Nam poetae solent abusive etiam in iis rebus quibus nomina sua sunt vicinis potius uti, quod rarum in prorsa est.

For the poets are in the habit of (catachrestically) preferring to use nearby words even for those things which have their own names, which is rare in prose.

Quintilian1

One of the key tropes of Peter Manson’s poetry is the deliberately misleading, decontextualised, and downright erroneous use of words, which this paper seeks to categorise under the rhetorical trope of catachresis. Much rhetorical terminology is deployed with the intention of describing how a text persuades and communicates, but when considering a poetic text which is not trying to do these things, the same trope takes on a new set of functions. A word recognised as the wrong one displaces obvious referential meanings and suggests new possibilities, but does not determine them. Poems that ‘design in’ this productive wrongness make catachresis a part of their aesthetic; I want to consider here how we can apprehend this aesthetic and use it to enhance our understanding of the unique capacities of poetry in this mode.

The traditional rhetorical distinction holds that catachresis is only used when there is no adequate term for what one wishes to describe, and that if the term does exist, it is metaphor. However, the first-century Roman rhetorician Quintilian admits (reluctantly and without offering up any examples) that ‘the poets are in the habit of’ (soleo, ‘I am accustomed to’) breaking this rule and using catachresis for other reasons, as it seems they have always done. The De Verborum Significatu of Sextus Pompeius Festus records that: ‘We use the trope of catachresis, misuse, when we use another word as if it were a right word, because the right word is lacking.’2 This second-century dictionary, unlike Quintilian, explicitly connects the Greek catachresis with the Latin abusio, allowing us to make the same equivalence in the translation from Quintilian above. The English rhetorician George Puttenham writes in his The Arte of English Poesie (1589) that catachresis is when a word ‘neither natural nor proper’ is applied where a suitable word is lacking, ‘it is not then spoken by this figure metaphor […] but by plain abuse’.3 This has two main elements in common with Quintilian: defining catachresis against metaphor, and the idea of catachresis as ab-/mis-use of words. Firstly: as Frank Whigham and Wayne Rebhorn point out, Puttenham prefers to describe metaphor not, like most Renaissance rhetoricians, as ‘translation’, but as ‘inversion’ in the sense of transposing; there is already a sense with metaphor that language in its ‘natural’ state is being perverted when turned to this use. Despite the modern acknowledgement that metaphor is ubiquitous in all registers of language, and indeed essential in terms of making meaning, Puttenham still classifies it as ‘ornament’. Secondly: the persistence of the term ‘abuse’, and its slippage from the term ‘misuse’, can be deceiving, but Puttenham describes it as if it is an ethical failing, as if the words are somehow damaged by being ‘abused’. This is notably not the case in Puttenham’s chapter on decorum, where he relates the story of an ambassador who misspeaks and thereby causes an international incident and loses his position, ‘and all this inconvenience grew by misuse of one word’.4 But the risks such of ‘misuse’ when language is being used for communication are rather virtues in experimental poetry, where the ‘perversion’ of meaning, and the demonstration that it is not ‘natural’, is the main draw for our aesthetic attention.5

A productively catachresis-centred poetics like that practiced by many avant-garde poets leading up to Manson sees the misuse of words not as a kind of ‘irresponsibility’ with regard to meaning, but as a responsibility to make fresh use of the language. The conventional vocabulary of poetic imagery lacks the terminology for talking about the strategies of meaning that are being used in these poems. It is not enough merely to split them into tenor and vehicle of metaphors; they are instead (purposely) ill-chosen referents. In this reading of Manson, we shall see some of the functions of these inadequate choices and, it is hoped, lay the groundwork for a wider examination of catachrestic poetics.

## Restrained to Wrongness: Factitious Airs

Catachresis, like certain other atypical uses of language, is employed more readily in texts operating under certain constraints. When only certain words and arrangements are available but something like a meaning is still desired, catachresis becomes necessary not because the proper word does not exist, but because in order to keep to the constraint the poem must use the ‘nearest’ instead. However, this approximation often ends up driving the very innovations that characterise Manson’s poetics. In his pamphlet of short lyrics and occasional poems Factitious Airs, there are a number of lipogrammatic odes, where the poem only uses those letters which appear in the name of the person to whom it is addressed.

Take this pair of lines from ‘Geraldine Monk’, dedicated to the poet Geraldine Monk:

Eliding a lingam a gladdened idler dreamed
a germinal ode in a remade, leaner lingo.6


The use of ‘lingam’ here is a perfect example of a catachresis, albeit one combined with a synecdoche. A lingam is an icon used in the worship of the god Shiva, often taking the form of a phallus. It is worth noting that almost no English word for that genital organ can be spelled using only the letters in the name ‘Geraldine Monk’, but the constraint in fact leads us to a more important factor in the choice, namely that what is being referred to is not the organ but rather the phallus, in psychoanalytic terms the locus of paternal, masculine power. And since a lingam is not a penis but a phallus, it is a closer choice than almost any word other than phallus itself – that is, until we consider the context of the lingam, which is most often paired with its counterpart, the yoni. In the Western psychoanalytic and philosophical traditions there is no ‘feminine’ counterpart to the phallus, which is why philosophers have tried to abolish it or else invent one, but the closest they have come to a ‘yoni-logo-centric’ discourse is the écriture féminine of Hélène Cixous, among others – which is how I understand the ‘remade […] lingo’ being described here. Finally, consider the word ‘germinal’ here: if seminal means of or relating to seed, either in the sense of semen or the seed of a plant, germinal means of or relating to the associated sprout. The idea of the seminal belongs firmly in phallogocentric discourse, while a multiple ‘remade […] lingo’ would be home to far more germination. Many of us are ideologically squeamish (and perhaps also squeamish in other ways) about the use of seminal (as in, a seminal text) and would prefer to say germinal – sprouting, productive of other possibilities. The ‘gladdened idler’ (Monk, or anyone writing [or reading] in this ‘remade […] lingo’) ‘dream[s]/a germinal ode’; again, the catachresis made necessary by the constraint of encoding the poem in Monk’s name also germinates utopian descriptions of her writing as écriture féminine.

The metapoetic catachreses in Factitious Airs are the most prominent examples of the trope throughout, partly because the title draws us towards this idea: artificial songs, songs of artifice. The collection’s first poem, ‘Irie’, is also a lipogram around the names ‘Robin Purves’ and ‘Zahida Ahmad’, ‘made one in oh-nine’ – it marks the marriage of two of the poet’s friends. It gives us this description of love poetry, and therefore of itself:

no moribund piano overdub
[…]
more a verse arisen as a briar rose
improvised on an idiom in ruins,
no amorous paean made in hidden rime7


‘[V]erse’ is opposed to ‘overdub’ by the ‘no’/‘more’ construction and their phonological similarity (‘ver’). There are then two possible readings of the word ‘rose’ – as a verb along with ‘arisen’, to indicate the poem rises like a briar, or as a plant, the ‘briar rose’. I will pass over the tightly woven beauty of this trio of lines to focus on what groups them: the end-words all begin with ‘r’, while the semantic meaning of each line says something about difficulty of expression. This is a typical frame of reference for a linguistically innovative poem, but it is coupled with allusions which are, by contrast, romantic, unusually so for Manson. The ‘idiom’ might be in ‘ruins’ because of modernity (think The Waste Land), or because of the way the language available for the poem has been ‘ruined’ by the constraint. The next line is the puzzler, and the catachresis, but not the kind we’re used to – here, we have a deliberate misspelling, because there is no ‘y’ available. Instead, there is a kind of anti-rhyme (‘hidden rime’) matching the first consonant of each final word. These pushes towards neologism are not solely motivated by the constraint – ‘poem’ would be permitted, but the less obvious ‘verse’ and ‘paean’ appear instead. There are many reasons to avoid using the obvious word for something, but the constraint often functions best as a way of setting the tone for the text to seek refuge in the non-obvious, as in the final line. With no ‘g’, the lipogrammatic poem cannot say, for instance, ‘get married’, the verb ‘get’ disappears; with no ‘c’ or ‘l’ can’t say ‘love each other’. The versatile possibilities of the verb disappear and the ‘b’ in ‘Robin’ supplies the copula: ‘Be a duo, Eros advises’.8

There are a few more catachreses worth dwelling on in Factitious Airs, particularly the untitled poem which begins ‘falling awake’.9 This first line shares its initials with the title of the pamphlet and encodes a self-effacing in-joke about the insubstantial ‘airs’ of its contents being (constituting) ‘sweet FA’. The most obvious reading of ‘falling awake’ is as a catachresis for ‘waking up’ but, like many phrasal catachreses, it suggests a particular meaning of its own that it cannot ‘denote’ as such because of its lack of usage history.10 Without an explicit definition, this is linked with the phrase ‘the path of speech’ later in the poem, a catachrestic definition of the throat – not truly wrong, as it would be for instance to call it ‘the path of Christmas’, but not a pre-existing English idiom, as far as I have been able to discover. When we say ‘falling awake’ for ‘waking up’ or ‘the path of speech’ for the throat, we are drawing attention to a particular aspect of these (bodily, everyday) experiences: the disconcerting or unsatisfying nature of certain experiences of waking, or the difficult, distanced, travelled nature of some experiences of speech. This is a metapoetic gesture – that sense of travelled-ness, the need for and history of language’s travelling over a great distance of effort, is what I understand Manson’s poetic rhetoric to reproduce and show.

## Manson’s Rhetoric: ‘The Baffle Stage’

To speak accurately about catachresis, we should situate it among the work that rhetoric does in Manson’s work more generally. The earlier Adjunct: An Undigest (2014), a work apparently composed according to primarily paratactic principles, is also most navigable due to its repetitions of words and parallel structures, all of which, in a more communicative mode, we would call rhetoric. The poem ‘The Baffle Stage’, a putative ‘rhymed satire against ego’, is replete with traditional poetic devices made more easily legible by being placed in the conventional format of the four-line, rhymed quatrain. Let us examine some of the rhetorical moves we might recognise in ‘The Baffle Stage’ which contribute to the overall aesthetic of catachresis.

One of the poem’s frequent motifs is the cycle of eating and excreting, an obsession which appears in the poem in a variety of rhetorical guises. For example, the first quatrain ends with an example of what is often called kyklos or inclusio, an encircling: ‘fed the permission on which evil fed’.11 This is the practice of repeating a key word or words at both the beginning and the end of a sentence or line. Puttenham refers to it as epanalepsis, the Slow Return, or the Echo Sound, and gives the example of a comment recorded by Macrobius about Julius Caesar: ‘Fear many must he needs, whom many fear.’12 Manson’s use, however, is slightly more intricate, because the role of the word has changed. Rather than simply repeating a verb, here we have ‘fed’ at the beginning of the line and ‘fed on’, and the end, although the ‘on’ has been displaced to achieve the ‘encircling’ effect. This draws attention to the word ‘fed’ as part of a cyclical process, and thus inaugurates the poem’s ongoing concern with eating and digestion: ‘you eat the poor twice’;13 ‘acid free free luncheon in reverse’;14 ‘tapeworm munching’.15 One instance of this is of particular interest as a catachresis:

ambulant faeces in default of me
defer our fall from the edenic beer gut
with side effects of mainlined Dairylea
and Babybels imported through the butt16


On first reading, these lines appear to describe the unsavoury results of a kind of soft cheese enema. What I am interested in, however, is the phrase ‘ambulant faeces’, which like many other lines in ‘The Baffle Stage’ uses many of the same letters in the first half of the line and the second, as if to suggest a possible anagram: ‘in default of me’ is its opposite number. Now, if we were to interpret this as a metaphor, it would mean something along the lines of: ambulant faeces currently ‘have possession’ of the speaker – are restricting his comfort, movements, and health – and are now ‘in default’ – they must pay up or let him go, suggesting a relieving, if messy, conclusion to the scatological scenario. But what are ‘ambulant faeces’? They might be faeces walking around the world in the guise of a person. This could mean either a person who is ‘a shit’ or ‘piece of shit’, or one so afflicted by his digestive troubles (and potentially in need of an ambulance, transport of the ill) that he feels like ‘ambulant faeces’. However, they might also be faeces found outside of those areas of the body in which they usually belong, much in the same way as Victorian doctors believed the uterus could ‘wander’ around the body of an ‘hysterical’ woman. If another phrase were used, like ‘walking shit in default of me’, the comparison would seem unlikely, but ‘ambulant faeces’ bears an alphabetic similarity to ‘default’, and both words belong to a medicalised register of language, reinforcing the connection. Every time the eating-excreting motif appears, it is in some way rhetorical, heightening the artifice of this idea and encouraging symbolic and reflexive readings.

This catachresis is also present in that doubly personalised personification where descriptions are applied to ‘the poem’ which are not literally possible, and apply more appropriately to ‘the poet’. This stems from an uneasiness with the role of ‘author’, but also a candour about being forced to occupy it. A critic will say that ‘the poem does this’ with no irony, but only Manson writes that ‘the poem’s father died when it was one/the poem was acquiring language then’.20 This particular catachresis, where the speaker synecdochically erases himself with a sly shift of category from poet to poem, is thus a tongue-in-cheek play on the grammar of criticism. The grammatical is the next jump Manson’s rhetorical strategy makes: from lexis to organising principle.

## Grammatical Catachresis: From Gertrude Stein to ‘Sourdough Mutation’

Let us now move on to an expansion of the term ‘catachresis’ from rhetorical descriptor to aesthetic category in poetry, and to consider how catachresis works at the level of grammar, syntax, and structure in still broader senses. What we have discussed so far is catachresis as Quintilian and Puttenham conceive of it: it is a trope that applies to the use of an individual word or a phrase. In these cases, reference is, while not straightforward, at least given a starting point from which to work outward and establish more connections of meaning. In order to see how catachresis works on a grander scale, we will refer back to another writer, the prototype of modernist experiments with error-as-rhetoric: Gertrude Stein.

At first, there might seem to be obvious difficulties in establishing a dialogue between rhetoric and a poetry which is decidedly not participating in information transfer. This goes for Stein just as much as Manson, and indeed is central to most criticism of her work. Critics either look for coded meanings, as in William Gass’ ‘Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence’, or comment upon the lack of conventional communication altogether, as with Ulla Dydo’s view of the reading of Stein as using words ‘as things rather than signs’.21 The most fruitful critical avenues, however, reframe the question, so that it is no longer ‘What is Stein saying?’ (possible answers: ‘something in code’ or ‘nothing’). They rather acknowledge that ‘Stein’s obscurity […] exists not only despite, but also because of, remarkably explicit and often axiomatic proclamations of compositional intention’.22 The classical definition of catachresis as ‘words used wrongly’ is thus inadequate. She is frankly obscure, in a manner comparable with Manson’s ‘poetics of candour’, and so the obscurity must lie not in words themselves but how they are combined – their grammar.

Our object here is to use the concept of catachresis to explain not just a poet’s use of words, but their position in relation to one another. This gives rise to what I call grammatical catachresis. I find that many of the most instructive examples of this are found in Stein’s How to Write. The title of this text appears to derive from Edwin Abbot’s How to Write Clearly, a key example of a text enumerating the ‘basic’ rules of grammar that Harvard admissions officers felt all potential students ought to have mastered.23 However, as Sharon Kirsch writes, ‘Stein denies a linear, binary model’ of movement from grammar to rhetoric.24 This being the case, the idea of catachresis, error for rhetorical purposes, can also be applied to grammar – grammatical error can also be catachrestic.

Let us now identify instances of such a grammatical catachresis in Manson. ‘Sourdough Mutation’, with its isolated germs of words, uses strategies which are similar in some ways to those of Stein’s ‘Sentences’ and ‘Arthur A Grammar’. What kind of catachrestic error-sense can we make, for instance, of these lines?

is all land
property

all fences
theft25


There is a clear grammatical mismatch here – a grammatical catachresis – whose operation will be expanded below, but for illustration of the principle, compare these lines from Stein’s ‘Arthur A Grammar’:

Very grammatical.
How many do go.
Heard how many have gone.
While buttoned done.


