Catachresis and Dylan Thomas

Catachresis is a Greek word meaning the misuse of language. However, from a poet’s perspective, it might be better understood as a way of reinventing the use of language.

Examples of catachresis include modifying words in an illogical manner, e.g., when Pablo Neruda writes of “insulted iron,” and “a tongue of years different/ from time.” Or a unique compound word, e.g., when Sylvia Plath describes a sea as being “many-snaked.” Or a word that transgresses its grammatical properties, such as an inflexible noun being used as a verb, e.g., “She light-bulbed a bright idea.” This list is not exhaustive.

It is often difficult to interpret the exact meaning of a catachrestic word or phrase. At worst, catachresis is a slush of bombastic nonsense. At best, it produces a dream-like, disoriented or hallucinogenic effect; and it often plays a hand in surrealist poetry. Note that it is sometimes the byproduct of a writer choosing words based on their sound rather than their meaning, thereby straining language to the effect of music.

Despite being a fastidious craftsman who often wrote carefully rhymed and metered poetry, Dylan Thomas’s application of language is anything but formal (and is rife with catachresis). Early critics tended to find him inaccessible and “drunk on language.” However, readers continue to acknowledge the unique force of language he employs throughout his oeuvre.

How many examples of catachresis can you find in this poem?

from Altarwise By Owl-Light

First there was the lamb on knocking knees
And three dead seasons on a climbing grave
That Adam’s wether in the flock of horns,
Butt of the tree-tailed worm that mouned Eve,
Horned down with skullfoot and the skull of toes
On thunderous pavements in the garden time;
Rip of the vaults, I took my marrow-ladle
Out of the wrinkled undertaker’s van,
And, Rip Van Winkle from a timeless cradle,
Dipped me breast-deep in the descended bone;
The black ram, shuffling of the year, old winter,
Alone alive amoung his mutton fold,
We rung our weathering changes on the ladder,
Said the antipodes, and twice spring chimed.

by Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)

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