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This article is taken from PN Review 60, Volume 14 Number 4, March - April 1988.

Finding a Voice C.B. McCully

The recent correspondence between the idle C. B. McCully and the inkhorny Michael Hulse (PNR 53) identifies, beneath its surface of savage civility, a question that is relevant to hacks, critics and poets alike: what do we mean by 'diction'? In his admirable Purity of Diction in English Verse (1967), Donald Davie suggests that diction is the sense that 'a selection has been made and is continually being made, that words are thrusting at the poem and being fended off from it' (p.5), and in this sense Hulse is quite right to invoke the term 'rhetoric'. Rhetoricians have always had more to say about diction than, for example, linguists, largely because the former are concerned with prescriptive proprieties and evaluations, while linguists are (so they would claim) concerned purely with description. Put in Davie's terms, the distinction is between dogmatic puritanism and slack Catholicism (Purity, p.8): rhetoricians will insist that a certain diction is good. Although there are many challenging ways in which poetry can be analysed using linguistic tools, a diction may well escape linguistic definition. The issue is made even more complex by the fact that the diction of verse is one area where our literary competence (to use Jonathan Culler's useful but possibly outmoded term) wrestles with our linguistic competence: the judgements that can be made about diction ('This is abstract/lofty/colloquial/conversational' and so forth) are circumscribed by the canons of literary history as well as by our implicit knowledge of today's spoken language. Our response to ...


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