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Of Of
Essay, MeThree 2, Fall 2005 - Winner of the First Annual Literary Criticism Contest

This is an apology for the word of, maybe my favorite word. I realized it was my favorite word when a friend of mine asked me what my favorite word was and I said of was my favorite word. This question — “What is your favorite word?” — is a perrenial question of celebrity interviews and typically finds responses that inappropriately conflate the word with what the word represents. Most people don’t like words but the sunny abstractions of milquetoast earnesty that hide behind the words: love, happiness, peace, etcetera. In an alternate universe, perhaps when Entertainment Weekly asks Orlando Bloom about what he thinks of words, he says he adores after! Oh, why can’t the Liv Tyler of my heart come to love the? Alas, in our present reality, it is the nouns that are loved, the prepositions, the signage of nouns, ignored. But what of of? Like most simple words — like to, for, and like — of has been coiled from the wire of metaphor. It is a lyric tool for socketing together foreign objects. Because syntax regulates the bumper-to-bumper meaning-traffic of semantics, these words like of should overwhelm us with their shy authority. Of, like, and and are the secret hinges of sentences, the pivots upon which a sentence turns towards its meaning. Naturally, it sometimes seems nearly impossible to read an essay of any caliber without finding this mutable word in every sentence. Yet usually when we think of of, we find that our understandings of it have been bleached of meaning. Of is as invisible as “he said.”

It is also the first word in what could be the greatest solitary work of English literature:

Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste

Milton deploys of twice in the initial position of the first two lines of Paradise Lost. By the end of the first sentence at line sixteen, of appears seven times. Milton’s ofs differ semantically: the of of “of that forbidden tree” means either “belonging to” (“the actual fruit possessed by the tree of knowledge”) or “caused by” (“the outcome that resulted from Adam and Eve picking that fruit”), while the of of “of man's disobedience” refers to “regarding” or “about.” This more tacit of is the of that triggers the titles of Francis Bacon’s essays:

Of Truth
Of Marriage and Single Life
Of Goodness, and Goodness of Nature
Of Wisdom for a Man’s Self
Of Delays
Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates
Of Masques and Triumphs
Of Deformity
Of Faction
Of Praise
Of a King

The two uses of of demonstrate of’s dull range. If of travels towards meaning, it becomes the of of Milton — stealthily rather than potently semantic. (Eliot, incidentally, wrote of Dryden’s The State of Innocence and the Fall of Man that it was hardly Paradise Lost but it still possessed one great line — “all the sad variety of hell.”) If of instead travels in the direction of muteness, it becomes the of of Bacon — redundant, almost meaningless. In both directions, it becomes depleted of content — transparent.

Of’s useful translucence should be unsurprising since, like all prepositions, it functions like the host that brings us to the table of the relevant noun, rather than being the personality-saturated noun herself. In writing of syntax, the cognitive scientist Herbert Simon wrote that every language describes relationships between things as ARB, in which A and B name things and R denotes the relation:

Every language has such conventions for the most common situations that it needs to represent, and while the conventions themselves are different for different languages, there is great overlap in the sorts of things that possess syntactical conventions in different languages (i.e., agents, patients, temporal relations, instruments, number, determiners). Thus syntax becomes one of the tools we use to discover meanings, but meaning itself is a matter of semantics, and syntax is (for writer, reader, or critic) no more than an efficient signaling device that sometimes makes the expression of meaning more expeditious.

The use of of in lyric poetry qualifies Simon’s equation (ARB) in two ways. First, what is immediately mystical about of is what a faulty job it does functioning as R. Often when we read the formulation of “[noun] of [noun]” it is not immediately obvious how the two nouns relate. If like is vertical, one object pointing upwards towards its more ethereal, ideational clone or pointing downwards to impress its reality upon the absent compared object, then of is horizontal, a destabilized metaphor, a metaphor of nothing. When we read one of the most famous uses of of in lyric poetry, by William Blake:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night

…are we to believe that the forests even exist? Do “the forests of the night” refer to the forests that exist at night (and incidentally also exist during the day) or to the more figurative thickets of foliate darkness that are the night itself? This is how of is unlike like. With of, the vehicle toggles between being contiguous to the tenor (forests in the night) and being identical to it (forests are the night). The compared object flips itself in and out of reality, first real and then metaphorical, lacking the sturdy equation-making strength of like.

