Monday, December 15, 2014

On the Importance of the The

I was thinking this morning about a Wallace Stevens poem and a class in modern American poetry I had as an undergraduate.

Like a lot of what we read in that course, the poem was especially challenging for someone barely 20 years old to appreciate. The professor was fantastic, however, and successfully convinced me over and over why the problems these poets were exploring -- linguistic, artistic, historical, psychological, philosophical -- were worth considering. And were, in fact, often fascinating.

The poem I thought of is called “The Man on the Dump” and like a lot of the poetry we read in that course features a great deal of physical description, in this case of seemingly scattered shards of items in a trash heap. Besides a fairly constant feeling of befuddlement, the main, decades-later impression I retain from that course was the unending stream of stuff in those poems -- all of the descriptions of things like Eliot’s yellow smoke or Williams’s red wheelbarrow or Frost’s wall with a frozen-ground-swell erupting at its base.

I’m not going to pretend to possess any special insight about these poems. After being sincerely intrigued for a semester by Pound’s puzzles, Larkin’s larks, and Plath’s plight, I made a hasty retreat back to the 18th century in grad school to study long novels and satire instead. But as I say, a few of them stand out starkly for me, mostly because of those images like the withered flowers strewn among the dirt and tin cans and old mattresses in Stevens’s poem.

The real reason I thought of Stevens’s poem was because of the way it finishes. It ends with one of those weird poetic punch lines -- you know, like a question about telling the difference between the dancer and the dance. Coming at the end of a series of rhetorical questions, the speaker asks “Where was it one first heard the truth?” He then concludes with a two-word sentence that either answers the question or perhaps clarifies it somehow: “The the.”

No, that’s not a typo. The first “the” is a definite article, and the second “the” is (seemingly) a noun. That explains the grammar of the sentence, anyway. Meanwhile, to pinpoint what the the is referring to -- a physical location? a point of origin? objective truth? -- is hardly as simple a matter. As I recall we took the better part of an hour working on that problem in class.

Later I’d think back fondly on that discussion. The particulars of it have long faded, but I still get a kick out of the sheer audacity of spending that much time talking about a single word -- and perhaps the most mundane, pedestrian word in the English language at that.

The poem and the class rushed back to mind today after having had a quick back-and-forth with someone about whether or not to include the word “the” in something he had written. I liked that exchange. It proved something I already knew about both of us, namely, that we both cared about language and thought a word like “the” to be worth discussing.

After all, deciding to use the “the” takes a stand, to give a different, more particular status to the noun coming after the article. It’s a decision that shouldn’t be made casually.

It’s an all-in push. It’s the the.

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