Something differenter.

A couple and a half years ago, I posted a poem I’d been tinkering with. I saw it again this week as I was going through my notes, and I thought I’d wrench on it some more. The result isn’t profound by any stretch, but I like its music and mystery.

Inheritance

You have me at my word,
vowed the Orphan to the bird.
Or, by Providence I swear,
I will join you in the air,
to beat against the blast
and bereave the ground at last,
and renounce my mortal name
before Earth can lay her claim.

And the envoy’s ebon eyes
belied the brightness of the skies,
though dead winter’s frigid voice
spoke its rime of hopeless choice.
And the Orphan’s mind was cast
to a red morn long since past—
to a mother’s promise made,
and a debt yet left unpaid.

Then, from trying time unbowed,
she turned toward the crowd—
while the raven rose in flight
with his drove of strident night—
and drew countless ages in
through a throat of molten tin.
As the martial mass knelt cowed,
She withdrew Her sallow shroud

and cast Her lace aloud.

I Think that I Shall Never See a Poem as Asinine as … I … Am.

I’m a little behind in my rambling. But luckily, I’m also a little obsessive, so the topic I’ve wanted to meander through for the last little bit is still fairly clear and meander-able. That being said, it’s not too late to bail. I won’t hold it against you. Life’s short, brevity is not one of my virtues, and there’re mines to be crafted.

So, if you’re still reading, all I can say is, “Thanks, Mom.”

Anyway, I was sick last week, which let me spend some time in a couple of new books of poetry. New to me, anyway. One of them was Susan Stewart’s Red Rover. I’ve been an admirer of Stewart’s work since I first read The Forest a few years ago. This fierce, untitled poem was the one that hooked me:

We needed fire to make
the tongs and tongs to hold
us from the flame; we needed
ash to clean the cloth
and cloth to clean the ash’s
stain; we needed stars
to find our way, to make
the light that blurred the stars;
we needed death to mark
an end, an end that time
in time could mend.
Born in love, the consequence-
born of love, the need.
Tell me, ravaged singer,
how the cinder bears the seed.

Awesome, isn’t it? I love poems like this, that in just a few lines can leave you in a very different place than you expected to be. And if you read it aloud a couple of times, just as Gloria Estafan warned would happen, the rhythm is gonna get you.

Now, with poems on my mind, I’ll say this about poetry:

It’s not what it once was.

Not that its quality has somehow diminished, although I’m sure plenty o’ folks would argue that it has. It’s just that it’s not what it once was to the world. It’s not as appreciated as it used to be. Maybe because it’s not as approachable; it comes across as esoteric or pretentious. Or maybe it’s voice is just too quiet to register in a world where only the thunder can be heard over the rain.

I think part of the shift is in the way we receive poems, or maybe in the way they are presented to us. Like puzzles with only one correct solution. Either it looks like a basket full of kittens when you’re done, or it doesn’t. Billy Collins (possibly the most popular and commercially successful poet working today) illustrates the problem in his “Introduction to Poetry” better than I can.

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

It’d be so much easier if poetry were objective. But it rarely is, as is the case with so many things in life. Even so, we’re still always trying to define it. To valuate it. The individual examples, as well as the whole twirling, multi-hued umbrella.

A lot of people have said a lot of things about what poetry is, but I’m partial to one of the ways Robert Frost defined it:

The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.

But that’s just, like, his opinion, man.

Regardless of what poetry has become—or has always been—to some other people, it’s still what it’s always been to me. A balm. An explanation. Duct tape. And since last week, an insistent little couplet has been gently but tenaciously stuck to the side of my brain:

Then the traveler in the dark
Thanks you for your tiny spark

It’s from one of the most oft-recited poems in the English-speaking world, but I doubt many people would recognize it by itself. So here it is in context:

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky.

When the blazing sun is gone,
When he nothing shines upon,
Then you show your little light,
Twinkle, twinkle, all the night.

Then the traveler in the dark
Thanks you for your tiny spark,
How could he see where to go,
If you did not twinkle so?

