I am staring in to the tiny picture inside a phone
inside a tent, my children
in a tent beside me: cloud-bullets,
river and connected flower, blur-faces.
To stop the children,
sconce them in their down.
But first: turn off the camera, show to them how
on that road, a buzzard’s wing
had brushed the side of our car as it
rose, widespread, in one talon
a mouse, and this as I overtook
on the moor-road on that morning of continual
rain, before we walked
to the cave where the tide nearly beached us,
which is now immaterial, since
we did not capture it, apart from where
it matters, in the head’s obscure room.
Assistant editor Cornelia Channing interviews poet Giles Goodland about his work as a lexicographer, his love of language, and the importance of poetry.
First, could you tell us a bit about your job? What does a day in the life of an OED lexicographer look like?
Editing the old Oxford English Dictionary to create a fully modern OED Online is a complex task which is broken down into many components, to the extent that the day of any one lexicographer is unlikely to be like that of most others. A dictionary entry has several different elements: pronunciation, etymology, definition, and the quotation paragraph. I am concerned with the latter. It contains the history of each sense of each word in the form of citational evidence: quotations. It will always have the earliest example we can find of each usage, with representative examples showing how this sense has been used, and a final quotation (if the sense is not obsolete or very rare) from the last few decades. We obtain this evidence from various sources: slips (quotations written on pieces of paper), our in-house databases, other historical or regional dictionaries, and external databases, such as scanned collections of historical newspapers. It is often quite hard to find appropriate citations, especially if you are working on a multi-sense entry (I am currently researching the complex verb CATCH, which has dozens of senses). Also we have to be aware of unrecorded or new senses, which may need to be drafted into the entry. We take care that our citations are bibliographically correct, that the information in a quotation corresponds to the appropriate edition, with the right location, date, and so on. So, it combines the need for bibliographical precision with an ability to find illustrative sentences. Also since most of us work in the same large office, there is a lot of subdued discussion and debate, and sharing of cake.
How did you get into this line of work?
In the early 1990s I was finishing my D. Phil (Doctorate) at Oxford University and my funding was running out. I found part-time work at the OED filing the slips that had accumulated since the completion of the last supplement. This was before the digital revolution. Our evidence was paper-based, there were cabinets full of slips, some very old, some in difficult hand-writing, and often on odd recycled pieces of paper: the backs of envelopes, guillotined letters. One became familiar with the names and personalities of some of these contributors. My favourite was Dom Sylvester Houédard, or ‘dsh’, both a Benedictine priest and a practitioner of concrete poetry, whose typed slips often looked like concrete poems. All of these slips needed to be given their correct OED sense-number, or else were consigned to the ‘Not In’ file, where they became candidates for possible new words or senses.
Over the years I engaged in various OED-related tasks. We have increasingly used online resources, while still referring closely to our slips. I enjoy most hunting down earlier evidence of odd and obscure senses, sometimes tracing them back hundreds of years, where they can be found crouching like spiders in the murky pages of 16th-century black-letter type.
Could you talk about your earliest connections to poetry?
My Welsh grandmother reading to me the poems of Edward Lear, when I was 5 or so. Not my parents. It took a while to realise that both of them had connections to poetry, in different ways, which they were slightly secretive about. In the late 1930s, my father had edited and published, while studying at Cambridge, a modernist-inflected poetry magazine called Seven. It published Stevens, Thomas, Anais Nin, Lawrence Durrell, and the poets who became the centre of the British Apocalyptic movement. I often wonder if he met John Berryman, who was also there at the time: they both went to the same Dylan Thomas reading in 1938. Not long after, he left university to fight in the war. I found out about his connection to poetry from reading the diaries he had kept. When I knew him, he was a busy coal-merchant and early environmentalist, who did not seem to have much time for poetry. He died when I was young. My mum, who had been born on an upland sheep farm and had received considerably less education than my dad, wrote secretively in her youth, but felt unable to publish anything until the 1990s, when she started to create intense poems about farming and animals and her local Exmoor landscape. By that time I’d already had a few books published. Although we did not write in the same style, we discussed poetry a lot, and dedicated books to each other.
Who are some of your influences?
