Invective Against Swans
The other side of language

I came across this quote from WS Graham today – “a word is exciting because of its surroundings” – hunting for some clarification on the poem Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons (in preparation for my course at Chateau Ventenac next week) while pondering the very strange image near the end when the famous flutist Quantz tells his pupil, Karl:

One last thing, Karl, remember when you enter
The joy of those quick high archipelagos,
To make to keep your finger-stops as light
As feathers but definite. What can I say more?

In 1977, Graham wrote to Fraser Steel, a radio producer at the BBC, who had queried the use of ‘archipelagos’ in the poem, assuming it was a typo. Graham replies:

Of course I mean ‘arpeggios’. That’s why I said ‘archipelagoes’. It is making a quick little entertainment by putting down one word in stead [sic] of the other and both words making an exciting sense. At least I hope so. Again, I think we know he is playing a quick flourish of islands.

A lot of the poem has the strangeness, the not-quite-rightness of something translated awkwardly from German into English (Graham read Quantz’s famous 1752 treatise on playing the flute, Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen in its English translation, leant to him by Rose Hilton). But the use of ‘archipelagos’ is typical of Graham, because he wants us to think of art – in this case music, but of course also poetry – as a means of transport to another place. So there is the sense of two words, the ‘correct’ one, but also one which is close in sound but carries us further in metaphor. And isn’t it funny how playing or listening to arpeggios on a flute sounds a bit like hopping quickly from one little island to the next (and trying not to get your feel wet in the bargain)?

John Cage, whose music I was listening to this afternoon (a chance collision between Cage and Graham – both of them would have liked that) said that music should be ‘purposeless play … not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living.’ Graham certainly felt that way about words, was always acutely aware of their power to both confuse and clarify. Which is what he is constantly doing in his poems, sometimes all at once.

And anyhow, ‘archipelago’ is one of the most beautiful words I can think of, so it’s good to have an excuse to put it into a poem …