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The Lawless Germinal Element It is surely possible that our massive American vocabulary contains in its magma and compost a loan-word-pidgin-slang libido that accounts for a crucial part of the American energy that, in the twentieth century, has enabled American poets to create arguably the most diverse, minority-inclusive poetry in the world. From the beginning, on the Mayflower itself, when "the voices of Kent and Yorkshire and Devon, along with those of the East Anglian majority" began the process known as "accent leveling," we have been language mongrels. In 1619, ayear before the Mayflower, the first shipload of West African slaves arrived in Virginia. Then and in the terrible years to come, language groups would be separated to minimize the possibility of rebellion. To be able to communicate, the slaves are said to have created a pidgin English based on the English of the sailors from such places as Liverpool and Bristol. When I look at the origins of my American language, it returns me to "Baby's Book of Events," a scrap book my father compiled from the day of my birth until I was two years and eight months old. He appears to have kept a conscientious record of what I said as it occurred. Other than a few lists of words, he wrote out the entries as if I was speaking through him. Thus: April zoth, 1936—10 months, 3weeks. "Dad-da" I called when the door would open or I thought it time for Daddy to be coming home. And then I added "car" one week later, April 28th—"Dad-da car." Even when I would hear an auto horn that sounded like Daddy's auto, I would jump up from my play pen, look at the door and say "Dad-da car Dad-da car." This paper waspresented at the panel discussion "What's American About AmericanLanguage ?" at the Poetry Society of America's What's AmericanAboutAmerican Poetry? Festival at the New School, NYC, November, 1998. It was subsequently publishedin American Letters & Commentary #11, 1999. The Lawless Germinal Element 267 Glancing through my father's entries, I note that at sixteen months I could point out pictures of bow-wow, man, lady, chup-chup (for bird), cock (for clock), and Popeye. At twenty months, I identified myself not as Clayton Jr., or their nickname for me, Sonny, but as "He-hey," and when asked "What's your name?" replied "Cot-ju." At two years, I boldly stated: "Bok oldMamma, Tak-a new Mamma." Without making too much of it, I'd like to suggest that some of the elements of my imprisonment and efforts to escape in language were even then falling in place. The Presbyterian God and my parents' anal compulsiveness were lining up on one side; and on the other were comic strips (my introduction to imagination and literature), and my impulse to rename myself and replace my mother. At around twelve, I recall playmates introducing me to swear words and daring me to repeat some out loud. I refused, but later, behind our garage, forced myself, terrified of the consequences, to blurt out: "Goddam black widows!" As a teenager sitting at the dining-room table and having conversations with my parents that were not far from a bland Midwestern situation comedy, I was only vaguely aware that under our programmed exchanges was a vast cellar, as it were, of slang (as well as erudite language) sending up drafts and odors that I did not know how to access —and was afraid to access,for a few gusts of an emotionally spontaneous language told me that unless I were to break free of my behaviorial frame there would be no place to go. Via playing the piano and entering the teenage fad fashion that included zoot suits and Mr. B. collars, I became aware of jazz and of Bud Powell's version of "Tea for Two." I murkily grasped that you didn't have to play the melody again and again but after stating it once, you could improvise, sort of make up your own tune. Consequently, I didn't have to play my parents' tunes all my life but could make up some of my own. Soaking up a bit of the jazz world's improvisational spirit, tasting its alternative culture jargon, provoked me to blindly commit myself to poetry in my early twenties. I can see now that jazz, for me, wasjust an extension of my mother...


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