Language in Writing: Barbed Wire or Enchanting Portals?

EZRA POUND (1885 – 1972), THE AMERICAN POET AND CRITIC MAKES THIS OBSERVATION about the language used by fellow American poet, Walt Whitman:

You can learn more of nineteenth century America from Whitman than any other writers . . . The only way to enjoy Whitman thoroughly is to concentrate on his fundamental meaning. If you insist, however, on dissecting his language you will probably find that is wrong NOT because he broke all of what were considered in his day ‘the rules’ but because he is spasmodically conforming to this, that or the other; sporadically dragging in a bit of ‘regular’ metre, using a bit of literary language and putting his adjectives where, in the spoken tongue, they are not. His real writing occurs when he sets free of all this barbed wire.

Literature, both poetry and prose, says Pound, ‘is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree’. He goes on to argue that since literature/writing ‘does not exist in a vacuum’ the main social function and ability of a writer should be to use language to convey meaning.

Then we have Joyce, for whom the word/language is the reality. Frank Budgen, Joyce’s biographer and admirer, likened Joyce’s works - like Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses – to locked doors for which keys had to be made to fit. Here’s an extract from Finnegan’s Wake:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs . . .

The opening line of this extract is linked to the end of the novel, which links the book to theories of the cyclical nature of the Universe and Time. This is suggested at in the word vicus, which is a pun on the name of Vico, the Neapolitan theorist of the cyclical nature of culture. The term commodius is a pun on the last Roman Emperor, Commodus.

This reference:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s . . .

is, again, multi-layered in that it is the name of a Dublin pub as well as a pun on the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man.

Thus, Joyce created an inimitable use of language and married sound and meaning, which have been replicated by other Irish greats like Heaney, but Joyce’s unique mastery of language has never been equalled, let alone surpassed. The extract quoted here is a gripping example of his unique style and opens up the almost infinite possibilities of how language can be played around with and used beyond the literal meaning. He is the master of allusions, who turned the joke form of punning into a major literary tool.
Where in relation to Pound’s idea about meaning and language, and Joyce’s privileging of language over meaning, does your own use of language fit?

Do you agree with Pound’s critique that embellishment of language often obscures meaning?

Do you know or read any particular writer/poet whose use of language is inspirational for you?

How successful do you think your use of language is in getting across what you want to express?

– Golden Langur

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