Passer Pipiabat

“Incidentally, this poem – or, more specifically, the onomatopoeia of its two central words, “passer” and “pipiabat” – did more than anything I can remember to make me want to become a writer. I can still hear our Latin teacher, Miss Ferguson, piping out in her most piercing sparrow’s voice, “passer pipiabat”, getting us to notice how much the plosive rhythm resembled a bird singing. That words were music, that, at the same time they were marks on a page, they also referred to things in the world and, in skilled hands, took on properties of the things they denoted, was for me, at 15, an exciting discovery, all the more notable for the fact that this poetic effect had been devised by a young man dead for two thousand years, who’d sent this phrase drifting down the centuries to reach me in my Michigan classroom, filling my American ears with the sound of Roman birdsong.

The above passage is what Jeffrey Eugenides wrote in a piece in The Guardian on Feb 9, 2008. His words are about the effect Gaius Catullus’s “Lesbia” had on him and how the words “passer pipiabat” inspired him to write. I haven’t yet read the poem, have never come across it and am hearing about it for the first time. But what Jeffrey Eugenides has written about words is what holds me in thrall. About the onomatopoeia that extends beyond just the words, the aura or halo around the words, the ever extending outward spirals – to my mind. I love how he talks about the words being music at the same time that they were marks on a page, things in the world and calling out to him from over two thousand years ago; the power of words.

His words also bring to mind that early lesson in Physics in the chapter that dealt with pulleys and levers; the lever or fulcrum being an object that could multiply the mechanical force that could be applied to another object. That’s what the right words can do, their presence hinting at weightier concepts, associations and relations that are abstract and flighty notions in a reader’s mind. The ‘poetic effect’ he talks about above is not unlike the effect of a small and rigid object like a lever.

Ultimately, reading things like the passage above leave me with a sense of wistfulness at my shortcomings as a writer and the reason why there are such long gaps in my writing, the reason why I harbor no ambitions as a writer. Words, the right words, like everything else I seek, shimmer out there in the distance like objects that tempt and are forever out of reach.

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