Friday, November 22, 2013

Poetry Friday

(c) 2013 A.L.S. Vossler

a sacred estate
takes the insignificant,
makes it holy,

Who wishes to be forgotten?
Forget me not, the lovers cry.

Those unremembered
are swallowed, whole, by time,
made unholy,

Friday, November 15, 2013

Poetry Friday: Throwback

I stumbled across some old poetry the other day.  I wrote these back in high school for my freshman literature class.  Our poetry unit asked that we write three different forms of poetry: one, where we set up our own meter pattern; another, to write a haiku, and third, to write a limerick. As I have no pride whatsoever in the limerick I wrote, I present you with the first two assignments

The Fairy
(c) A.L.S. Vossler

Tinkling, sparkling in the air;
Magic follows everywhere.
The flow'rs all bloom with radiance bright
When comes the fairy of the night.
To life the world springs, when she sings
Then flies away on silv'ry wings. 

Even at fourteen, I had an obsession with all things fantasy.  At the time I was really into elves and fairies.  Now, this was sort of inspired by Tolkien's poem "Goblin Feet" (not connected with the Middle-Earth milieu).  However, most of the word choices were because a), it had the correct number of syllables, or b), it rhymed. 

The Storm
(c) A.L.S. Vossler

Endless skies bleed rain
Clouds cast shadows; eerie ghosts
Lightning rends earth's vault.
This one, unsurprisingly, I wrote on a rainy day.  

Poetry is one of those things where no matter how simplistic it is, people try to impose a lot of meaning on it.  Case in point, William Carlos Williams.  Oh, the critics love to break it down and explicate the hell out of his works. Reading literary criticism of poetry always makes me think of Billy Collins' famous quote:
"All they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with a rope and torture a confession out of it. They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means." 

I am personally guilty of the new critic/formalist approach to poetry--I so love the words themselves that I find myself waxing a little toward the Archibald MacLeish "Ars poetica" camp.  However, I don't pretend for a moment that formalism is enough to properly interpret any given work. I do like to borrow from many critical camps--and I am quite guilty of beating poems with hoses. 

 Now, I am no enormous fan of Williams' poetry, but I find the desperate attempts of critics to understand it hilarious.  Maybe we should just appreciate it for what it is and let it "be palpable and mute / As a globed fruit"(MacLeish 1-2)...

Sorry, sorry.  The Ars Poetica thing again.  I just laugh to think that someday, some rabidly reader-response critic who puts Stanley Fish to shame or some delightfully vicious deconstructionist or enthusiastic feminist critic is going to get a hold of a simple poem I wrote as a naive teenager.  It's pretty amusing actually.  

And people wonder why Coleridge felt the need to explain his works and put marginal glosses in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?  Talk about foresight.  And we still tear apart his works and even his letters and glosses.  

So, anyway, this literary tirade is partly to make up for the fact that I won't be posting again until next week.  

If you care to offer any reader-response or deconstructionist or feminist criticism, please do so in the comments.  I especially enjoy deconstruction.  

Works cited (please forgive the lack of proper MLA format, I am short on time today.)

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Delicious Words and the Language of the Fantastic

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” says the old adage.  For me, this always raises the question, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a word worth?”

The question is a fiddly one.  A single word can be worth nothing, or it can be worth—well, a thousand words. The four letters ‘w-o-r-d’ themselves are a good example.  It has become common in modern speech to say ‘word’ in response to something, or indeed to nothing at all.  If you ask the speaker to explain what they mean, your results may vary.  In fact, the use of ‘word’ in this capacity means so many different things that it effectively means nothing.  It becomes a puff of air, nothing more than the empty utterance of a semi-vowel, vowel, liquid, and stop. It’s something to say, totally detached from any meaning at all.

Another word that has suffered non-meaning starts with the interdental unvoiced fricative and ends with the palatal unvoiced stop.  (Also, it rhymes with ‘duck.’) If you ever listen to people use this word, especially Chef Gordon Ramsay, you will notice that it means absolutely nothing—just something to say, albeit something rude to say. 

‘Word’ and assorted vulgarities, however, and not the only words affected by the meaninglessness phenomenon.  ‘Like’ also comes to mind.  I am certain that you can think of any number of expressions, most of them interjections, which have absolutely no definitive meaning.

