Friday, August 17, 2007

The Arts and the Common Vernacular

I’m sure that if I thought about it for a few minutes I could make a meaningful connection between a chicken pot pie and intergalactic space travel. I make connections between seemingly unrelated things all the time, and I haven’t yet decided if it’s a blessing or a curse.

Last night I read a poem on Chris Ransick’s WordGarden and although I think of myself as someone who is completely ignorant about most poetry, I’m finding that it’s not entirely true. There are elements of poems and literature that have worked their way into our culture and maybe even into the collective unconscious. The poem sounded familiar and I felt I knew it. And then I ran across a line in the poem:

The grave’s a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace.

-- Andrew Marvell

“To His Coy Mistress”

A Fine and Private Place is also the title of a Peter S. Beagle novel that I read a dozen times when I was in high school. I loved it.

This morning I pulled a very old paperback copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass off my bookshelf – I bought it used in England in the early 80’s and it’s my favorite kind of used book – it’s inscribed -- Marjorie Burnham – from Donna, Christmas 1964. I wonder endlessly about books I find with inscriptions. Did Marjorie die? Did she and Donna have a falling out? Doesn’t Marjorie care about books given as gifts? But I digress – I turned to a random page in the book and the poem was “I Sing the Body Electric”.

The term “Body Electric” has been used in everything from story titles, movie titles, TV shows, and advertising and is the name used by dozens of companies of all kinds.

The third piece of my three legged connection is Hamlet. I have an odd and some might find, strange thing with Shakespeare. I like to rent or buy DVDs of Shakespeare’s plays and then watch them with the subtitles on. Sometimes I have to watch scenes over and over again until I completely understand what’s being said or what’s happening. My latest acquisition is Hamlet – the Kenneth Branaugh production that includes the entire play – no scenes missing. Of course just about every work of Shakespeare is filled with expressions that have become part of the common vernacular. There’s a great list of them here.

The funny thing is that expressions and terms derived from literature and films typically become so ingrained in our speech that more often than not, we forget where they came from.

I was trying to think of some other commonly used expressions of more recent derivation. Catch 22 would be one. I am fairly certain the term did not exist until Joseph Heller dreamed it up.

What expressions can you think of that were not part of the English language before they were invented in poetry, fiction, song or film?


Larramie said...

Gosh, Lisa, this is most difficult and everything I think of sounds so cliche. *sigh*

Wait, The Big Apple.

Lisa said...

Cliche is good! OK, but I give up -- where did the term "The Big Apple" come from?

I think many of the phrases we use now that are cliches do come from literature -- especially Shakespeare, like "A rose by any other name...", and I used to tell people to "Get thee to a nunnery" all the time, knowing it was W.S., but really not knowing where it came from. I'll bet in everyday conversation, people reference "the road not taken" all the time, although I think most of the time people do know it came from Robert Frost. Hmm -- kids use a lot of slang that comes from music, although I'm so unhip I can't think of anything offhand -- oh, except if someone said "she got back", I do know what that means, since I stayed with a friend whose kids knew all the lyrics to that song and had me in hysterics every time they sang it...

This is kind of tough, isn't it?

liz fenwick said...

It's a tough one as sometimes things have changed over time as well...

kristen said...

I'm stumped. Curious to see if anyone comes up with anything...

Lisa, you are finding more and more ways to challenge us, aren't you??

Denis said...

Talk about making connections;your question made me think about an old, (circa 1962) Mad Magazine comicstrip article that included a lot of Shakespearean quotes and it ended with "The rest is Silence". I guess my neurons have this hard wired. When I was going to private school up in NH, we watched a documentary made by a man, (whose name I've lost but was a good friend of your mothers), it was about Robert Frost and included Frost's reading The Mending Wall. I remember him repeating the phrase, "Good fences make good neighbors' several times and I probably still think of this once a month. I think a good connection is The Winter of our Discontent, which was a favorite Steinbeck book and the first line from Richard III. It's too bad my memory won't recall anything nearer in time than Woodstock!

Patti said...

there is a line from Good Will Hunting that goes (roughly): I can't wrap my brain around that.

when i hear this line uttered it makes me crazy now...i don't know why but it does. and i hear it a lot.

Lisa said...

Liz and Kristen -- this is turning out to be harder than I thought it would be!

Denis, You saved the day! I'm so glad you have these weird stream of consciousness episodes too. I just looked it up and there was an Oscar winning documentary done on Frost in 1963 -- I wonder if that was it? The Winter of Our Discontent -- that's perfect. That's another one I've used without knowing exactly where it came from too. I think I vaguely remember the guy you're talking about too. My mother used to type for him -- seems like Leslie and I got sent to sit in the car once at his house because we were being so bad we were driving my mother nuts and then we took the car out of park and it rolled through a stone wall and into his rose bushes -- oops!

Patti, You know I always wonder where that expression came from too because it seems like it popped into common use all of a sudden and I don't know where from. Maybe it was Good Will Hunting.

Larramie said...

A line we'll recognize, Here's looking at you, kid.


Tomorrow is another day.

Lisa said...

Good ones! Oh, oh -- how about:

We'll always have Paris...

Charles Gramlich said...

Confession time. Although Leaves of Grass has some great lines and titles, I don't think much of the poetry there. I know it was supposed to be highly influential on the development of American poetry, and I respect Whitman for that, but I just don't enjoy his work.

"I sing the body electric" was used as a title by Ray Bradbury in a great short story.

Lisa said...

Charles, I'll confess too. Although I've been carrying this paperback that was printed in 1961 around with me for over 25 years, I haven't read it. I've opened it a few times, but I've never connected to it. My understanding about Leaves of Grass (the fact that nearly everyone has heard of it) is because when it came out in 1855, it was pretty racy stuff. This was one of the book acquisitions I've made over time that I wanted to like, but -- it's never done much for me. I do like it because it's an old book and it's got a mysterious inscription -- I'm weird that way.

Lisa said...

Aha! "Grok" -- not in common use by everyone by any means, but people use it and I think most people recognize it came from Robert Heinlein's, Stranger in a Strange Land.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf