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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

24 June 2022

Malcolm Guite delights in words that carry just the right meaning for what they describe

LIKE most poets, I take a delight in language and savour words for their own sake, and I take special pleasure in a rare or unusual word that happens to carry just the right meaning for the occasion on which it is used. One such word is “susurration”, meaning a whispering or murmuring sound, from the Latin root susurrus, a whisper, and susurrare, to murmur or hum.

Susurration is especially used to describe the sound that trees make when a light breeze blows through their leaves. Part of the pleasure in using it is the element of onomatopoeia; for it sounds very much like what it describes. Indeed, there was a BBC Radio 4 programme, The Susurrations of Trees, which celebrated that sound, in itself and in literature.

That programme noted that writers who lived before the constant wash and hum of background cars and planes heard the trees more keenly, as the delicate observations in the opening of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree testify: “To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall.”

The same programme spoke of “the distinctive susurrations of several species: quivering poplars, aspens that sound like rain, rattling London planes, whispering elms, the hiss of the ash, whooshing pines and the strangely silent yew”.

I have not yet had the opportunity to use susurration in a poem, but the day is coming.

On the other hand, I also delight in plain language, in the distinct and pungent accuracy of words of one syllable; and I particularly appreciate it in street and place names, the ones real people have used from time immemorial rather than the ones recently invented and imposed by town planners. There is something satisfying about Main Street and High Street. You know what it is, and you know where you are. Better still, in some small Norfolk villages, your address will simply be 1 The Street; there is only one street, and you are on it.

Likewise, almost every village on the Broads has a Staithe Road, which, quite properly and without diversion, leads down to the staithe. Staithe is itself a wonderful word, a survival into Middle and then modern English of the Old English word stæþ, meaning a wooden landing stage, itself derived from the Old Norse stöð which meant harbour. There, in the one simple word, is a little history of East Anglia, taking us back to the Vikings — and the Vikings, I note, is the name of the North Walsham Rugby team; perhaps the team includes some descendant of the intrepid Norsemen who first found a stöð in Norfolk.

I sometimes wonder whether theologians, too, might benefit from attention to plain language, as well as to Greek or Latinate abstractions; and perhaps when they have written “We affirm the eschatological dimension of the kerygma” they might more plainly say “We speak of the hope that is in us.” Karl Barth, I believe, did this; for there is a story that he was once asked in a radio interview whether he could sum up the whole of his multi-volume Church Dogmatics in brief words for the layman. “Yes,” he said, “it really amounts to this: Jesus loves me, this I know, For the Bible tells me so.”

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