Researching and writing about puritan poet Anne Bradstreet

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Obnoxious (adj.)

Go ahead, Anne, choose the words that
will screw up my big plans.

"I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits . . . "

Wonderful!  Can't you see Anne Bradstreet at her writing table, slyly taking revenge on her nitty neighbors who all think she should be cooking and canning rather than composing poetry?  It's perfect for us, too, four hundred years removed from Anne's world.  It gives us a heady dose of her spirit.  We get a glimpse of the subtle rebellion that is (apparently) simmering away under her staid garb of a magistrate's wife.

Except . . .

Curse you, Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED is a multi-volume dictionary that contains -- not only (purportedly) every word in the language -- but how each word has been used over time.  So if (for instance) one wanted to find out what the word, "obnoxious" meant in the early seventeenth century, this would be one's first stop.  It's a wonderful tool for historical writers.

Except when it screws up my plans.

Definition 1; "Exposed to (actual or possible) harm; subject or liable to injury or evil of any kind."
Definition 1a:  "With to: Liable, subject, exposed, open . . . "

"Formerly the prevailing use," intones the OED, "now less frequent than 6."

Definition #6 (almost a column later) is our more familiar usage of the word:  "object of aversion or dislike; offensive, objectionable, odious . . . " Used as early as 1675, to be sure.  But philologically, a mistake:  a mixing-up of "obnoxious" with "noxious."

So if I bite the bullet and assume she was using the word as it was usually used in her time -- that makes it:
"I am wounded by each carping tongue"
"I am injured by each carping tongue"
"I am left open to criticism by each carping tongue"

Or some such.

Sure, still pretty good, still workable, still spirited but different than what I thought . . . and frankly (since the discovery is still in its first hour), a bummer.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Writing Pains #4

Well, I've been neglecting this blog shockingly, but for good reason:  I've been writing madly, doing little research for a change, learning to write, finding out where the walls are by walking into them, scratching my head, alternating between glory and shame . . . and it takes up time.

My ole buddy Clio, muse of history, whom I'm
keeping locked in a closet most days right now.
Looks like she's behind on her reading list, to
judge from all those books tossed around.  I
can relate.
I've been thinking about the old story of the nine muses lately as I learn about the writing process.  Time was when they said that creativity did not have its source inside of a person.  Rather, it came from the influence of a goddess, a muse.  Which muse you got at your shoulder depended on what kind of creative work you were doing.  If you were writing a song, then Euterpe might be humming to you; if you were creating a dance, Terpsichore might invisibly shadow you, showing you how to combine spirit and motion.  A writer may be listening to one of several muses, depending on the nature of the work.  And it's not just artists; scientists and and even historians get their own muses as well.

I think I see how this idea became popular, for often the creative process has a life of its own.  The writer sits down in front of the same laptop screen as yesterday, and -- magic occurs.  A character walks out of the shadows, fully formed and speaking.  It feels like magic, though surely it is some intersection -- some mere intersection -- between the conscious and subconscious minds.  But it feels like something outside of yourself, that you are recording rather than creating.  Very strange.

Anne Bradstreet's family entitled her work The Tenth Muse, meaning she herself, a new American master of poetry.  I wonder if that seemed ironic to Bradstreet, if it seemed to her that the Inspirer and the Inspired were being confused.  But on that day in 1650, when they yelled, "Surprise!" and laid her published book of poetry in her hands, she was in no position, or, I daresay mood, to complain.