Difficult words, obscure words.
An essential activity in clarifying a difficult poem is working out what unfamiliar words may mean. This requires a good dictionary which also lists secondary and archaic or obscure definitions and describes the origin or etymology of the word. Our resources section provides details of dictionaries that may be useful.
Poets do not use obscure words solely to display the size of their vocabularies. These words are mostly used because no other word will do. Whether or not this is the case in every instance is open to debate and you will need to make your own judgement as to whether or not another more accessible word or phrase would have sufficed.
Some poets put words together so as to create compound words, this isn't usually a problem unless it isn't clear which words are being used. Simon Jarvis uses 'suicessionally' which isn't at all clear whereas Paul Celan has 'Holderlintowers' which is.
J H Prynne, Neil Pattison and words that have other meanings.
As well as using unfamiliar words, poets will also use 'ordinary' words but intend a secondary or archaic meaning or they may be alluding to where the word is derived from. J H Prynne is the best known proponent of this technique.
In "News of Warring Clans", Prynne has - 'in the tree glide the lie sits like gall by...' this seems fairly clear with the exception of 'glide' which most of us would read as a verb. The OED lists 6 main definitions of glide as a noun. The third definition (which is classed as obscure) is "a passage; an avenue (of trees)" and gives its most recent use as a couple of diary entries from the early 18th century. There is an argument to be had about poets resorting to this extreme level of obscurity- it isn't democratic, it reinforces the charge of elitism etc. Those poets would argue that it is possible to chase down even the most obscure usages and that they are using the only word that 'fits'.
Prynne also uses 'ordinary' words to allude to their origin. He makes fairly frequent of the word 'lintel' in his work and this baffled me until I read his recent lecture "Mental ears and poetic work" where Prynne describes lintel as an "entrance portal to the spirit world of beatitude and love" which derives from its root in Latin (limen). I then checked the etymology with the OED which tells me that this interpretation (as threshold) is incorrect and is in fact derived from 'limit'. So now I am puzzled but no longer baffled.
Neil Pattison's poem 'Curve, indifference' begins:
"Opaquely the frames gain velocity of scrip, remember the coax in modest pattern:".
There are at least two problems here, the word 'scrip' and the use of 'coax' as a noun. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives me five main definitions of scrip as a noun and two as a verb. The fourth definition is:
(Short for subscription receipt.) Originally, a receipt for a portion of a loan subscribed. Now, in strict commercial use, a provisional document entitling the holder to a share or number of shares in a joint-stock undertaking, and exchangeable for a more formal certificate when the necessary payments have been completed; often collect. sing. Hence, in loose or popular language, applied to share certificates in general.
This definition only makes some kind of sense if a secondary definition of velocity is taken into account:
The rate at which notes and coins change hands; the rate of spending in an economy.
So, given the political tone of the rest of the poem, it is likely that we are dealing with the fluctutions in value in free market capitalism especially with regard to the way these things are masked or occluded.
This informed guess would seem to be further confirmed by the definition of 'coax' as a coaxing speech' and that the primary definition of the verb is: "To make a ‘cokes’ of, befool, impose upon, ‘take in’".
There does come a point where words should be taken at 'face' value, I thinks it is reasonable to expect that all of the other words here have their ordinary or everyday meaning. Of course, I could have a wade through the many definitions of 'frame' but I don't think I need to in this instance. On a first and second read-through however I need to confess to missing both 'velocity' and the definition of coax as a verb...
Geoffrey Hill and obscure words.
Geoffrey Hill is usually much more transparent. His 'The Triumph of Love' contains the following lines "This glowering carnival, kermesse of wrath / and resentment, how early - ?..." and in the following section "The glowering carnival, kermesse of wrath / caravans of the haemaphrodite / children of Plato...".
The OED defines the current use of 'kermesse' as a type of cycling race but also quotes The Times as pointing out that the word is originally Flemish for 'carnival'. So, it would appear that Hill intends the meaning to be carnival but doesn't want to repeat the English term. It may also be that the word 'kermesse' has specific connotations that I'm not aware of but I don't think that this possibility will get in the way of my enjoyment of the poem.
Words that don't exist (yet)
Some poets make words up if they don't already exist. This is not new, Edmund Spenser was doing it in the 1580s. Poets that do this would argue that the word should exist anyway because it expresses exactly what they want to say.
Simon Jarvis' extraordinary poem "The Unconditional" contains "Just as a margin holds and frees its type / or just sits blankling in the wasted space." Blankling isn't in the OED but I don't care because the context gives me the meaning or a meaning that makes sense to me. It's also a great word.
Getting access to the DNB and the OED
For most of us who are not part of academia, the annual individual subscriptions to the above are stupidly expensive. However, many local authority libraries provide free access to their members. For those of us (me) unfortunate to live in an area that doesn't participate, the solution is to join the library of a neighbouring local authority that does. This may seem convoluted but it does save £215 plus vat per year for each of these essential tomes.
Difficult names and terms.
Difficult or obscure names present a couple of challenges. You need to work out who or what the name refers to and then to work out why the reference is being made.
The good news is that Wikipedia is now much better in providing an overview on most people and subjects. The bad news is that some of the articles are not yet sufficiently objective. For English names, the Dictionary of National Biography remains the best starting point.
Using Google is often an interesting exercise but, given the way pages are indexed, you can find yourself wading through pages of dross. Judicious use of the advanced search feature can cut some of this out.
Geoffrey Hill's reputation for difficulty rests largely on his use of proper names. The following is the third poem from "The Triumph of Love"-
'Petronius Arbiter, take us in charge;
carry us with you to the house of correction.
Angelus Silesius, guard us while we are there.'
Given that the first two poems relate to childhood and the fourth to mortality, it is difficult to see why these two Roman names are in the poem at all. Wikipedia tells me that Petronius Arbiter was the 'judge of elegance' in Nero's court, that he may have written the Satyricon and that he was sentenced to death but comitted suicide before the sentence could be carried out. It may or may not be significant that a quote from the Satyricon is used as the epeigraph to 'The Waste Land'.
The Catholic Encyclopedia describes Angelus Silesius as as convert, poet and controvesialist who was born into a Lutheran family in 1624 and converted to the Catholic faith at the age of 29. His views are described as orthodox and his poetry to be full of deep religious thought. Things thus become a little clearer, Hill admires martyrs and has a special interest in Protestants who then convert to Catholicism. 'The Triumph of Love' is primarily about the suffering endured during WWII and the power of forgiveness. In order to work out why Angelus Silesius should be asked to guard us, you'll probably have to read his poetry.
Keston Sutherland's excellent 'Stress Position' contains these lines:
Fuck the old linguistically enervative strippogrammatology and its catcalls at authenticity and at inauthenticity: either you put up or shut up shop or you drop the musical talking shit.
The internet/google isn't any help at all with 'strippogrammatology' but Wikipedia identifies 'Of Grammatology' as one of Jacques Derrida's most controversial works and the founding text of deconstruction as a critical tool. So, Sutherland's new word is part of his rant about that movement but for most of us the reference would remain obscure.
The next stanza has 'You Porn calliopisthenics' as part of a more considered critique of all things Derrida. Most of us will gather that 'You Porn' is a play on You Tube but it might not be apparent that (as far as I can tell) that 'calliopisthenics' is a mix of calliope and calisthenics and that a calliope is an American term for "an instrument consisting of a series of steam-whistles toned to produce musical notes, played by a keyboard like that of an organ". Of course I could be completely wrong on this but it does appear to fit with the rest of the stanza.
Jarvis' 'At Home with Paul Burrell' contains:
or as a hole through we can gaze into the trace left by a paralogism or as one of two little caverns frankly welcoming two other caverns of mine into it/our ownmost shared inner-expectorated category-mistake.
even as the mouth would snarl out of propathic Yes
The OED gives "a piece of false or erroneous reasoning, esp. one which the reasoner is unconscious of or believes to be logical (as distinct from a sophism, which is intended to deceive); an illogical argument, a fallacy" as the definition for 'paralogism' which is helpful. We can probably work out 'ownmost' for ourselves, wonder at the sheer oddness of 'inner-expectorated' and recognise 'category-mistake' as a term from philosophy and use Wikipedia or other sites to check out its full meaning.
'Propathic',on the other hand is not in the OED but I'm taking it as the newly-minted adjective from 'propassion' or 'propathy' both of which are defined as the feeling that precedes passion but again I could be barking up the wrong tree.