In the dark blue sky you keep,
Often through my curtains peep
For you never shut your eye,
Till the sun is in the sky.

As your bright and tiny spark
Lights the traveler in the dark,
Though I know not what you are,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

That elegant tidbit is dense. That’s what has me hooked. I keep wondering and wondering, and wandering and wandering, and no matter how many times I start at the same point, I never reach the same destination. I always end up hearing a different story.

I guess it just amazes me how poignant a few lines of poetry can be. Sometimes it’s a complete poem, like Langston Hughes’ “Poem [2] (To F.S.),” one of my favorites:

I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There’s nothing more to say.
The poem ends,
Soft as it began,-
I loved my friend.

And sometimes it’s just a snippet of a larger work, like this:

and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

And this:

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still

And this:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.

And this:

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

This, again, is a short, but complete, poem:

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

But this isn’t:

Creo que el mundo es bello, que la poesía es como el pan, de todos.

And my blood boils up and I laugh through eyes that have known the buds of tears.
I believe the world is beautiful and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.

Nor this:

When I die choose a star
and name it after me
that you may know
I have not abandoned
or forgotten you.

Nor this:

God, give us a long winter
and quiet music, and patient mouths,
and a little pride—before
our age ends.
Give us astonishment
and a flame, high, bright.

Nor this:

Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

Nor especially this:

I depart as air—I shake my white locks at the runaway sun;
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you

At this point, if you’re still with me, Mom, I have to apologize for my lack of snark. I know I’m out of character. But I want you to love poetry. I’d like it to be important the way it used to be. Not for the sake of nostalgia, and not because what’s right for me is necessarily right for everyone else. But because of the possibility that you might find the same experiences and healing in poetry that I, and untold others, have found. What’s right for us might be right for you. What speaks peace to our souls might speak peace to yours as well.

It might.

Doomsday Prepositioners

Today I was going to get all wide-eyed and giggly about that miraculous carbon, especially about graphene, Vantablack, flexible OLEDs, and all the other stuff I think will make Star Trek happen. Solid Friday fare, you know?

But that’ll have to wait. I’ve just come from a [s]troll through an Internet forum, so I’m going to rant about grammar awhile. Not about the grammar people use, but about the grammar people tell other people to use.

I know few of you obsess as much about words as I do. Thank goodness. Most people are much more inclined toward usefulness and productivity than I, and as much as that ensures the continuation of our species and the periodic creation of amazing new Reese’s Peanut Butter-based products, it also means that some bad ideas about language haven’t been quashed as they ought to have been.

Like the throwing of shade against deferred prepositions.

If you’ve ever been exposed to a high school English class, or at least 74 consecutive seconds of American pop culture, or the back of any cereal box from the 1950s, then you’ve probably been taught that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. It’s the go-to rule of people who want to sound as language-authoritative as they can while committing themselves to as little effort as possible.

The problem is, it’s not a rule of English grammar. It’s a rule based in Latin grammar, and is actually a pollution of Latin grammar.

In Latin, the rule isn’t that sentences can’t end in prepositions, but that clauses can’t end in prepositions. More accurately, the rule requires prepositions to pre-position (Get it?) their objects, meaning that they come before and not after. Since the preposition regularly precedes its object, it rarely comes at the end of a clause or sentence.

But either way, we don’t speak Latin!

We can thank John Dryden, perennial downer and Latin fanboy, for inflicting centuries of cankerous grief upon our language. In his 1672 Defence of the Epilogue, he criticizes Ben Jonson‘s use of clause-final prepositions as a part of his quest to prove that he’s a better playwright and poet than Jonson (and Fletcher and Shakespeare and pretty much everyone else who ever put quill to parchment). Sometime after that, some well-intentioned English teacher at PS 358 caught a nasty case of Dry-phoid, and the rest, as they say, is hysteria.

