- Poetry & the Dictionary ed. by Andrew Blades and Piers Pennington
We could stand, with little controversy, upon the principle that the two most word-focused types of people are the poets and the lexicographers. For this working poet with a passion for lexicography, this principle is one of frequent exploration. And while great dictionaries provide rich sources for poets (I myself use the Dictionary of American Regional English and the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles regularly), and poetry has long supplied source materials for lexicographers, those interested in the relationship between notable works of poetry and the dictionary have faced a dearth of contemporary scholarship. This particular hunger of mine has long been unable to locate a fix.
Enter the Liverpool University Press's "Poetry & …" series, a scholarly line on poetics that has thus far explored the interconnections of poetry with such fields as geography, language writing, and science. The most recent entry in that series is Poetry & the Dictionary. We have long understood the processes that go into crafting both creative poetic texts and lexicographical texts. Finally we have a healthy collection of scholarly work on the relationship between modern poets (those writing "from the twentieth century to the present day" ) and dictionaries—most notably the OED, but also a handful of other dictionaries both notable (such as Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language) and more obscure (such as Clough's Dictionary of Automotive Terms and Newton's Dictionary of Birds).
The collection is presented in three sections. The first, "Poetry and the Dictionary," explores the dictionary's roots and "the interrelations between poetry and the dictionary" (19). The other sections present literary analyses of specific poets' work: British and Irish poets in Part 2 and American poets in Part 3. This layout enables the reader to move linearly through the work, building from the basis of lexicography right through to the usage of these materials in the crafting of poetry. The strong roster of scholars that the editors have assembled spans poetry, literary scholarship, and lexicography. That roster pays off and delivers an important collection of essays that, taken together, explores and [End Page 305] attempts to label the relationship between the display of words within dictionaries and the usage of words in poems.
The first section of the collection delivers a well-rounded qualitative and quantitative exploration of the topic—one that oscillates between poetry as root source of lexicographical definition and the manner in which creative texts such as poetry construct and reconstruct language and meaning. The data-driven, quantitative work of David-Antoine Williams (Chapter 3) illustrates the large degree to which the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was constructed around poetry as evidence for word origins. Williams goes on to illustrate how that initial relationship has changed over time and what this means for the English language overall. Delving into the more qualitative aspects of the relationship and pointing to a common thread through all of the successive chapters, Charlotte Brewer (Chapter 2) states that "words are used by poets and other creative writers in ways that nudge them loose of their customary semantic (and sometimes syntactic) moorings, free to signify in relatively unfettered ways both with other words in the same poem and with other words in other texts" (44). She leads her reader to become engaged with the notion that the relationship between poetry and lexicography is both constructive and destructive, and that this relationship is interdependent and ongoing. These chapters build a framework and contextualization for the more detailed, work-level aspects of the relationship between poetry and dictionaries laid out in the rest of the volume.
The next two parts contain focused examinations of the work of renowned poets such as Hugh MacDiarmid, Paul Muldoon, Marianne Moore, Robert Pinsky, and James Merrill. The chapters on Muldoon (Chapter 8, by Mia Gaudern) and Moore (Chapter 9, by Tara Stubbs) offer some of this collection's finest work. Here the writers afford us hands-on observations of...