In memoriam: William Safire, a gem of a wordsmith
Was William Safire a poet?
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)?
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.
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
Abigail Deutsch, the winner of Poetry magazine's 2010 Editors Prize for Reviewing, lives in New York. Her criticism appears in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Village Voice, n+1, Bookforum, and other publications.