I think it’s strangely poetic. Not only have we been taught to adhere to a foreign grammatical structure, but we’ve been taught to adhere to an incorrect interpretation of a foreign grammatical structure. Sure, English is the adorable love child of German and Latin-based French, but kids can grow up and make their own syntactic choices. English has the chance to take its diverse inheritance and become something truly awesome—the Schokolade-covered pommes frites we’ve all been waiting for. Instead of taking a page out of Dryden’s Illustrated Latin Grammar Primer, I’d rather climb onto the brown-shoes-and-belt-with-a-black-suit-esque bandwagon with Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Byron, James Thurber, Robert Frost, and every other writer who rendered unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s and kept the fun, spicy stuff for him- or herself.

Of course there are times that call for more formality (when the bailiff instructs you and your defense attorney to rise, when a colonoscopy is involved, when you’re in a room with Prince, etc.) and in those times it’s more than appropriate to add a little rigidity to your language. Most of the time, however, we’re all just going about the everyday tasks of trying to find roast beef sandwiches and attempting to peacefully coexist. No reason to gussy up our speak for that. You’re not going to impress anyone when the words “Cynthia, with whom should we go to Forever 21 this evening?” leave your mouth.

If you simply can’t stand to strand those prepositions, that’s okay. Some people are always striving for what they see as “perfection” in their speech and writing—the members of the “I’m doing well” crowd. If that’s you, fantastic. Live your life, kid. But please stop telling the “I’m doing good”-ers they’re wrong to let their prepositions caboose it up. The world will be better because of your tolerance.

No matter what, various dilettantes throughout the English-speaking world will clench at the sight of prepositions at the ends of sentences until the zombies bring an end to all non-grunted languages. But in the interim, those fops will probably be happier if they can learn to un-pucker.

p.s. Next week’s diatribe should probably be a self-directed lesson on restraint in the use of italics.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but you nerds will never have the upper body strength or motor skills to use them against me.

Nerd Pride is a beautiful oxymoron. And yes, it might be something of a clichéd idea now that nerds are more accepted in the mainstream, but I remain an adherent. ‘Cause although we nerds don’t have to hide in our parents’ dank basements anymore (though you’ll probably find the pale majority of us down there anyway), we’re still prone to extreme levels of shame. But we possibly … maybe … kind of … shouldn’t be?

I’m an ardent believer that everyone is nerdy about something. Nerdiness is really just a product of passion. Sports fan(atics)s, for example, are by definition zealous in their devotion, including the tracking of statistics and crunching of numbers. And historically, under whose purview have numbers and statistics and crunching fallen? That’s right—under yours. Nerd.

Still, it’s important to note that not all nerds are created equal. Of course sportier nerds have their own stigmata, but they’ll never reach brony-grade pariah-hood. And we shouldn’t confuse the classic nerdy jock with the new wave of Twitchy eSports enthusiast because despite broadcasting “sports” like billiards and poker, ESPN still refuses to let the gamier nerds of the world join its team. For my purposes though, I’m talking about—and to—the traditional, no-nonsense, no-non-World-of-Warcraft-plans-on-a-Friday-night kind of nerd. Homo sapiens rejectus. The noble outcast.

Finding happiness and success in high-functioning nerdery is all about taking ownership of your ignominy. When the villagers pelt you with sweet, vine-ripened tomatoes, you turn those tomatoes into a robust, yet delicately balanced marinara. It’s all about making your condition work for you, kid, and keeping things on the not-so-heavy side. Don’t get all indignant when you’re playing Legos with your nine-year-old nephew and he circumvents your entrenched muster of stormtroopers by taking his 74-Z speeder bike above its max altitude of 25 (scale) meters. Just give the little Rebel a pass on this one. He may not have the words to label any D-baggery as such, but his emotions will confirm that he’s not happy facing those flagrant levels of untenable pomposity. Just have fun with it, dude, is all I’m sayin’. Recognize that NO ONE outside of your loyal fellowship takes you seriously when you start ranting about how 8-bit is the last pure art form. Try to accept that this ridiculousness is a glorious part of our collective nerd-venture. Be genuine. The fact that you are so nerdy and have survived in spite of it is one of nature’s precious miracles. So don’t hide your lightsaber under a bushel. And be honest about your foibles. I can’t name more than five current non-NHL, non-NBA starters across all of professional sports. I can, however, rattle off a pretty accurate list of the top 25 Magic: The Gathering players in the world. I’m comfortable with that. Sure, I know by most standards it won’t make me the most interesting guy in the room, but it will keep me authentic. And it will ensure I’m home at a reasonable hour most evenings.