After Edward Lear, I discovered at school that poems need not just be funny or wanly nonsensical. I walked gladly into the worlds created by Coleridge, Thomas Hardy, Antonio Machado, Wallace Stevens. Then after school I discovered Chatterton, Elisabeth Bishop, H.D., W. S. Graham, David Jones, Anne Sexton, Lee Harwood, Paul Celan, William Bronk, and many others. To name only the dead ones. With living poets it is more like a conversation, a friendship.
Has your lexicography work changed how you think about word usage? Has it had an effect on how you use language in your writing? If so, how?
I think so, but this will be hard to disentangle. Two poets I admire were deeply involved in lexicography. Samuel Johnson, whose dictionary work came after he had written most of his poetry, observed of his earlier ambitions to write a truly comprehensive dictionary, that these were ‘the dreams of a poet doomed at last to wake a lexicographer’. Lexicography has a reality-principle embedded in it that poetry does not: it is limited by what is actually possible. Whitman likewise had enormous ambitions to write a dictionary that would comprehend all registers, including slang, and even ‘the history of Nature in all departments, and of the organic Universe, brought up to date’. In the draft pages of his projected dictionary he included the compound ‘well-hung’, which he defined as ‘possessed of…manly ability…with women’. It would take a long time for other general dictionaries to catch up with that. Eventually, he gave these plans up, but elements of dictionary can be seen in Leaves of Grass: its comprehensiveness, its tendency to catalogue. Both of these poets had come up against the massiveness of the English language. Its weight, the wideness of discourse it contains. More than any one person can know, although Johnson came close.
Over the last few years I have become increasingly interested in the neologism in poetry. Another poet I admire, the late Geoffrey Hill, in reviewing the print edition of the OED, in 1989, lamented that it had not included Gerard Manley Hopkins’ coinage unchancelling, while it did include such modern words as tofu. He asks memorably: Is the name of an easily analysable substance that has appeared on a million menus more than a word, peculiarly resistant to analysis, which has lodged itself in a few thousands of minds? This is funny, and shows a generational shift, but also exposes a paradox. The answer is of course, yes. Words like tofu, as Johnson would have recognised, are in this world ‘more’ than unchancelling, and have a greater claim to be in any dictionary. But at the same time, Hill observes, the word tofu seems obvious and banal, while poetry contains twisting and ambiguous locutions which call out for explication. There seems to be a paradox here: should dictionaries include what is common, but usually already understood, or what is difficult and in need of explication? As a lexicographer and a vegetarian, I can see that tofu absolutely should be in a dictionary. As a poet, I can see that words like unchancelling should be discussed and defined somewhere. But perhaps not always in a dictionary: if we include all of the neologisms of Hopkins, then where do we stop? Uses like this end up in our ‘Not In’ file, for possible future reference, but I suspect that Hopkins would never have really wanted his coinages to end up in a dictionary.
The great thing about a neologism in a poem is that it is of its own special moment, it arrests the eye and enforces a pause, a moment in which the word becomes a thing again. We need to decode, to think about how words are formed, think of sound-associations, etymons, other languages. Language becomes a material again. This brings us back to Edward Lear. In the OED he is recorded as the coiner not just of runcible, but chimp, piggy-wig, and parapetless. In my forthcoming book from Shearsman (The Masses), I push word-creation as far as I can: following the lead of Carroll, but also Joyce.
Other poets have written enormous books of poetry modelled in some ways on dictionaries: recent examples are Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet, and Alan Fisher’s Gravity as a Consequence of Shape. There is a temptation to create an epic of language, ever-expanding and giddyingly ambitious. But perhaps because of my work, I can see the impossibility of completion. I would, however, like to refer the interested reader to my book Gloss (Knives and Forks press, 2012), where I offer riffs on the glossarial form.
In general I have kept my books slimmer, less dictionary-like in terms of bulk. I like short poems that appreciate the value of a well formed sentence which contains both exactitude and implication. Both judogi and ‘almost-arms’. Every so often in my work as a lexicographer I’ll discover a word or a phrase I can carry into a poem. Re-reading ‘Park, Greenford’, reminds me that the language is something that every day at work I am pushing through, sometimes, it seems, quite literally.
