A Word Involves the Whole Body

An inseparable but special part of the feeling of words lies in the fact that they have to be produced by a human body — with an exception noted for parrots and the like. The act of producing a word involves breath and muscle, and various kinds of muscular activity tend to produce various kinds of feeling. Thus, aside from all other considerations, the bodily involvement in sounding the word is a distinct part of the word’s personality. “Elate” feels one way and “thud” feels another. So for sheets, burble, spit, clack, snip, bang, buzz, alleluia, prestidigitation, indubitably, liquescent, uluate, majestic, and anything else one cares to cite from the total language — some words involve more specific and localized muscular play than others, and some have their denotations more involved in the resulting sound than others, but every word has a muscular feel of its own. When the muscular play tends more or less definitely to enact the denotation of the word as in “prestidigitation” or “oily” (one has only to protract the “oi” sound to produce an oily suggestion), then the word may be called mimetic. When the sound of a word imitates the sound of what the word denotes (as in buzz, link, splash, crunch), then the word may be called onomatopoetic. Any conversation attentively linstened to will offer examples of both kind of words. The more excited the conversation becomes, the easier it will be to see in the emphases and gestures of the speakers how the muscles and the nervous system are involved in the process of spech and its meaning. —John Ciardi and Miller WilliamsA Word Involves the Whole BodyHow Does a Poem Mean?)

A charming presentation of formalism, which presents literary study not as the investigation of what the poem means, but rather how. Diction, metaphor, rhythm, counterrhythm, and form, all in the service of what Ciardi calls a performance.

The book uses horse-racing examples, which at first made me think the book was dated. I can’t help but think of Nicely Nicely from Guys and Dolls: (“I got the horse right here/His name is Paul Revere!”)

Then I noticed the introduction advocates always teaching two poems together, never one alone, so that a student can always see a comparison. Suddenly the horse-race metaphor makes more sense.