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To Write, Or Not to Write
(or The Suicide Foot-note of an Old English Teacher)
Last August, the editor received a marvelous holograph letter from an English teacher operating from a small private school somewhere west of the Hudson, beginning: “I gave up my subscription to B.S.M. roughly ten years ago in large part in response to the (too) frequent, frothy, egotistical musings of one Chas. Gould, Jr.” “How ironic that in his latest spate he is actually writing on the Muses,” he added, so showing that he had at least glanced, for some reason, at my latest contribution. Here is fame indeed: a man who despises my writing and declines the opportunity to have his attack on me published, declaring that it was merely “personal,” cancels his subscription and yet reads on for a decade, presumably sneaking free copies at book fairs as a wearisome image of self-flagellation.
Even so, sad as the image may seem, it is hard for me to imagine a more avid fan or kinder critic, for “frothy and egotistical musings” have ever been my goal, and certainly some very smart people not burdened by the horrid title “career English teacher,” which my critic for some reason openly and apparently without any normal sense of embarrassment bestows upon himself, have enjoyed them. I taught well in a famous school for a third of its century and like saying so, but I would not describe myself as “a career English teacher,” any more than Enrico Caruso would have described himself as a “career singer.” I acknowledge that this comparison is frothy and egotistical, but the point is that (in the words of Webster’s New World Dictionary) career as an adjective means “pursuing a normally temporary activity as a life-work.” That does not describe me, or Caruso; but it may my critic, for he adds, it seems furiously, reference to “the Goulds of the world who like to hear themselves talk.” Well, I submit, an English teacher who does not like to hear himself talk will bore classes into oblivion long before he has bored himself half to death: it would be very tiresome to teach if you didn’t like to hear what you were saying, now wouldn’t it? If my putative pedagogue is reading this now, having canceled his subscription a decade ago, is he like Little Buttercup in H.M.S. Pinafore, who says she’s “Called Buttercup, / Though I could never tell why”? Is that because she doesn’t know, or couldn’t bring herself to say? Is he unsure why he’s a “career teacher” or ashamed of being one? But let’s add a little fuel to my critical moth’s flame. Moths fly into candles, incidentally, not because they are attracted by the flame but because in their skewed vision the flame is about 30 degrees off to the side. Like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s, my candle burns at both ends for this particular moth…but maybe he won’t fly into it again.
How frothy (if not mothy) and egotistical must one be to attack mispronunciations of words we have long wished we didn’t need? In Kennebunkport, this arbor of politics and property, we daily still hear “nucular,” “realator,” “realatty.” Nuclear, realtor, and realty are old clear words seemingly lost in the reality of this nuclear age—along with the distinction between oral and verbal. That’s why you have trouble seeing what I’m saying—or even hearing what I’m saying, apart from knowing what I’m saying. Synaesthesia, take a bough…or a laurel to wrest on. “Silence sounds no worse than cheers/ After earth has stopped the ears.” Housman saw what he was saying all right. But I digress.
Recently I have seen or heard variations on each of the following locutions—several of them in the work of a highly respectable contemporary British novelist, others on N.P.R. and from the U.S.P.S., one from a teacher and one from another professional, and actually a unique one (more amusing than life-threatening) from a neighbor. If I see or hear any of them one more time, I cannot be responsible for my actions. After all, like Sherlock Holmes I have retired and should be attending to the bees…not to bees in my bonnet; but already blasted—like the withered ear in Macbeth that couldn’t hear what it was seeing—as frothy and egotistical, I below am supplying little verses to suggest, or perhaps to amplify, the causes of my exasperation…and these may, in turn, engender little verses of your own. I would suggest “Sonnets from the Portuguese” as an appropriate title for your collection, but I think that may have been used before and, in any case, these days it is probably Politically Inaccurate. In short, let the scazons go rolling along!
Anybody who accepts George W. Bush’s pronunciation of nuclear should stop reading now. The schoolmaster who hates my writing so much that he canceled it may even now renew his subscription to Book Source Magazine, the more generously to attack in future my terrifying words. As the mother of an Advisee of mine (let’s call her Cornelia, for her name was Cornelia, and she is now a CEO of something in New York or somewhere) said thirty years ago in my study on Parents’ Weekend at Kent School: “You should listen to Mr. Gould’s advice, Cornelia, because he gave up the chance of a successful career to come here and help girls like you.”
By such determinations driven, I offer a few sobering reflections on the current verbal scorpions lashing me toward my grave—whose headstone shall read simply “No Longer Available,” each example accompanied by a little verse as mentioned above.
“This is the house which Jack built.”
This is the house, which is one that he built—
The one that he mortgaged up to the hilt.
