An Excerpt from “Idiom, Our Funny Valentine: Its Cunning, Its Romance, Its Power”

Tony Hoagland

I am driving around Houston, listening to a sermon by one of our many local radio evangelists. Call him Pastor James. Brother James is telling an anecdote about himself. The punch line goes something like this:

And in that moment, looking at that shiny outboard 44 horsepower engine, and my little nine-year old daughter, I felt Jesus look into my heart and I said, “I am so busted. . . . ”

Big tender oohs and ahhs from the congregation; well deserved, too, wrought by the skill of a language-man. In this case, it is the particular genius of idiom that evokes my admiration. I am so busted, says the preacher, and the commonality between leader and flock is instantly evoked, renewed, and reestablished; the playing field leveled, the airwaves bathed in human warmth and intimacy. Time to pass the collection plate.

Most idiom has the contradictory status of seeming, on the one hand, like exhausted speech,—i.e., it is used frequently and thoughtlessly, while at the same time it is very much alive with tribal flavor and the energy of the contemporary. Idiom shares categorical boundaries with vernacular, slang, colloquialism, and jargon. It pervades our speech, but what is it really, and how does it function—as it surely does—in the environment of a poem? The very fact that it is used in poems challenges the supposition that all poetic language must be fresh and particular. Nonetheless, much of idiom’s sizzle comes not from its brand-new freshness, but its ripe familiarity.

Idiom’s great alchemical trick is the quickness with which it fabricates intimacy between speaker and audience; in that way, it is a constituent element of poetic voice, tone, and the creation of character. Likewise, idiom conveys complex connotative information. In this instance, idiomatic phrase is also compounded and fused with slang—“busted” is vernacular for “arrested.” What is really remarkable about this particular sleight of hand, given the context, is its achieved transformation of the discussion. Deftly, the preacher has recast the elevated, somewhat scary concept of sin into something more domestic and negotiable, something on the level of getting a speeding ticket.

Such operations often occur in the realm of half-consciousness. Because the phrase is familiar to us, it flutters partly above and partly below the level of our attention. “You are so busted” has been christened in so many mouths that the repetition has enhanced its power in one way and dulled its edge in another. Thus, idiom is a symptom of language going to sleep and also a device capable of renewing it.

One etymological meaning of idiom is “special property”—idios, from the Greek, “one’s own.” It is our speech: how we talk; the way we say it here; we own it; we can do what we want with it. We are the people. Idiom is language which has a figurative meaning particular to the common use of a given speech culture. The dictionary says that there are twenty-five thousand idiomatic expressions in common American use. Our speech is rife with idiom; we use it in the way that animals deploy various smells and glands—to tell others who we are, and whom we are with. Or, conversely, maybe we use it the way chameleons use color: to blend in.

A second intriguing characteristic of idiom—especially for poets—is the way that idiom is often combinatory—a combination of words, a “word-group” which has become fused into a unit. When an idiomatic phrase is used as if it were a single word—is “chunked” into a singular grammatical unit—it is what grammarians call collocated, or a collocation: “words that became affixed to each other until they have metamorphosed into a fossilized term.” Such fused, compounded words develop a specialized meaning as an entity, as an idiom. “Houston, we have ignition” is an example.

You may hear the echo, embedded in the above definition, of Emerson’s essay “The Poet.” That archaeological image is Emerson’s, coined in 1844, when archaeology was young:

Language is fossil poetry. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin. But the poet names the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other.

All language, says Emerson, originally arose from the ground of specific material experience; from, he might add, nature. All language begins as metaphor. You turn me on. At twenty-four she blossomed. Emerson laments that we civilized folk live in the midst of our own linguistic wealth like people treading water at sea, people who hardly notice the water, ignorant of its vitality and vividness. When Emerson uses the term fossilized, his inflection is negative. It takes a Thoreau or a Whitman, a real poet, he says, to make the fossils come alive, to reconnect language to nature, to make dried blood wet again.

Read the rest of this essay by downloading the free Amazon digest version of The Kenyon Review here.

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