Second, if R is of, then poetry’s ARB coils up some extra linguistic swing by picking A and B from different categories of meaning. I once wrote a letter to my friend Mayumo, for example, informing him of the boredom of my life, how I had stopped going out, was only eating bread, milk, and water, “the clichés of food.” Here, although “bread, milk, and water” are objects of a different discourse than writing, we can uninsulate a discourse-specific meaning (like “cliché”) and apply it with greater insight with food. Borges notes that the English language “is perhaps unique among Western languages in its possession of what might be called a double register”—the twin diction of Latin and Anglo-Saxon: “It is one thing to say, Saxonly, ‘dark’ and another to say ‘obscure.’” Shakespeare, Borges writes, uses the “reciprocal play of Latin and Germanic terms” as a mixing console of verbal impressions.

When Macbeth, gazing at his own bloody hand, thinks it could stain the vast seas with scarlet, making of their green a single red thing, he says:

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.

In the third line we have long sonorous, erudite Latin words: “multitudinous,” “incarnardine”; then in the next, short Saxon words: “green one red.”

John Crowe Ransom— who oddly enough, discusses the same Latin/Anglo-Saxon effect from the same passage from Macbeth — writes that “it was Shakespeare who preserved the life of Latin as a foreign language still held tributary to the borrowings of luxurious English writers. Without Shakespeare the Latinical words would probably have been lost. They would have been lost not by being dropped out of the language but by being dropped into it.” Ransom is speaking of words like “algebra,” “chow,” “opal,” “ketchup,” and “ballet” — and “countless other foreign words [that] have been lost within our capacious language and are now used over and over without any sense of their foreignness.” Contemporary lyric poetry is anti-classicist, a cartoonishly baroque adorer of blurting verbal foreignness. In the following examples, of makes the surrounding words give off whiffs of metaphor by selecting an A and B from different semantic contexts, often pairing simple or Anglo-Saxon words with complex Latin ones:

The Semiotics of a Truck Overturned in Fog (John Kinsella)
chamber of pixels, chamber of clouds (Christian Hawkey, dust)
The Museum of Light (Rupert Loydell)
as if to choke the singularity of sun (Jorie Graham, The Guardian Angel of Private Life)
Etymologies of a kiss (Lee Ann Brown, “A Bird Flew By With A Vowel In Its Beak”)
the tight zero of desire (Kay Barnes, Vespers)
the Zen motif of the train tracks (Christopher Stackhouse, Signal 1)
The invention of prison (Mark Levine, Horizon)
Birds succumbed to the regimen / of dots (Fanny Howe, Palms)
A pair of keys, / paucity of summer (Karen Volkman, Untitled)
the paleness of representation (Rae Armentrout)
A Partial History of the Luminous Image (Cort Day)
and the bumpers of clouds glowed teacup gold (April Bernard, Not Rome)
the vicinity of your / Tongue (Sophie Cabot Black, Break Me To Prove I am Unbroken)
jellyfish / of young tongues (Nathan Jones, Let Us Cross the Water)
A cocktail of sadness / and anger (Mairym Cruz-Bernal, Cutting Pablo’s Hair)
a shower of insignificant things (Monica Ferrell, In the Rain)

Well I have to say, this lad of of ours looks like he’s got a promising future! By now the most ‘poetic’ of prepositions, of is, I think, starting to beat out the increasingly has-been like in “the most common metaphorical form” competition. When Paul Krusoe writes, in Iceland, about:

the bloated, spongy butterflies of lungs, the shy parenthesis of kidneys, the lurid exclamation marks of livers, the cheerful blimps of stomachs, the loopy daydreams of intestines, the schools of tiny pancreas, and dark, brooding spleens.