This portion of text is not going to yield up an orthodox grammatical sentence; it could not be diagrammed. Stein’s fondness for sentence diagrams is well-documented, but she also, as Kirsch observes, knows that there is more to knowing how to write than a robust understanding of the rules of grammar. ‘In short any child thirteen years old properly taught can by that time have learned everything about English grammar. So why make a fuss about it. However, one does’.27 In the classroom where sentence diagrams rule the discourse, these would be classified as fragments. They most often look like they have aimed at grammar, or sense, and missed – ‘buttoned done’ is almost buttoned down, and there is a chain of similarities: go becomes gone, gone becomes done. The same goes for repetitions – of the ‘may’ sound and ‘how many’. Rather than continually naturalising a meaning as we read, we navigate through the text one connection at a time, with no over-arching semantic meaning to guide us and confirm that our interpretations are correct.

In ‘Sourdough Mutation’, however, the (unmarked) question is asked, ‘is all land property’, and another question, which we are to understand uses the same verb, follows. From the point of view of the verb’s omissibility, this apposition should be fine; if it were ‘is every land property, every fence theft?’ this would present no problem. But in order to be parsed, ‘is’ needs to change to ‘are’ in the second question, but no ‘are’ is to be found. We are then left with a stranded sentence fragment, made the more difficult by the use of ‘to fence’ as a verb – to get rid of a stolen item by selling it, which would give an alternative sense of ‘everything sells on what it has stolen’, or something like this. This cannot be the primary meaning, because the pattern established by the paired ‘all’s is too prominent; nevertheless, the grammatical incompleteness or wrongness, not necessary to produce either meaning, is necessary to create a germination of multiple meanings. By foregoing correctness/accuracy, the possibilities of what the reader may make of the text are expanded.

A little later in ‘Sourdough Mutation’ we find a potential Stein allusion, which is also a return to the metapoetic. It offers the following self-describing catachresis:

know how to pick names
semantic disorder

red roses o yes28


Knowing ‘how to pick names’, but persisting in a semantically disordered manner, is a functional definition of catachresis. Another example of Stein’s grammatical catachresis is her famous ‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’, which first appears as a line in the poem ‘Sacred Emily’ – we have to continually re-parse (reassess the grammatical status of) each instantiation of ‘rose’ in order to continue reading the chain.29 We can pick names, just as we pick roses, as expertly as we please, but the order/disorder in which they are assembled is what gives either meaning or gleeful (‘o yes’) jouissant unmeaning.

## Conclusion: What Use Is Rhetoric?

Catachresis, as I have used the term here, is primarily a rhetorical trope, but this is not to discount the use of the term elsewhere. We have established that the primary project of this poetry is not communicative as such, and yet we have also seen how it is internally structured by what looks a great deal like rhetoric and can be described using its elaborate terminology. In reading innovative poetry, to speak of ‘rhetoric’ is itself catachrestical: it is merely the nearest word available to describe the organising principles at work.

Manson’s poetry deals generally with the inadequacy of language for particular purposes and what can be done about it, and so trying to think about it critically brings similar problems. To go back to the end of the first stanza of ‘Irie’ once more: ‘verbs are pish, nouns are a pushover,/adverbs are pure mad’.30 This is what Quintilian attributes to a quaint ‘custom’ of poets but which I see as an essential element of the practice of this poetry: always choosing the word that is close (vicinis) but no cigar, in order to avoid some of the stifling linguistic authority (‘oppressive breathing’) which comes with the ‘right’ choices.

