|Snow sliding off the roof|
Of course any reader or lover of books, like any writer, will also love words. That would seem to go without saying. (Obviously, it doesn't, judging from the number of writers who say it in interviews.) I’ve been thinking more specifically of late about different parts of speech and my feelings for them. Mathematicians sometimes admit to loving certain numbers. Is this strange? Oh, well! If I be strange, let me be unashamed!
Nouns. The fascination of naming. So many human beings begin speech with names. Not all—a few are phrase learners, and I wonder what other differences, if any, divide these two groups of learners—but most of us, when we uttered our first words, spoke names. Mama. Dada. Ball. Dog. My son spoke these words, adding towel, toast and other names quickly to the list. When we went to a theatre, and there was a fire scene in the movie, he identified it as “Hot!” Was that for him an adjective or a noun? Obviously, it was neither, but it may well have been a name.
Verbs. One little boy I took care of for a while was a phrase-learner. “Throw it!” “Get it!” “Jump!” Verbs were his thing. He was all action!
Adjectives and Adverbs. Oh, the love affair young writers embark upon when first they learn to modify their nouns and verbs! How intoxicating the sense of power, adding detail upon detail to a world being recreated with words! Learning to say more with less requires reining in the power so as not to let words run away with the writing, but adjectives and adverbs will always have a place, since the world itself is modified and modifying itself every moment.
I could go on here to say something about pronouns and about conjunctions, seemingly indispensable in the minds of English speakers, although some languages manage without them. If, for instance, a verb is already conjugated to “agree” with a particular pronoun, why is the pronoun needed? It is redundant. Americans love their pronouns, however, especially the first-person singular! And conjunctions. No one can ever study formal logic and see conjunctions naively again. Two statements can be made one after the other. Conjoining them adds nothing. (Either separate or conjoined, in either speaking or in writing, one must come before the other.) And it is such a shock to be told that and and but are logically equivalent! The choice between the two is more an editorial comment on a truth claim than part of a bare statement.
But I want to cut short my survey of parts of speech and get to my main point for today, which is that I have realized only recently (perhaps because it has been true only recently?) that I have an inordinate fondness for the present participle. I was looking back over titles I’d given various posts on this blog and found these words: racing; percolating; beginning, singing, ringing, resolving and hoping; reading; wrapping [up]; getting [back in touch]; remembering; etc., etc., etc. Even before making that discovery I had been reading and thinking about poetry, and it struck me that the present participle is vital to modern poetry, because it is vital to capturing a momentary impression. And suddenly I realized how much I love this part of speech!
Naming is irresistible. We human beings love to give names to objects, to places, to babies, and to each other. There are names we love to say, names that evoke memories or mystery. At the same time, names can lead us astray. When we know something’s name, we are tempted to think we know more about it than we do. When we give an abstract name, we think we have tidily boxed up an idea and can now put it, with its label, on its “proper” place on the idea shelf. Do you think you know who I am as a person or what I think on any particular topic because you have labeled me a “liberal”? Or because I have a “business”? Or because I’m a “philosopher”?
The world is not static; the world is complex and perpetually in flux. Nouns represent pieces of the world by oversimplifying. They take pieces out of context and freeze them in time. Most suspicion of language, when you read it closely, is suspicion of nouns.
No part of speech, however, is propaganda-proof. Verbs, like nouns, adjectives, and/or [!] conjunctions can slant a report one way or another. Did someone boast something or admit it? Did someone else retreat or flee? Did the candidate grin, smile, or smirk? So too the present participle can be used for otherwise unstated editorial purposes: “Puffing out his chest and tilting his chin upward, to a distant corner of the room, the uninvited guest replied....” Don’t you just want to kick him out yourself?
Still, I love this part of speech. The past tense tells us what is supposedly over and done with (as if anything ever is); the present tense holds forth an artificially static snapshot, a “state” of events; and the future tense makes claims that can be redeemed only when the future arrives. The present participle, by contrast, gives us a moment still in motion, as it’s sliding by, tumbling forward, and the word doesn’t try to hide or deny the movement, the slip-sliding.
“The nearer your destination, the more you’re slip-sliding away,” sang Paul Simon, and we heard him and sang along and said, “Yeah!”
Poet Jim Harrison used a present participle for the title of his poetry collection, Saving Daylight. There is a poem with that title in the book, another called “Becoming,” another called “Adding It Up.”
Who can ever forget the first line of the poem that begins,
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer...
- William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”