May 13, 2010

Language as Portmanteau

In the midst of several gray, rainy days, I've been reading more than usual. My tastes have been more sober of late: back issues of American Heritage, a bit of Seamus Heaney poetry, listening to an interview with Columm McCann -- all material that places a high value on language.

Portmanteau words are those that combine more than one word to encompass a new meaning. 'Brunch', 'smog', and even 'Tanzania' are portmanteau words that exist because someone somewhere decided to combine words and capture both meanings in one (smoke + fog = smog, for instance). How is it that all language itself is not considered a cultural portmanteau? It truly is a marvel that a concept can move from one mind to another through nothing more than a selection of sounds. I admire those who are able to use language correctly, but my deepest respect is for those who see language as a creative medium of its own.

Madeleine L'Engle, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Emma Lazarus, Francis Thompson, and scores of others know how to stow emotion and evoke memory with the words they choose. They do not write: they paint for the ear and the thought. In Wilder's play, "Our Town," the narrator tells Emily that sometimes the poets and great artists are aware of the greatness of life as they're living it. Columm McCann and even Brett Butler (which might surprise you) carry a flavor and rhythm in their words that strikes me internally and makes something within ring, like the resonance of a great bell that you feel as well as hear. I carry the notes of their phrases long after I've turned the page. Time, for that moment, slows and I am lost in savoring. "I fled him down the labyrinthine years... and shot precipitated adown titanic glooms of chasmed fears" -- don't just see these words, HEAR them in your head, the staccato and rubato of syllables that play their own sort of music.

If walking through a Barnes & Noble is any indication, almost anyone with any degree (or lack) of ability can be published. Far fewer of those published can paint with words. I am convinced that any writer worth their salt can list off a ream of writers they themselves read, savor and are inspired by. Writers are interesting for what they write, but more interesting for what they read. For those authors you admire, find out who THEY admire--see some of their story source for yourself. In seeing what inspired a favorite book, you can marvel anew at how uniquely someone was inspired by the vulnerable act of committing passion to the page.

In trying to find your own list of syllabic artists, here are some I treasure: Maya Angelou, Davis Bunn, Josephine Tey, Jasper Fforde, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Rudyard Kipling, Frances Mayes and Emmuska Orczy

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