So maybe you’re the kind of nerd who watches A Game of Thrones, and maybe you’re the kind who read it for the first time way back in good old 1996. Or maybe—possibly, even—you’re both. One of a new breed of über-nerd. Someone who is pretty sure Ned Stark was only like 35-ish in the book, but is also pretty sure 50-ish Sean Bean is a total bad-A. Either way, you’re someone who is super cheesed at George for takin’ his friggin’ sweet time with errthang! And you’re someone who sees nerd not only as a pejorative, but as a declaration of independence, and a term of endearment, and, of course, a delicious crunchy candy.

If you love something, set it free. Or bop it on the head and bury it in the old root cellar.

Eons ago, before anyone had the luxury of getting paid to scribble out nonsense, the word “writer” didn’t even exist. It’s true. And even if it had existed, which it totally, totally didn’t, it would’ve been meaningless. Like the word choyborp will be for the next 34 years. The only professions that really existed way back then were blacksmiths, dog breeders, and ornithologists. So this one day someone walked over to the group and was like, “Hey, neanderfellows, I just … did … something … with this stick and that dirt over there. What do you think it was?” And then someone else was all, “Um, I think you just made words, dude.” And then the first guy was like, “I think you’re right. I think I just invented wording.” And then a third guy looked past the mastodon carcasses and at the smithy’s sulfurous lean-to, and then back at his friends, and then back at the smithy, and then back at his friends, and then said, “I think we should call you a … a ‘wordsmith,’ man. ‘Cause you’re, like, a blacksmith. For words.” They all nodded for about thirty seconds and then continued not having penicillin.

Anyway, I don’t know that I’m a fan of being called a wordsmith, that’s all. I wish Trom and his friends had never introduced it into the world. There’s something unpleasant about the imagery of heating up words—and phrases and clauses—and then pounding all the fight out of ‘em. I think I’d rather be called a “wordsculptor,” patiently smoothing and guiding words into new forms while the Righteous Brothers croon in the background. Or maybe I could be a “wordgardener,” planting words in fertile brain soil and then watching as they grow into something alive and perhaps unexpected. Like when I got to spend the better part of a summer enjoying my accidental pumpkiberries. Better yet, I’d like to be a “wordwhisperer,” letting words keep their wildness while coaxing their best out of them, my skin all leathery and my Stetson sweat-ringed and smelling of ruggedness.

Some people seem to love language they way they love their cats. A teeth-clenching, bone-crushing kind of love. So hard that the words die horrible, shrieking deaths. Other people I’ve met opt for some form of linguistic taxidermy. They want to kill a word and preserve it forever in some hollow facsimile of life. They want to kill the word, pluck out its eyes, and then replace them with pretty glass baubles. Nice to look at, but definitely not a gateway to the soul of things.

You Ain’t Got No Alibi

Yeah. For starters, I have to apologize to my reader. I’m so sorry, Manjeet! I should’ve warned you before I took a few months off to become gainfully employed and get married. It was totally inconsiderate, and I feel terrible that your Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman prequel screenplay didn’t pan out. But I’m back now, and [fill in the blank] than ever!

And now that I’m back, it’s as good a time as any to tell you that I’m not a huge fan of the word carbuncle. I know–I can hear your indignant gasps. It’s not because I’ve had any experience with a precious carbuncle to call my own, and not because I’m in general opposed to the extended family of any saccharide. [pause for rim shot]

It’s because it’s an ugly freaking word. There, I said it.

And so is bequeath. [SPOILER ALERT] I used it in my last post, and afterward thought, Gross. And when a friend of mine used it again today and my bowels suddenly started talking like Billy Bob in Sling Blade, I knew it needed to be added to the Ugo List (or Las Palabras Más Feas as it’s affectionately known in Paraguay).

