• By Joseph S. Salemi

Plain English


The poetry scene, like every human activity, has its cant and its catchwords. As Robert Louis Stevenson said in his Virginibus Puerisque, the world lives principally on catchwords or unexamined assumptions passed down from conformist to conformist. For modern po-biz lemmings, the current pieties can be boiled down to a few clichés: no ideas but in things; show but don’t tell; avoid archaisms and inversions; write about your personal experience only; be sincere. These clichés are so manifestly stupid that even the people who still cling to them try not to state them openly, but instead allude to them obliquely and gingerly, as indisputable givens that one dare not debate.

One of the biggest clichés is the notion that, if you are to be taken seriously as a contemporary poet, you must write in “plain English.” This is one of those absurdities that we owe to the camp-followers of modernism (the original modernists would have laughed scornfully at the idea). The lemmings in the workshops will pounce like a SWAT team on any posted poem that presumes to use a register of English beyond the ken of the average dork.

People who defend “plain English” in poetry always do so on the grounds of communicability, and connection to the audience. But in fact that is a lie and a cover story. The accessibility of a text is not the concern of these people at all. Their actual motive is bien-pensant conformism and the desire to be part of an elite in-group. Since the dogmatic strictures about plain English are preached and practiced widely, the ordinary poet is terrified of not adhering to an obvious

public orthodoxy. So he writes the plainest English he can, in the hope of not appearing to be out of step with his betters. He doesn’t really give a damn about accessibility; he simply wants elite status to be accessible to him.

The problem, of course, is that “plain English” is always changing. What was ordinary and common English to Shakespeare is no longer quite so plain to us. Even within a generation or two, expressions and phraseology die out or mutate. When my uncle visited Sicily in his old age, modern Sicilians were amazed at some of the unusual idioms and obsolete words that he employed when speaking. But he only knew the Sicilian of 1906, and in seventy years common speech on the island had changed in many respects.

What follows from this phenomenon is that the attempt to write in “plain English” is always going to be swallowed up by impermanence. Your plain English will become opaque sooner rather than later. And given the steady decline in literary sophistication that characterizes our time, spoken English is being debased and simplified in ways that make the common speech of sixty years ago seem positively intricate. Consider the following.

The great translator Richmond Lattimore, in the preface to his English rendering of the Iliad,

insisted that he could not use any sort of consciously literary idiom to translate Homer. Lattimore’s argument went like this: “In 1951 we do not have a poetic dialect… I must render Homer into the best English verse I can write, and this will be my own ‘poetic language,’ which is mostly the plain English of today.”

Well, i tempi cambiano, as Michael Corleone said. I only wish Lattimore had lived long enough to see what is considered “plain English” now, and to hear the probable reactions of workshop denizens to anyone who would dare to post passages of his “plain English” Iliad on line today. I’m going to give six examples. Let’s assume they were posted anonymously, without the prestige of Lattimore’s name and reputation to shield them.

I wonder what the little dweebs in the workshops would say about this inversion:

She laid her hand upon the robe immortal, and shook it

(III, 385)

Would they berate poor Richmond Lattimore for this unpardonable atavism? Imagine how they would react to his post-positioned use of an attributive adjective in an adverbial sense:

never the same is

the breed of gods, who are immortal, and men who walk groundling.

(V, 441-42)

I’m sure his re-creation of the orotund rhetoric of Agamemnon would grate against modern ears:

Let him give way. For Hades gives not way, and is pitiless,

and therefore he among all the gods is most hateful to mortals.

And let him yield place to me, inasmuch as I am the kinglier

and insmuch as I can call myself born the elder.

(IX, 158-61)

Can you hear the snotty comments and acidulous laughter from the jerks in the workshops if anyone with a name other than Lattimore had posted that? And how about this luscious alliteration:

Zeus still

sleeps; since I have mantled a soft slumber about him

(XIV, 358-59)

And then there is the rank pleonasm of Achilleus:

since there was no gratitude given

for fighting incessantly forever against your enemies.

(IX, 316-17)

Or consider Athene’s use of an archaic adjective:

Madman, mazed of your wits, this is ruin!

(XV, 128)

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Lattimore wrote in what he assumed was an easily accessible plain English. But if any unknown person posted text in that style at a workshop today, even in the translation section, the Plain English Thought Police would be screaming bloody murder.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with writing in “plain” or “colloquial” or “current” English, or in any kind of specialized jargon or slang. In fact, some genres and subjects in the low mimetic or ironic modes pretty much require it at times. But you have to be prepared to accept the fact that your language will become non-current, and increasingly unfamiliar to readers, at a lot faster rate than if you had written in a more consciously elevated register. Think of it on the analogy of clothing fashions—what was hot fifteen years ago is today considered a joke, or “quaint” at best.

Elevated language doesn’t go bad that way. Sure, it will become less familiar and obsolescent with time, like everything else. But it does not lose its vigor and high seriousness. Self-consciously “plain” language doesn’t have those qualities, and therefore becomes shopworn and superannuated rather quickly. Think of the fatuous slang you heard in the 1960s. Would you dream of saying today that something is “groovy”? Or that your friend is a “cool cat”? Or “Peace, man—hang loose”? There’s an austere dignity in being five hundred years behind the times. But it’s the mark of a pathetic dork to be a few decades behind them.

A student in my class once asked “But just what is this elevated language that you’re talking about, Professor?” I explained that it wasn’t fancy language, or strange language, or language that tried to be obscure or distant. Elevated language is a use of language that is clear and precise, but consciously separated from the slapdash folksiness and chatty colloquialism of everyday speech. It’s something that you do not expect to hear. It is literary. It is feigned. It is even a little daunting in its archness. It is put together with intricacies and imbrications that would never normally be employed in ordinary conversation. No one talking with you in a restaurant would say “Complacencies of the peignoir.” But Wallace Stevens says it, and it is pure poetry. Nobody in the local bodega is going to say “A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene.” But Hart Crane says it, and we are blown away by it.

Real poets are constantly attuned to the potential of elevated language, its capacity to electrify with sudden and unexpected clarity. Quotidian speech (i.e. “plain English”) doesn’t achieve that except fitfully and sporadically. Elevated speech does it on purpose, and aims to do it all the time. Being a poet means having that purpose and aim. It doesn’t mean aping the pedestrian utterances of the buffoon in the street.

Once you say this, however, be prepared to duck—you will have stimulated the reflexive pro-democracy responses of nearly everyone. They’ll start jabbering about inclusiveness and openness and welcoming-ness or whatever other idealist abstraction gets their glands in gear, and you will be condemned as a cold and heartless elitist who Won’t Give Folks A Chance. Well, that’s OK. Just ignore them. And follow Richmond Lattimore’s example by writing the best English verse you can.

Originally published in Trinacria

Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide. He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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