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Williams’ Book Studies the Poetics of Etymology in the “Age of the Arbitrary”

Williams’ Book Studies the Poetics of Etymology in the “Age of the Arbitrary”

Date: Thursday, May 14, 2020

St. Jerome’s University is pleased to recognize Associate Professor David-Antoine Williams in the Department of English, on the publication of his book The Life of Words: Etymology and Modern Poetry. Williams’ book traces lines of continuity, as well as discontinuities, between ancient, medieval, and contemporary linguistic thought in a literary context, to illuminate various ways in which modern poets have thought about the origins and histories of words. The book follows Williams’ Defending Poetry: Art and Ethics in Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill, published in 2010.
 

In The Life of Words, Williams studies a selection of poets, inhabiting our "Age of the Arbitrary" (a reference to Saussure’s notion of the “arbitrariness of the sign”), whose auditory-semantic sensibilities have been motivated by a historical sense of the language. Arguing that etymology activates peculiar kinds of epistemology in the modern poem, the book pays extended attention to poems by Anne Waldman, Ciaran Carson, and Anne Carson, and to the collected works of Geoffrey Hill, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, R. F. Langley, and J. H. Prynne.
 

Williams says he has been “fascinated by word origins since (he) was a kid.” The book is dedicated to the memory of his father, who would send him off to look up a word and where it came from, or better yet try to guess, or even make something up. The idea for the book began to take shape more than ten years ago, as he was coming to the end of his doctoral thesis on poetry and ethics.
 

“In the course of that work I had been struck by the way in which modern poets confronting some of our time’s most consequential ethical dilemmas could sometimes focus a matter onto some abstruse point of etymology—sometimes not even a correct one!—as if a history of historical meanings could continue to operate after those meanings had fallen out of use (something of a heresy since Saussure)”, says Williams. “So in this book I write about how etymologies can work in poems as paradigms of larger questions of origin and change, creation and growth, beginning and departure, knowledge and error.”
 

David-Antoine Williams was educated at Harvard University, The University of St Andrews, and Balliol College, Oxford. He returned to Canada in 2010 to teach modern and contemporary literature of the British Isles. His research has been in contemporary British and Irish poetry, etymology, dictionary studies (primarily the Oxford English Dictionary), and the Digital Humanities. He posts about his research on his “The Life of Words” blog. Williams’ latest book, published by Oxford University Press (ISBNs 9780198812470 [hardcover], 9780192540553 [ebook]), will be welcomed by scholars and students of literature, modern poetry and language, and etymology.

D-A Williams photo
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