The English language has ambled into the 21st century at its usual meditative pace, reluctant to sacrifice its dignity and majesty to the promptings of progress and yet, perhaps with a languorous and regretful sigh, forced to concede that the advances of technology have rendered huge swathes of vocabulary obsolete almost overnight. We now live in the era of e-mail and text messages, where nouns are wrenched into service as verbs; where punctuation is a tangled thicket of slashes, dots, arrows and angle brackets; where complete sentences have been bundled off into exile, and mysterious abbreviations disclose hidden doorways to knowledge at a mere touch.
And yet, one has to admire the capacity of the English language to adapt itself to the pressing demands of technology and science. These are ever-changing realities that cannot be ignored and any language must keep as its primary goal the ability to communicate if it wishes to maintain its currency.
What then of the unchanging realities, the inner experiences and realisations that remain essentially the same for humankind generation after generation? Here we cannot claim that new circumstances have arisen that would validate the expansion of the language; the wise have ever been so. “High thoughts must have high language,” said Aristophanes in the 4th century B.C.
And yet, it is undeniably true that writers over the centuries have been faced with what can only be called the limitations of the English language in the field of emotional and spiritual experience. “Words form the thread on which we string our experiences,” wrote Aldous Huxley, but unfortunately, one is forced to admit that beside some of the other world languages, particularly those of the East, the English language is singularly impoverished in this field.
For the words we do have, we owe a great deal to Shakespeare, who is reputed to have coined over 1,000 new words to meet the needs of his dramatic dialogue. Barbara Wallraff, in her book Word Fugitives, attributes such verbs as “besmirch”, “impede” and “rant” to the bard. In the latter half of the 19th century, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins coined compounds such as “wind-walks”, “silk-sack”, “dapple-dawn-drawn” and “fathers-forth”.
“No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness,” Hopkins confessed to Robert Bridges in a letter dated February 15th, 1879. The fact that Hopkins’ innovations have not passed into general parlance does not diminish the exquisite beauty of his poems, the urgency of a soul trying to find the most perfect means of expressing the divine.
The renowned Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore asserted, “When old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart.”
The truth of his statement is reflected by a small group of writers in the English language who have spontaneously improvised their own words for certain perceptions, experiences and inner realities. One of the most prolific of these is the contemporary Indian poet Sri Chinmoy who has made compound nouns his lingua franca.
Although born in Bengal, Sri Chinmoy has been writing in English for more than half a century. He is no longer considered a newcomer to the language, but in many ways his ease of innovation reflects the joy of discovering the language afresh. Imagine being the first person ever to say anything, invites Barbara Wallraff. And Virginia Woolf vividly pictures “the word-coining genius, as if thought plunged into a sea of words and came up
Here are some samples of Sri Chinmoy’s unique style. They are drawn from a small selection of his poems entitled The Caged Bird and the Uncaged Bird:
My heart is burdened with many things,
But one thing haunts me
At each hush-gap,
And that is the mountain-burden
Beyond the sunrise-sky.
Before the sunset-cry.
The day is fast approaching
When the hope-caravan of the seekers
Shall successfully and gloriously
Pass through the frustration-desert.
Where can I find you, where?
When can I transform you, when?
Is a world-peace-stranger
Clearly the poet has evolved these compound noun variants in order to concentrate his expression into the fewest possible words. It is thus a technique of brevity and of power. He has eliminated any connecting words which, in a poetic context, may be perceived as weakening the impact of a phrase. “The mountain-burden/Of world-sorrow” carries far greater force, for example, than “The mountainous burden of the sorrow of the world.”
While it is not common to employ compound nouns in such abundance, Sri Chinmoy’s approach is definitely acceptable within the bounds of the English language. Moreover, his compound nouns have the advantage of the familiar. The words themselves are not novel; it is their blending together that impresses itself upon the imagination of the reader with singular newness and freshness. We know, for instance, what “hush” and “gap” mean separately; it is the new portmanteau “hush-gap” that evokes a different kind of energy in the poem. It fuses an aural and a spatial image to create something intensely alive. Here then is surely what Virginia Woolf referred to as thought that “plunged into a sea of words and came up dripping.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, speaking from his own vast experience as both a writer and philosopher, claimed, “There is no choice of words for him who clearly sees the truth.” It is this imperative feeling that pervades Sri Chinmoy’s writing and compels him to describe the mind, for example, as “a world-peace-stranger” and “a world-peace-strangler.” Both are extremely strong images, made even more so by the precise parallelism of the triple compounds. There is nothing cryptic or obscure about these references. In fact, the word order of each compound and their proximity in the
poem allow us to follow the poet in his creative process, to trace their formation. In fact, the compounds highlight and illuminate his thought process to an unusual degree.
Sri Chinmoy is very fond of these comparative compounds to supply the key to understanding his poems. Thus the “hope-caravan” passes through the “frustration-desert.” The intangible quality of hope is allied to a tangible image (“caravan”) that is progressing, albeit slowly, across the arid wastes. In the same way, the intangible quality of “frustration” is linked with the desert, a powerful image of endless and unrelieved dryness and emptiness. Together, the two compounds compose a remarkably vibrant portrait of spiritual despair infused with a glimmer of hope.
One abiding feature of Sri Chinmoy’s compound nouns is that they are not clever in a purely intellectual way. He does not make his two words into a pastiche (such as “ignoramire” for “ignorancemire”). Rather he chooses to build images and pictures from old words while allowing these words to retain their integrity. His technique is more akin to the Chinese calligrapher who combines the characters for (1) tree, (2) large and (3) sighing with admiration into a pictogram denoting a chair. Working with a similar kind of craftsmanship, Sri Chinmoy breathes new life into some of the oldest words in our language — soul, sky, fire, cry, tree, flower.
Writing in the late 19th century, Alexander Smith said, “Memorable sentences are memorable on account of some single irradiating word.” Sri Chinmoy’s poems are frequently memorable because of some single irradiating compound noun and I would not be surprised if many of these compounds enter into the English language as a matter of course and endow it with an entirely new spiritual dimension.
Dr. Vidagdha Bennett
- Chinmoy, Sri. The Caged Bird and the Uncaged Bird. New York: Aum Publications, 1998.
- Jacobs, Alan, ed. Mvstical Verse. Massachusetts: Element Books, 1997.
- Wallraff, Barbara. Word Fugitives. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.