Sleeping with a Dictionary

I just came across a poem called Sleeping with a Dictionary.  I can’t recall sleeping with but have dozed with a dictionary.

It was my very first dictionary. A Chambers my grandmother bought for me during my schooldays. To be accurate, she paid for it, but it was bought by one of my great-uncles, a brother of hers. He chose Chambers over Oxford because Chambers happened to be cheaper.

He might not have known that by getting me a Chambers he was making me spend a long time with the dictionary. For Chambers is not the simplest of dictionaries. Sometimes looking up a word, I would be baffled by the definition, so I would have to look up the definition as well.

That increased my stock of words, but I made howlers too. I remember confusing “saturnine” (meaning “dark and brooding”) with “saturnalian” (“unrestrained merrymaking”). 

Now I seldom use such words. My language is getting leaner.

That was inevitable. Writing coaches like Strunk and White, and Ernest Gowers, recommended clarity and simplicity. They prevailed. Newspapers and magazines began to be “reader-friendly”.

“Reader-friendly”, a buzzword that entered the language around 1983 or 1984, sounded nice and benign but amounted to a jihad on hard words, rare words, long words, almost any word unlikely to crop up in a conversation. We were encouraged to write the way we talked.

Communication gained. We could understand each other more easily. But has language been dumbed down?

Where is the next Lawrence Durrell or John Updike?

Emojis and stuff don’t have the allure of words like these:

“Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas in fairy lands forlorn.”

You can see the castle windows overlooking the storm-tossed sea in Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, so vivid are his powers of description.

Words can be heady, seductive, mysterious, evocative. The poem, Sleeping with a Dictionary, describes their potent charm, their powerful spell. The long lines, which don’t rhyme, don’t look like a poem, but it is the title poem of Harryette Mullen’s fifth poetry collection, published in 2002.

Mullen is a professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she teaches creative writing and African-American literature. So sleeping with a dictionary may not be unusual for her. The following lines may not look like a poem but make you see and feel like any work of art.

Sleeping with a Dictionary
By Harryette Mullen

I beg to dicker with my silver-tongued companion, whose lips are ready to read my
shining gloss. A versatile partner, conversant and well-versed in the verbal art, the
dictionary is not averse to the solitary habits of the curiously wide-awake reader. In the
dark night’s insomnia, the book is a stimulating sedative, awakening my tired
imagination to the hypnagogic trance of language. Retiring to the canopy of the bedroom,
turning on the bedside light, taking the big dictionary to bed, clutching the unabridged
bulk, heavy with the weight of all the meanings between these covers, smoothing the thin
sheets, thick with accented syllables—all are exercises in the conscious regimen of
dreamers, who toss words on their tongues while turning illuminated pages. To go
through all these motions and procedures, groping in the dark for an alluring word, is the
poet’s nocturnal mission. Aroused by myriad possibilities, we try out the most perverse
positions in the practice of our nightly act, the penetration of the denotative body of the
work. Any exit from the logic of language might be an entry in a symptomatic dictionary.
The alphabetical order of this ample block of knowledge might render a dense lexicon of
lucid hallucinations. Beside the bed, a pad lies open to record the meandering of
migratory words. In the rapid eye movement of the poet’s night vision, this dictum can be
decoded, like the secret acrostic of a lover’s name.

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