So, a word can be worth nothing.  Or, it can be worth thousands of words.  Pick up the Oxford English Dictionary and look up ‘word.’ The definition is, depending on the size of the print and the pages in your copy, about a page long.  Suddenly those four linguistic phonemes are worth more information than can be easily conveyed by a dictionary, and you would be hard-pressed to find a picture to portray it.

I am, if you have not already surmised, obsessed with words and linguistics.  The expression ‘word nerd’ is hardly satisfactory.  In fact, I think of words like candy—sweet, delicious candy.  I simply enjoy turning words over in my mouth and feeling the way they are formed.  Some words, however, become more delicious in the presence of other words; context affects the flavor of each one.  They are delicious because of the way it feels to speak them, the way they sound, and what they mean. 

One of my favorite examples of the deliciousness of words is Richard Snyder’s poem “A Mongoloid Child Handling Shells on the Beach”:

She turns them over in her slow hands,
As did the sea sending them to her;
Broken bits from the mazarine maze,
They are the calmest things on this sand.

The unbroken children splash and shout,
Rough as surf, gay as their nesting towels.
But she plays soberly with the sea’s
Small change and hums back to it its slow vowels. (1-8)

This is an excellent example of how familiar words can be exotic when used in a certain way; alliteration and consonance have a way of doing that. The words themselves, laced with sibilance and long vowels, mimic the sounds of ocean breakers. It really is beautiful. 

If common words have so much effect in the context of reality—note the supernatural meaning they convey to the Down Syndrome child’s communion with nature—imagine what unfamiliar words might do. 

I think of unfamiliar words as the language of the fantastic.  I do not mean made up words; I mean actual English words that are in actual English dictionaries but are not used in commonplace vocabulary. This is because fantasy relies on strangeness. 

“Speculative fiction by definition is geared toward an audience that wants strangeness” (20), writes Orson Scott Card.  He also notes that “one of the greatest values of speculative fiction is that creating a strange imaginary world is often the best way to help readers see the real world through fresh eyes” (61-62).

Strange words, by which I mean unfamiliar words, are an excellent way to create and define imaginary worlds and give us fresh eyes.  One of my favorite authors, Stephen R. Donaldson, excels in the use of obscure, archaic, or simply uncommon words to do this.  He could easily use more vernacular language and convey the same things, but by choosing something unusual, he adds to a sense of this literature of the strange. 

For example, in his Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Donaldson frequently describes his powerful characters as ‘puissant’ rather than ‘powerful.’  He uses ‘preternatural’ in place of ‘unnatural’ or ‘supernatural.’  Of course, there are some slight differences in connotation in these word choices, and in the literary context of the story, it makes a lot of sense. ‘Puissant’ also connotes ‘potent,’ and the main character, in addition to being impotent, also feels a total sense of powerlessness.  ‘Preternatural’ connotes something aberrant and outside of nature, rather than just against or greater than it.  

The word choices are important for their literary symbolism, but their delicious strangeness contributes to the unfamiliarity of the milieu that Donaldson has created.  The words function far beyond their meaning and paint a picture for us.  A picture that is worth—well, a thousand words.


Works Cited

Card, Orson Scott. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1990.

Snyder, Richard. “A Mongoloid Child Handling Shells on the Beach.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Seventh ed.  Eds. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. New York: Longman, 1999. 732
Immediately after writing “If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a word worth,” I spent about 30 minutes trying to find a clever pun about Romantic era poets before giving up and finishing the post.

If you use ‘puissant’ and ‘preternatural’ in your everyday vocabulary, I want to be your new best friend.

If you also tried to make a Wordsworth pun, I want to be your new best friend.

If you actually came up with a good Wordsworth pun, please leave it in the comments along with any other thoughts you might like to share.

Friday, November 8, 2013

It's Poetry Friday!

(c) A.L.S. Vossler

Longing, longing; ah, I long.
Intangible desire is my song.
Yearning, yearning; ah, I yearn.
Vague strivings fill a shapeless urn.
Though inspiration rend my side
Flood me with a drowning tide
of things I scarce can hope to bear
To fruit or ever hold or share
The ramblings without pointed goal
Ebbing from the vacant shoal
Sweep me into the morass
Of the ocean’s formless mass
Of dreams bent into tuneless song
Ah, my soul, I long, I long.
Have I solid hopes to learn?
Ah, my soul, I yearn, I yearn.