The thing about bequeath is, it’s not one of those words that’s ugly by association. It’s not a crotchety, a tampon, a canker, or a moist. It’s attached to a decent enough meaning. I wouldn’t mind if someone bequeathed something to me. As long as they did so in other words because bequeath still offends my ear spirits.

Here’re some more fugly words.

Nugget
Crusty
Unctuous
Ointment
Lipid
Clean
Grind
Anklet
Paunch
Chafe
Hoary
Juggle
Noisome
Gist
Graduate

Feel free to add to this list. Just don’t try to add the word oatmeal. You might think it sounds ugly. But it doesn’t.

French-fried p’taters, all!

Vampire Weekday or: How the Oxford Comma Solved My Existential Dilemma

Sometimes, out of that proverbial nowhere (I’m sure there’s some proverb about it somewhere), you find yourself having a discussion with your big brother about the Oxford comma. When this happens, it’s important that you not blame yourself. It’s not because of anything you did. Sometimes these things just happen, and no one can make sense of them. The universe is a fickle fig. Anyway, sometimes it’s not about the Oxford comma. Sometimes it’s a conversation about football and the lunacy of not going for two points every time, sometimes it’s politics and the lunacy of politics, and sometimes it’s about Faulkner (lunacy inherent). But sometimes it is about the more controversial side of punctuation. My brother and I tend to disagree on certain things, even when we agree. I find it endearing. He doesn’t. (But he really does.) It’s a brotheresque kind of idea. Maybe Dostoyevsky could explain it. Just make sure to tune him out if he starts talking about Oedipus. Still, brotherly debating aside, as it turns out, we’re both all for that extra kicky little swish in our three-or-more series. When it’s appropriate to use it, that is. Could be genetic. Hard to say.

There’re reasons to use ol’ Oxy, and there’re reasons to not . . . use it. Robert Frost taught me a good deal about the Oxford comma’s usefulness, and sometimes its overusedness. (And a lot about the nature of physics and one’s inability to occupy two roads simultaneously, for what it’s worth.) The first of his poems I ever memorized was “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” In 1923, Frost penned the opening line of the poem’s fourth stanza as “The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” wherein the loveliness of the woods is contained in their darkness and depth. No serial comma there. However, and this is where you have to step lightly lest the nerd-rage overcome you, E.C. Lathem, the definitive editor of Frost’s canon, added the Oxford comma after Frost’s death. The poem as it is now most often published reads, “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,” marking each item in the list as a separate property of the woods. Outrageous, no?! The woods as they have now been amended to exist are lovely, and they are dark, and they are deep. But they are not necessarily lovely because they are dark and deep, no longer a place where the poet can disappear, no more to be burdened by his as-yet-unkept promises. No more to be burdened by E.C. Lathem and his grammatical swashbuckling!

Of course there’s a time to use the Oxford comma, just as there’s a time to leave it in that box in the back of your closet that no one is allowed to open. Like those times you have to draw upon your knowledge of Pauly Shore’s filmography for the sake of clearer social discourse, so too is it sometimes necessary to clearly separate multiple ideas. Without it, your will might read, “I hereby bequeath my Golden Girls commemorative plate collection to be equally divided between my dogs, Sally and Rico,” forever enraging your sister and brother (for whom your dogs were lovingly named). “I hereby bequeath my Golden Girls commemorative plate collection to be equally divided between my dogs, Sally, and Rico” at least gives your siblings a fighting chance. The dogs’ll just have to settle for a quarter each instead of half. Good luck agreeing on who gets Bea Arthur. (Maybe it would be easier to say, “I hereby bequeath my Golden Girls commemorative plate collection to be equally divided between my dogs, my sister Sally, and my brother Rico. But then you get into the whole mess of whether you should put commas after sister and brother. No one wants to be that clear anyway.)

Now, if you feel I’ve just wasted several minutes of your life, and you are now going to forgo the use of all commas as a means to disambiguate your language, I won’t be surprised. As another poet wrote, “Who gives a $%#@ about an Oxford comma?” It’s a question that is good, important and timely, and one I think people should ask themselves everyday, in front of the mirror. Morning, noon, and night.