Two reviews of The Life of Words

It has been almost two years since I published The Life of Words: Etymology and Modern Poetry, and even longer since I stopped working on it. A couple of reviews have come out, one just the other day. They’re by Barry Wallenstein (in Choice) and Stephanie Burt (in Modern Philology).

The latter is free to read without any special credentials: follow the link here. What I like and admire about Burt’s review is how it handles so charitably what Burt clearly was left wanting. When I started the project, almost fifteen years ago, I had in mind a book that would set out terms for further work. And as I was coming to the end, I was conscious of large swathes I was leaving unmown beyond the hill (or Hill). I’m grateful Burt saw it that way as well and said so, when she might easily have taken it–or presented it–as ignorant or pernicious. Academics, after all, tend to prioritize their own curiosities, practices, pathways, and tendencies over those of them they read, and attribute all sorts of deficiency to the gap between.

Here are some excerpts:

Neither the sound of a word nor its history provides a metaphysically or intellectually reliable guide to its present-day use and force. Poets, however, sometimes write as if such a guide could exist, or as if their poems could provide one: these imaginary guides stand behind, or direct, some recent poets’ major works. So David-Antoine Williams concludes in this learned, careful, insightful study of how these poets take account of etymology: not only the histories and the origins of words, but also the stories we tell about them, whether or not we believe them.


All these poets’ work solicits, and rewards, the heavy lifting and referential delving that Williams (whose list of “references” comprises two pages of English, German, Hebrew, Irish, Latin, and PIE dictionaries, above and apart from his Works Cited [259–61]) performs. What matters to Williams is not whether the etymologies in the poems are accurate according to present-day standards but whether they feel like “word-work,” not just “wordplay” (69), whether the poem, discovering what appear to be truths in the roots of its words, may “convince me, not of its beliefs, but of its believing. This believing in its own correctness raises its linguistic arrangements above the level of paranomasia” (75). Whether or not “[Gerard Manley] Hopkins did understand ‘earliest’ and ‘earl’ to share a common origin” (70–71), when he invokes “earliest stars, earl stars, | stars principal” he sounds as if he did, and that sound of work is the sound that Williams pursues.


Williams’s white, male English and Irish focal poets (Heaney, Langley, Prynne, Hill, and Muldoon) do not so much use word-work differently from Estes or Carson; rather, they use it consistently, making it into a structural element rather than an occasion or ornament in the poems they build.

That said, Estes’s rococo poetics collapses the space between structure and ornament: she could have furnished another whole chapter, had Williams space enough and time. For Estes, as for Hill and Prynne and Heaney and Langley, etymologically oriented polysemy seems consistent enough, and self-conscious enough, and thematically relevant enough, that we can view it apart from the general polysemies on which so many more poets depend.


And that said, the potential for other chapters, extending the argument to other poets, is hardly a flaw in any scholarly book: it’s more like a sign that the scholar has done their job, explaining an important mechanism for making beauty and meaning, one that each major writer deploys in their own odd way.


That place, in turn—and here lies the heaviest limit on this thoughtful, responsible, charitable study—is for Williams a place of archaelogy and study, a place of writing, reading, rereading, and texts, as well as an English or sometimes Irish place, “English” and “Irish” naming both nation and language. Do English-language poets whose nations began as white settler colonies—the United States, say, or New Zealand—manifest, in the multiple meanings that our poems deploy, the same attention to the history of English amid other Indo-European languages? Is Estes an outlier? What about poets, like Christopher Okigbo (whom Hill commemorated) or Singapore’s terrific Ng-Yi Sheng, who derive their forms and genres from the non-Indo-European, non-Semitic languages in their polyglot nations? What about poets who depend less on text meant to be reread than on the performances of their poems aloud? Do they use etymology differently, if at all? These are questions that Williams does not reach, questions his good book leaves for scholars to come.


The Wallenstein Choice review I reproduce in full here:

Williams (Univ. of Waterloo, UK [note: no!]) is also author of Defending Poetry: Art and Ethics in Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill (2010). Both Heaney and Hill are discussed in this new study of poets’  interest in the origin of words. The central thrust of this erudite book is the meaning of words—the use of poetic figures and prosody. This work is as much about philosophy as about philology. The excellent introduction (titled “Proem”) begins with an engaging discussion of a poem by Robert Haas that is largely about fascination with origins—etymological and lexicological concerns. Williams shows, through his examples, how poems involve and demonstrate “etymological thinking.” His chosen poets comprise a small and diverse group of contemporary figures such as post-Beat performance poet Anne Waldman along with the allusive and erudite Hill, Heaney, J. H. Prynne, R. F. Langley, Anne Carson, and Paul Muldoon and earlier poets who influenced their work, e.g., Gerard Manley Hopkins, T. S. Eliot, and Robert Frost. Williams’s extensive knowledge of languages and how language works in poetry is apparent throughout the book, which concludes with a most interesting index of “words, names, and roots” and another index of metaphors. Valuable for scholars of poetry, philology, critical theory, and linguistics.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Graduate students, researchers, faculty.   

Recommendation: Highly recommended
Readership Level: Graduate Students, Researchers/Faculty
Interdisciplinary Subjects: Subject: Humanities – Language & Literature – English & American
Choice Issue: jul 2021 vol. 58 no. 11
Choice Review #: 58-3119



  • kts wrote:

    Yes, that’s a valuable point about the potential for other chapters. But, not being familiar with Paul Muldoon, I was brought up short by this sentence in Burt’s review:

    the language speaks through him [Muldoon], with its “vast underground net of unseen connections” (210), such as the Beatles’ “play on ‘album’ and ‘white’” (208) (Latin albus).

    Wait, what? If there’s a play there, it’s not the Beatles who made it! And your book points out that they didn’t (via Google):

    … no one could have ‘noticed the play’ between ‘album’ and ‘white’ in what became known as the White Album (properly entitled ‘The Beatles’), since there is no and never was any such ‘play’. ‘White Album’ is simply one of those innumerable linguistic coincidences … A poem could, of course, subsequently make such a play, but this one does not, or not exactly.

    After reading a couple of pages about Muldoon, I’d guess that *he* knew the Beatles didn’t call it the White Album; I take him to be using “play” as in the play of water in a waterfall, or the play of light and shadow as clouds cross the sky, i.e., he isn’t calling it the Beatles’ play any more than you and I would. Maybe Burt knows that too, and just wrote it awkwardly?

    Maybe this is just nitpickery, I don’t know. It really did jar me, and reading a few pages of poetry criticism put me in a hyper-close-reading mode — even though a review isn’t poetry.

  • If I had to guess it’s probably a shorthand to a point that has been made about those lines a few times in the criticism: see below by Michael Robbins (in Modern Philology, Nov. 2011):

  • I like your idea about the other sense of play, though – although “play of” isn’t quite “play on” (I hadn’t noticed the play of “play on” and “play of”….). But “noticed the play” can well be taken as “the potential for play”.

  • Some talk on this over at LanguageHat:

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