…what he is really doing is dethroning like in favor of of. Whereas Milton’s of-technique derives from the word’s semantic ambiguity, postmodern writers have souped up of into a more abstract expressionistic word. For the avant garde of-user, the problem of like is its comprehensibility, its fogey usefulness. When Brenda Hillman writes, “Went down to the ferris wheel / God’s Rolodex,” in “Sediments of Santa Monica,” she is really writing a nudist simile, a simile unclothed of like: the line-break is like. [I don’t think what you’re speaking of is accurate. The line-break seems more reminiscent of “is” or just a comma, making the construction a metaphoric appositive, similar to “George W. Bush, American President.”—Chen] If this is experimental, the criterion of the avant garde is tripped only in the deletion of like. If is is an equal sign and like is an equivalence sign (two wavy lines), then of has become the new arrow—relationally indicative, but relationally imprecise. The ascent of of is the ascent of imprecision (imprecision is different from ambiguity) as a literary virtue.

Traditional of-usage relies on a juxtaposition not just of connotations but of semantic contexts. The metaphorical of in English poetry denotes something like “the equivalent noun within the category of.” When Paul Celan writes a line like “aphorisms of frost” (trans. Heather McHugh and Nikolai Popov), what is pleasing is that the phrase is impossible, yet possesses the impossibility of metaphoric logic. The R that connects A (aphorisms) to B (frost) exists only in our manner of interpretation. “Aphorisms of frost” is a literally impossible statement of propositional meaning. Yet because ARB (where R is of) is such a simple equation—and because one is not forced to specify how A and B are similar, as in like or is—abuses of of are easy.

Consider the hokey, self-parodying poetry of a comic book title by former Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Jim Shooter—“Hegemony of Death.” Similarly, when Jorie Graham writes of Joshua Clover as “a physicist of syllables,” we are initially impressed by how hip this new vocation sounds (after wondering how we too can join the lab!). The phrase is like a pelvis—hip at both ends: “physicist” evokes contemporary poetry’s Hollywood idolization of science (even while it purports to destabilize scientific truth); “syllables” raises the flag of cool, our gaudy newborn century way of flaunting our linguistic self-awareness. Once we attend to the “meaning” of the phrase, however, Graham begins to sound not postmodern but rather Nineteenth Century. Her blurb is a jingle, one that Swinburne would be proud of. The flaw in the analogy (that of the physicist and the poet) is that a physicist does not engage in lyric activity and a poet does not merely study or theorize about syllables—she deploys them. The two agents do not have the same relationship with their field of inquiry. When we follow this reasoning we find the line does not tell us how a physicist is similar to a poet or to Clover specifically. It is fine to admit that we understand Graham’s connotation (Clover is as smart as science; knows he’s trapped inside the language room; etc.) and fine to admit that the sound of “a physicist of syllables” alone is enough (just as it would be for Shelley!), while also recognizing that the conjoined parts are only parts and not a third dialectically-manufactured meaning. What is noticeable here is how of has been squashed of any real semantic value. Of meaning, our contemporary of has none—it functions almost as verbal punctuation, a demarcation of separate items.

The best recent use of of is in the title of Anne Carson’s “Autobiography of Red.” What is charming about the equation of “Autobiography of Red” is that it is literarily true and literally impossible. The phrase initially seems metaphorical and atmospheric because it seems incapable of verification, since the color red cannot write an autobiography in the same way that frost cannot express itself in proverbial units. Yet the phrase is the title of a modernized life of Geryon, a red monster slain by Hercules in classical mythology. The title gives hints of a second, assumed analogy—Geryon is “Red”—making it plausible that a book from his point of view could constitute an autobiography. This secondary analogy actually condenses the fog of our first interpretation: the usage of “of” refers not to “equivalent in the context of” (what “autobiography” would mean in terms of colors) but to “belonging to.” The title is not a metaphor but a literal description of the book’s contents.

