–Abigail, not Amanda.

  • On October 3, 2009 at 1:31 pm Daisy Fried wrote:

    Safire, in blurbing my husband’s book on language (Jim Quinn–”American Tongue and Cheek: A Populist’s Guide to the Language,” Pantheon, 1980) called him “The Professor Moriarty of language.” (Jim is against everything Safire stood for in grammar. Safire apparently had a good sense of humor.)

    Daisy

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Posted in Poetry News on Tuesday, September 29th, 2009 by Abigail Deutsch.