According to H.W. Fowler (The King’s English) and Strunk and White (The Elements of Style), that is restrictive while which is nonrestrictive. Misuse of which for that is, nonetheless, common. To me, it sounds worse orally than it looks on paper. We see it frequently in Shakespeare (“Is this a dagger which I see before me?”) and in Wodehouse (“Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.” In both examples, which should clearly be that, according to the rules; but others abide the question, while Shakespeare and Wodehouse are free. Though technically they are in error, their clarity and grace do not suffer, whereas “This is the house which Jack built” sounds awful and is unclear—as if his were the only house on the block and Jack the only carpenter.
“It is raining, so that we will cancel the tennis tournament.”
“So that” introduces a Clause of Purpose, not a Clause of Resault.
“So” is an adverb, and so, as in tennis, this is Your Fault.
It did not rain on purpose
To spoil our little circus.
“You are not illiterate, and nor is she.”
Nor means and not.
About this one I might be wrong
Geniuses P.D. James and Richard Dawkins do it: join the throng!
“Due to federal regulations we cannot hand you your mail over the counter.”
What we all are due to I can guess;
Because of regulations, the language is a mess.
For their grace and pleasantries,
I am grateful to Karen and Chris and Rick and Joe
In the Kennebunkport, Maine P.O.,
Where Our Government posts this absurd notice, though.
“Snow will develop tonight throughout the entire state.”
Where it doesn’t,
There it wasn’t.
If it’s throughout, don’t go out.
If it’s through the entire,
Sit by the fire.
If we’re in the “Throughout-the-entire”
State, we might as well expire.
“And, despite the weather, we’ll continue on with our program.”
Oh, please! Continue backwardly!
At my age, that means more to me.
“Just because I don’t stand on my head doesn’t mean I’m not a good teacher.”
Maybe it doesn’t; still, you’re a clown
To use an adverbial clause as a noun.
“You have reached the Voice-Mail of Lori in Medical Center Accounting. I will not be checking my Voice-Mail today. Please leave a message after the tone.”
Oh, Lori, midst my sore disease
Uncertain, coy, and hard to please,
And variable as the shade
By such light quivering Voice-Mails made,
Never at my call or beck,
I’d dearly like to wring your neck.
However, while I live alone,
Nobody here will ring your phone.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s true:
Your Voice-Mail is as dumb as you.
“It was a heart-rendering story and situation.”
Well, we knew some hearts are hard;
But they can be rendered, just like lard.
“This dog (a beautiful Black Labrador) is named Boris, after the Aurora Boris.”
He of course, who Man’s Best Pal Is,
Wouldn’t want to answer to “Borealis.”
Offspring of the Northern Dawn
His name we do not play upon,
But Boris supplies levity,
And that is Godunov for me.
“A variety of different topics.”
Such an offer seems precarious:
Different does not mean various.
Still, I suppose, there may be folks
Who, being different, like various strokes.
Ode to a Public Radio Fund Drive Hostess
“This unique free gift is unlike anything else.”
It may be free, but as you speak
I see you’re not a language freak.
You’re merely a freak ordinaire
When you “key principles” declare,
And she is not the girl for me
Who uses “key” adjectively,
Especially—and here’s my headicate—
As an adjectival predicate.
And “seeking for” “an over-all goal”
You spin the shaft that twists the soul:
Mistress of Redundancy—
You’re a better girl than I am, Dungaree!
See that “momentum continued on”
Till you and I and words are gone.
(In August bring September flowers?)
“In ten minutes from now” at “twelve noon”
(Coming “on this Thursday morning” pretty soon).
O how you do tire me,
Thou Tochter of Tautology!
The great H.W. Fowler, in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1926), with regard to the placing of the adverb only alludes to “pedants…who, if not quite botanizing on their mother’s grave...are at least clapping a strait waistcoat upon their mother tongue.” Well, this is scathingly clever…except that it should be “on their mothers’ graves,” should it not? Surely all pedants did not spring from the same mom. When I was a child my mom used to listen on (to) the radio weekdays at 4:15 to Stella Dallas, a soap opera whose theme music was a Thuringian folk tune. Years later I learned the English words set to that tune: “How can I leave thee? How can I from thee part?” The second verse begins (with a bad case of Subjunctivitis, which I plan to treat in another frothy effusion soon, attacking W.S. Gilbert and W. Shakespeare for their own benumbed succumbing to the affliction of this disease): “Would I a bird were, soon at thy side to be,/ Falcon nor hawk would fear, speeding to thee./ When by the fowler slain I at thy feet would fall….” Just recently slain by the Fowler, I now await further attack from a new critic so puissant and pissed off, so infuriated, stimulated, and shocked by my sarcastic embittered rage and pathologically pettifogging pedantry and niggling nit-picking as to emerge as a critic so eloquently brutal that by comparison he diminishes a mere detractor defining me as “frothy” and “egotistical” to a speck of lint on my tweed coat-sleeve. Please take a number. Or, these days, Whatever.
Charles E. Gould, Jr., retired from the English department at Kent School, is an antiquarian bookseller and P.G. Wodehouse specialist. He lives in Kennebunkport, Maine.