## Notes

1. Quintilian, Institutes of Oratory, trans. Donald A. Russell, vol. 3 (2014), p. 320. [^]
2. Sextus Pompeius Festus, De Verborum Significatu, ed. by Wallace Lindsay (Stutgardt: Teubner, 1997), §58/p. 51 (my translation). [^]
3. George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesy: A Critical Edition, ed. by Frank Whigham and Wayne A. Rebhorn (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007), p. 264. [^]
4. Puttenham, p. 226. [^]
5. In this essay I have used the classical/Renaissance concept of catachresis as drawn from prescriptive rhetorical handbooks as a tool to examine Manson’s poetic strategies; however, the wider understanding of catachresis as a philosophical, psychoanalytic, and political problematic has been greatly expanded since the 1960s. For readings of contemporary poets, including Manson, from some of these perspectives, including analysis that takes in deconstruction and postcolonial thought, see my chapter ‘“queer, wonderful misunderstandings”: Catachresis as Aesthetic in Contemporary Poetry’ in Sita Popat and Sarah Whatley (eds.), Error, Ambiguity, Creativity: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming). [^]
6. Peter Manson, Factitious Airs (Glasgow: Zarf Editions, 2016), p. 11. [^]
7. Peter Manson, ‘Irie’ in Factitious Airs (Glasgow: Zarf Editions, 2016), p. 5. [^]
8. Manson, ‘Irie’ in Factitious Airs, p. 5. [^]
9. Manson, ‘falling awake’ in Factitious Airs, pp. 6–7. [^]
10. Manson, ‘falling awake’ in Factitious Airs, 6–7 (p. 6). [^]
11. Manson, ‘The Baffle Stage’ in Poems of Frank Rupture (Brighton: Sancho Panza, 2014), 2–8 (p. 4). [^]
12. Puttenham, p. 284. [^]
13. Manson, ‘The Baffle Stage’ in Poems of Frank Rupture, 2–8 (p. 5). [^]
14. Manson, ‘The Baffle Stage’ in Poems of Frank Rupture, 2–8 (p. 6). [^]
15. Manson, ‘The Baffle Stage’ in Poems of Frank Rupture, 2–8 (p. 7). [^]
16. Manson, ‘The Baffle Stage’ in Poems of Frank Rupture, 2–8 (p. 7). [^]
17. Manson, ‘The Baffle Stage’ in Poems of Frank Rupture, 2–8 (p. 5). [^]
18. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Kubla Khan’ in Duncan Wu (ed.), Romanticism: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994) 514–5 (l. 30). [^]
19. Tom Betteridge, ‘Peter Manson’s Language Surfaces’, Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry 10(1); 3 (2018), 1–21 (p. 16). [^]
20. Manson, ‘The Baffle Stage’ in Poems of Frank Rupture, 2–8 (p. 6). [^]
21. William Gass, ‘Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence’ in The World within the Word: Essays (New York: Knopf, 1978), pp. 77–108; Ulla Dydo with William Rice, Gertrude Stein: The Language that Rises – 1923–1934 (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2008), p. 15. [^]
22. Astrid Lorange, How Reading Is Written: A Brief Index to Gertrude Stein (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2014), p. 8. [^]
23. Edwin Abbott, How to Write Clearly (Boston, MA: Roberts Brothers, 1876). [^]
24. Sharon J. Kirsch, ‘“Suppose a Grammar Uses Invention”: Gertrude Stein’s Theory of Rhetorical Grammar’, Rhetoric Society Quarterly 38; 3 (Summer 2008), 283–310 (p. 301). [^]
25. Manson, ‘Sourdough Mutation’ in Poems of Frank Rupture, 9–95 (p. 56). [^]
26. Gertrude Stein, How to Write, ed. Patricia Meyerowitz (New York: Dover Publications, 1975), p. 43. [^]
27. Stein, Lectures in America (London: Virago, 1988), p. 147; Kirsch, pp. 301–2. [^]
28. Manson, ‘Sourdough Mutation’ in Poems of Frank Rupture, 9–95 (p. 63). [^]
29. Stein, ‘Sacred Emily’ in Geography and Plays (Boston, MA: The Four Seas Company, 1922), 178–88 (p. 187). [^]
30. Manson, ‘Irie’ in Factitious Airs, 5–7 (p. 5). [^]

## Competing Interests

The author has no competing interests to declare.