Metaphor and simile are biased analogies; metaphors having a bias of fakeness, similes having a bias of reality. Metaphors often have the sound of lies. April is not the cruelest month. Similes have the more timid restraint of fact, since a simile is never willing to say that X is Y, only that X in certain ways resembles Y. Of is a mix of metaphor and simile. When Shakespeare writes of “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” he chooses of rather than “outrageous fortune, like arrows” or “outrageous fortune-slinging arrows” because this use of of renders the arrows more independently real, almost non-allegorical, parallel, the way the literal objects of similes are more independently “real” than those of metaphor. Yet of creates a vaguer form of metaphor than like or is. When we use metaphor or simile — words like like, of, and is — we present the audience with a gift of mirrors, mirrors whose reflections are both identical and different from what is reflected. The incorrectness of metaphor is its necessary joy — or to say it more accurately, what is joyful about metaphors is their accurate incorrectness. Renata Adler notes, writing of biblical metaphors in the Old Testament, “A completely adequate metaphor would not be a metaphor, but a fact. It would leave no room for any further metaphoric activity… Complete congruence between the metaphor’s tenor and vehicle renders surplus meaning superfluous and denies the deficit in meaning that is the heart of metaphor's mystery.”

Contemporary poetry is, in a way, opposed to ARB, when R is definite and too reminiscent of simile, condensing the atmosphere of meaning into a too solid state. Such poetics are anti-factual, suspicious even of the correct incorrect fact that is metaphor. The appeal of of in contemporary poetry actually arises from its weak metaphorical current. Postmodern poetry desires a weak R and thus finds of so useful because it is the perfect vehicle for pastiche. While similes and metaphors give an implied argument of similarity, of only gives two words an excuse to loiter alongside each other. Of becomes an article of diction rather than an article of metaphor.

At its most deft, of can be one of the most suggestive words in English. Like a video game of syntax, it lets the reader choose from among different sets of relations. Consider the way phrases of Classical Chinese verse are indecisive, eager to mean everything. A.C. Graham, in his introduction to Poems of the Late T’ang, points to a couplet from Tu Fu’s first poem of his Autumn Meditations cycle:

Subject     Adjectival phrase  
Adjective Noun Adverb Verb Adjective Noun Noun
Cluster Chrysanthemum Two open/ other day tear
Lonely Boat one (wholly) tie/ former garden heart

Because the reader can read the caesura as either a break of grammar or of prosody, the line offers at least two different meanings. If the caesura is a grammatical pause, the break functions like a period, splitting the line into different chunks of meaning:

The myriad chrysanthemums have bloomed twice. Days to come—tears.
The solitary little boat is moored, but my heart is in the old-time garden. (Amy Lowell)

If the caesura is a prosodic pause, then the meaning continues to the end of the line:

The sight of chrysanthemums again loosens the tears of past memories;
To a lonely detained boat I vainly attach my hope of going home. (William Hung)

“Neither of the translators can be convicted of saying anything not implicit in the original,” Graham writes, since “the English language imposes choices which the poet refrained from making.” Tu Fu’s Empsonian imprecision functions as poetry because it allows—to quote a Chinese phrase quoted by Borges—infinite meaning in finite space. “Is it the flowers which burst open or the tears, the boat which is tied up or the poet’s heart?” Graham asks of the poem and continues asking for another half page. “Late T’ang poetry, which explores the Chinese language to the limits of its resources, can be damaged severely by the irrelevant precisions imposed by Indo-European person, number, and tense,” Graham writes, perhaps unaware of the helpful haze of of.

Of is our equivalent of Tu Fu’s caesura. Filling space but lacking any existence of its own, of is a grammatical zero, a syntactic anti-semantic word. Of is an invisible switch. Surely, all of us are familiar with the game in which we are asked to count the number of f’s in a sentence:


The popular answer is three, the correct one six.


All content, unless otherwise noted, (c) Ken Chen, 1998-2006. Ken Chen can be reached by email.

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