Sep 5, 2013

Mark Edmundson on being an English major

"The English major at her best isn't used by language; she uses it. She bends it, inflects it with irony, and lets hyperbole bloom like a firework flower when the time's right. She knows that language isn't there merely to represent the world but to interpret it. Language lets her say how she feels.
The English major believes in talk and writing and knows that any worthwhile event in life requires commentary and analysis in giant proportion. She believes that the uncommented-on life is not worth living. Then, of course, there is the commentary on the comments. There must be, as Eliot says, a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of the toast and tea—and a few after as well."
"But I sometimes think that the English major's most habitual feeling about the linguistic solution in which she swims isn't practical at all. What she feels about language most of the time is wonder and gratitude. For language is a stupendous gift. It's been bequeathed to us by all of the foregoing generations. It is the creation of great souls like Shakespeare and Chaucer to be sure. But language is also the creation of salesmen and jive talkers, quacks and mountebanks, hookers and heroic warriors. We spend our lives, knowingly or not, trying to say something impeccably. We long to put the best words in the best order. (That, Coleridge said, is all that poetry really comes down to.) And when we do, we are on the lip of adding something to the language. We've perhaps made a contribution, however small, to what the critic R.P. Blackmur called the stock of available reality. And when we do, we've lived for a moment with the immortals. Poetry has been called the Olympics of language. "
"I love Wordsworth and Shakespeare and Donne. But I like it when a fellow pickup b-ball player points to a nervous guy skittering off to the bathroom just as the game's about to start: "He's taking a chicken pee." Yup—hit it on the head. I like it when, in the incomparable song "Juicy," Biggie Smalls describes coming up in life by letting us know that once "Birthdays was the worst days / Now we sip champagne when we thirs-tay." (And to advertise his sudden erotic ascent: "Honeys play me close like butter play toast.") "
"Language, a great poem in and of itself, is all around us. We live in the lap of enormous wonder, but how rarely do most of us look up and smile in gratitude and pleasure? The English major does that all the time."