This is the sixth in a series of posts I’ve undertaken within the framework of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, in which each day’s post centers on a topic connected to the next letter of the alphabet from the day before. I’m not officially signed up, and I’m a couple of days behind, but I thought it was an interesting idea, so I’m doing it on my own. The posts all have to do, directly or indirectly, with teaching and learning.
As a result of submitting to the challenge, I’ve been spending rather a lot of time, before I actually start writing, thinking about words simply on the basis of what letter they start with, which has been interesting and a little bit weird. It’s certainly not the way I usually connect words in my head. Last night as I went to sleep I began thinking about what word or words I’d want to play with today.
When I woke up this morning I took out my (analog) journal and started spraying them out. I came with 83 out of my own head (the ones in black ink) and then skimmed my Scrabble dictionary and came up with about 50 more (the ones in green). Sometimes they arrive singly, sometimes in little matched sets: fact and fiction, fame and fortune, friend and foe. Sometimes you get one word which spins out a list of derivations, each with its own little field of energy: fly, flying, flight. It turns out that there are a lot of “f” words that evoke failure in colorful ways: fall, false, flop, flub, fumble, flunk, fiasco. Then there is THE F-word, the one people assume you’re talking about when you talk about F-words, and that’s a whole area of inquiry all by itself. We’re not going to go there. Tempting, but no.
It turns out that there are some words that lend themselves to digressive investigation, and some that don’t. A word like “fellow,” for example, is a nice enough word, and conveys a certain genteel tonality when compared to synonyms like “man” or “guy.” I suppose I could work up a line of thought about the word, but it wouldn’t necessarily flow the way it would if were to choose a word like “fire.” So there it is, the word of the day: Fire.
Fire is a powerful force, a powerful word, and has of its very nature a certain kind of imagistic and emotional intensity that lends itself to narrative. (I wrote one such narrative, in the form of a poem, some thirty years ago, and recalled it here.)
“Fire” has its own little family as well: flame, flare, flash, any one of which might give a writer a spark. Here, for example, the first paragraph of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, which begins with the image of a flickering flame:
The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscotting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.
I love what McCarthy does here with words: with what they show, with what they suggest, with the sounds they make, with doublings right from the get-go. He gets a lot of mileage here not just out of the “flame” in “candleflame,” but out of the other f-words as well: “forward” echoed immediately by “floorboard” and picked up by “forebears,” “framed” and “face,” and finally by “funeral,” which gathers all the other details and snaps them into focus: “Ah. It’s a funeral. He’s just come home. That’s why he’s wearing black. That’s why the lilies are there.”
Other alliterations and assonances and doublings as well: “lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase.” One and two and three and four and five and six and done. And within that rhythmic sequence, those precisely placed long “a” sounds: one and two and “palely” four and “waisted” five and “vase.” And the difference between the soft-edged sounds of “lilies leaned so palely” and the hard-edged sounds of “waisted cutglass vase,” the t, the d, the c, the t, and the g all reinforcing the hardness of the vase surrounding the softness of the lilies.
There is a gravity to this language, a solemnity that arises from McCarthy’s care in his choice of words, his sounds, his syllables. It’s not an accident that he starts this novel with a flame burning in the darkness. Fire is elemental. It is what it is, but it is not only what it is. It stands for vision, for motivation, for ardor, for passion, for life itself. All of which wind up being relevant in All the Pretty Horses. It is, if not the Great American Novel, at least a Great American Novel.
Another angle on “fire.” I had thought of devoting yesterday’s “E” post to the word “engagement,” which I have been returning to in my thinking of late when I talk with people about the inclinations and attitudes that we as educators might wish to foster in our students, or as parents in our progeny. Primary among those attributes would be the capacity for engagement, for ardor, for fire: the capacity for the kind of deep enthusiasm that someone like, say, Sarah Kay, brings into whatever room or arena or section of the universe she happens to be inhabiting at any given moment. It happens that she talks explicitly about her own hopes for her child here, before going on to talk about her own experience as a writer, and where her particular brand of fire comes from. More impressive than anything than she actually says on stage is the way she puts it across, the level of her engagement with what she is doing, saying to herself even when she believes she can’t, she can. She is the embodiment of a certain kind of fire that burns to create and not to destroy. She’s the kind of person we need to have more of on this planet. If you haven’t seen her, check it out.