A line from “Proem” jumps out to me — “We train words and meanings follow.” What does that mean to you?
Well, we train words like fruit trees along a wall, facing the sun, and then their fruits grow. Or we train them like dogs so they will follow us. Or we entrain them, put them on trains. There are two homonyms of the verb train, with 18 main senses divided into several subsenses. So it could mean many of these: the context of the poem gives a few more hints. But this line conceals another question: which comes first, the meaning or the word? In daily non-poetic discourse, it is usually the meaning we want to convey that comes before we formulate the words. But in poetry the words can come before the meaning: we pour the words into those trains called sentences, like diesel, and then they pull the meaning with them.
Was it a conscious choice to feature your children and family life as subjects in your poems? Or did it happen organically?
Perhaps the answer is a bit of both. A child is a part of yourself, slowly separating. This is the unstoppable, alienating, divisive, but (we hope) loving process that a family is. Much of my poetry of the last decade or so (including those in TSR) has been based on rough day-to-day impressionistic diary-entries that I kept while my children were growing. I left these entries unread for years, and when I came back to them, I did so like a stranger, taking phrases from descriptions of occasions that I had forgotten. This is how I wrote most of The Dumb Messengers.
The publisher’s note for your book, The Dumb Messengers, mentions that you believe “most language is a waste of time, a failure.” That seems a surprising statement from someone who has dedicated their life to words. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Did I write that? I go on to say ‘a failed message is still a message, and there is hope in that’. I think what I meant was that at its most basic level communication in language comes from a need, a want, something that needs filling. Therefore it comes from failure—one is hungry, one needs comforting, there is danger. A few sentences we say have real operation in the actual world: ‘I thee wed’, ‘fire!’, ‘pass the salt’. As far as language continues after the initial utterance, it shows that it must have failed. If the hungry child is not fed it continues crying. From this the vast field of discourse comes about. So much that is said or written is an attempt to carry on saying a thing due to an initial failure, or a compulsion to keep making language. It is chiefly phatic: the fact of having written a 500 page book on transubstantiation, an article on Brexit, a Facebook status-update, is often more important than the meaning itself. This is communication: mostly unreciprocated. We are language-machines, chugging away, but not often stopping to reflect on the nature of this product. In the modern world we are surrounded by text to such an extent that it becomes invisible, like white noise. We simply ignore most of it.
But there is a small park in the busy city of language. It contains both a playground and a cemetery. Children play on the swings while sad adults come to leave flowers. These are the poets. While they tidy the graves, they envy the aimlessness of the play about them. On some of the headstones some of them incise words. They do not know for whom their gravestone is.
If language is a waste of time, why write poetry?
I see this question as answering itself. Not why, but because. One writes poetry to make sense, even if in the purest form of this is nonsense. Poetry is language that is aware of its own friable, contingent, ambivalent nature. Its materiality, but also its immanence. A poem wants to tell us with urgency: our house is on fire, we are married, we need more salt. Run, leave, stay, eat. It does this by using words consciously and with art, to suggest an experience, or just to be a thing, an abstract construction of words. Poetry unwastes time: stills it, reflects it.
What does the title refer to? Who are the dumb messengers?
When children enter this world they are still covered in the plasm of another place, full of what they need to communicate. Wordsworth writes of how ‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close Upon the growing Boy’. As parents we are obliged to teach them language, but this is at the cost of the erasure of that knowledge. It is as if being able to speak entails a forgetting of some more primal or other-worldly knowledge. As my children began to accept the concepts embodied in language, particularly of time, causality, and personality, I could see other possibilities fading in them, and this made me sad. I remember in particular they would confuse yesterday, today, tomorrow. Endlessly correcting them, I’d secretly think that they can perceive what we have lost: that time really does work both ways.
A fun one—do you have any favorite words? Perhaps words that most people wouldn't have heard of?
Either none or too many. Language is already so multiple. My favorite words in the end are common ones, particularly conjunctions such as and, but, then, also, however: these words show us that a sentence never has to end; it can be qualified and ramified indefinitely.
But please, open a dictionary, or go to OED Online, and choose your own.