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Essay: In Defense of Incarnadine

I am a literate person (dear reader, grant me that!), but I did not receive a literary education in the proper sense. In a small step towards rectifying this perceived deficiency—or, to put it more precisely, this deficiency which I perceive many of my competitors in the conquests of publishing to lack—I have begun reading Louise Glück’s essay collection, Proofs and Theories. The first essay, “Education of a Poet,” is taken from a 1989 lecture Glück gave at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. It contains early on the following comment:


The axiom is that the mark of poetic intelligence or vocation is passion for language, which is thought to mean delirious response to language’s smallest communicative unit: to the word. The poet is supposed to be the person who can’t get enough of words like “incarnadine.” This was not my experience… from the beginning I preferred the simplest vocabulary… such language, in being generic, is likely to contain the greatest and most dramatic variety of meaning within individual words (4).


I imagine Glück paused following the utterance of incarnadine, leaving room for a chuckle from the crowd.

Let it be known: I love the word incarnadine. I loved it even before I knew what it meant. Perhaps the fact I had to look up the meaning speaks to Glück’s point, but I found that moment of discovery to redouble my enjoyment of its formerly nonsensical phonemes. Incarnadine, I learned, is a color, a pinkish red—flesh red, as in carnal or carnation.

Of course it should be a color—what else could it be? I felt a beautiful harmony between sound and meaning unfold before me upon reading the definition, perhaps not delirium, but something energizing all the same. Furthermore, and adding a third note to the harmony, I found it is a Shakespearean word, describing the red-handed Macbeths. I attest that no small share of this enjoyment would be withheld by red, the most generic and universal synonym. On learning it, I decided I simply had to use incarnadine in a poem forthwith, which I suppose is the exact inverse of what Glück’s comment would imply I should do—luckily, I had yet to read her essay. I admit there is an artificiality inherent to writing this way, but when writer’s prompts are available for purchase in the form of fridge magnets, tarot cards, and sets of dice, why not? My efforts resulted in the following lines:


These hues bestowed by evening sky—

violet, gold, incarnadine—

which grant the day a warm goodbye

and make the evening hour fine…


I will concede: my reader may never have seen an incarnadine sky; my reader will have, however, very likely seen a sky that could reasonably be described as red. Behold the universality of the generic in action! Yet all the same—and maybe it is no more than a young writer’s narcissism that leads me to do so—I maintain the superiority of incarnadine in this context. In particular, the above lines are from a poem about losing one’s self, or illusion of self, in a vista of the natural world—here, the sky; it is pleasing that a word connoting flesh can be, first of all, so easy on the ears and, secondly, can be employed to color in that sky, into which the flesh of the self is to be spread and dissolved. This connotation is communicated by red as well, but only etymologically so by way of red first connoting incarnadine. Furthermore, although one immediately recognizes the phrase “flesh red,” it is not this connotation one usually thinks of when they hear “the red of the sunset.” This observation, mind you, is not out of step with Glück’s—it is the household nature of red that gives it access to the widest range of connotations, which is powerful indeed, but this universality dilutes any one shade of meaning. There are times when the specific conjoining of sound and meaning found in a word like incarnadine is called for.

There are other words Glück might have used as her example which I would have been similarly inspired to defend. Laburnum is a personal favorite— a kind of flowering tree. The flowers, yellow, grow in drooping clusters, looking something like bunches of grapes, only lighter and more delicate; it carries the common name Golden Rain. Again, I say: what else could it be? What else could so beautiful a word denote if not a flower? Effulgence charms me with the teeter-totter action it requires of the palette in flipping from the teeth-on-lip position of “eff” to the tongue-on-roof position of “ul.” I like also its closeness to effluence, although the etymologies appear to be only tangentially related. Mellifluous sends the teeter-totter back in reverse, and is another lovely example of sound harmonizing with meaning, as one must be mellifluous of voice to mellifluously pronounce mellifluous—particularly three-times-fast.

While Glück’s nudge towards simple vocabulary is a gentle one, this is not always the case. I once came across a poetry journal’s call for submissions which admonished against “flowery language” (my paraphrase—I don’t recall the exact wording), noting that use of the word azure, while not strictly outlawed, was something of a red flag. I was a little put out by this and at once thought of the “azure steeps” which appear in Hart Crane’s “At Melville’s Tomb,” hoping that Crane—whose ear for sound, whose “silver snowy sentences,” strike me as singularly gleaming, as shining forth with brilliant radiance (dare I say effulgence?)—that Crane would be my vanguard; hoping that I, in time, could join him atop those azure steeps whereupon we could share a scoff at the anti-pretentious pretensions of whichever azure-deriding magazine that was. But alas, Crane too struggled against the editors of his time, remains under-appreciated today, and is not coming to my rescue now.

This same anecdote came to mind when I began reading Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which I recently finished. The novel is written in the form of a poem with commentary, the poem by one character, Shade, and the commentary by another, Kinbote; Shade’s poem notably begins:


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

by the false azure in the windowpane (31)…


Well, I’m no expert (yet!), but this strikes me as a hell of a lot better than, “the false blueness in the windowpane,” or any other swap (to at least try and give the substitution a fair shake, I came up with “by unreal blueness in the windowpane,” but the repeated “buh” sounds, followed by the “puh” in windowpane, conjure up three crashing waxwings rather than one, loading an undo heaviness onto the line). Indeed, there is something about “false azure” which stands out—which extends to the whole couplet an intriguing mystique. I believe that some of this mystique is owed to the comparative rarity of azure itself—to its very status as a so-called literary (flowery?) word.

There is a danger in dismissing such words as literary, pretentious, flowery, or archaic—who gets to draw the line? A word like laconic, for example, which Glück herself uses later on in her essay, may seem a trifle to a couple of freakishly engorged brains such as you and me, but to high school Juniors preparing for their SATs it is likely to be no laughing matter, embattled as they are by the need to cram rapidly several dozen words similarly situated on the hierarchy of the recondite into their heads.

I felt myself similarly embattled while reading Pale Fire, although I was more than happy to be so; that novel has the distinction of sending my brain—no longer feeling itself to be all that freakishly engorged, yet brimming with eager anticipation—abustle to the refuge of the dictionary more frequently than any I can remember. It obliterates any and all demands for an austere vocabulary, replete as it is with words like otiose (which I had actually already picked up from Atwood’s The Blind Assassin), fatidic (the meaning of which I really ought to have guessed), and goetic (which my word processor insists is not a word at all). Of course, Nabokov’s goals were different than Glück’s. The amount of characterization the former is able to wring out of Kinbote’s diction alone is astounding. In poetry, on the other hand, the speaker is generally taken to be the author, a smudgy reflection of the author, or some kind of universal “I,” and in any of these cases the poet rarely seeks to erect a facade akin to Nabokov’s Kinbote.

I as well do not seek to erect a facade through my poetry—certainly not a facade as difficult to scale as Kinbote’s, as much I, personally, enjoyed scaling it— and acknowledge that for otiose, goetic, and fatidic to appear together in a single line or single stanza or even a single poem would be a little much (although the slant rhyme of goetic and fatidic is tempting). However, I maintain that these words, alongside azure, mellifluous, effulgence, laburnum, and—of course—incarnadine, have their place in contemporary poetry, as do all words found in the dictionary and even some that are not, or not yet. I will endeavor to write with the words I enjoy reading and, especially, the words I enjoy speaking, even if they are not the words I would use when speaking to a stranger on the street. I will endeavor to celebrate both the sound and the meaning of these words and, in so doing, I seek not only to defend but to rejuvenate them; for words, to be spoken is to be alive.

Having written this little defense, I find my initial reaction to Glück’s comment on incarnadine to be rooted in a nagging awareness of my poetic verdure—(only kidding!)—that is, of my greenness as a poet, which leads me to hunger for the advice of the seasoned masters with their enviable patinas. I have wrestled with this particular piece of advice, implicit as it may be, and have elected to take it more as theory than as proof. I have come out the better for doing so. As for you, reader, I hope you will join me high in the azure steeps, the incarnadine sky, or—when the occasion does call for a pure, Glückian simplicity—plain-old literary heaven.

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