April 05, 2009

in Just- by ee cummings

in Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame baloonman

whistles far and wee
and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old baloonman whistles
far and wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and



baloonMan whistles

December 07, 2007

Happy birthday, Noam!

Today is the 79th birthday of linguist Noam Chomsky. Yes, that Noam Chomsky...the one that most people think of as a political analyst. Chomsky, before broadening his intellectual lens to include politics, revolutionized the field of linguistics. Until Chomsky published his paradigm-challenging 1957 text, Syntactic Structures, the study of languages mostly involved classification, not unlike botany or geology. Chomsky, however, rejected the structuralist assumptions of his peers and exposited the concept of generative syntax and transformational grammar. Unsatisfied with limiting his work to "mere" linguistics, Chomsky delineated a broad theory of human development and psychology. As his theories matured, he became increasingly staunch in his support of rationalist philosophers such as Descartes and their belief that humans are born with certain knowledge that determines how we will interpret the world around us. He wrote that children are born "with a perfect knowledge of universal grammar," or the basic rules that govern all language.

In the years since Chomsky deliniated his syntactical theories, many of them have been disproved. Clearly, his belief (echoing that of Descartes) that only humans could create language has been debunked. Additionally, more recent linguists have argued that his basic premises are irrelevant because they overlooked the very reason that language exists in the first place: communication.

Still, whether you agree with his views or not, it is hard to deny his importance in the history of linguistics.

Happy birthday, Noam.

November 08, 2007

A braggodocio of bloggers

I had a conversation with my father tonight about various group names for animals and we were able to recall the following:

An army of ants
A troop of baboons
A swarm of bees
An intrigue (or a clowder) of cats
A herd of cattle/elephants
A murder of crows
A pod of dolphins/whales
A raft of ducks/otters
A school of fish
A gaggle of geese
A string of horses
A pride of lions
A parliament of owls
An ostentation of peacocks
An unkindness of ravens
A flock of seagulls/sheep
A knot of snakes
A kiss of vampires (okay, so they aren't animals, but I still like the phrase)
A pack of wolves

After spending some more time online, I found a few more terms that I didn't know, such as a flamboyance of flamingoes, an exaltation of larks, a convocation of eagles and a business of ferrets. Wouldn't conversations would be more fun if people still used these terms?

What are some of the best collective terms that you've read? Better yet, why don't you make some up to share?

Dandelions by Deborah Austin (thank you, anonymous!)

under cover of night and rain
the troops took over.
waking to total war in beleaguered houses
over breakfast we faced the batteries
marshaled by wall and stone, deployed
with a master strategy no one had suspected
and now all


all day, all yesterday
and all today
the barrage continued
deafening sight.
reeling now, eyes ringing from noise, from walking
gingerly over the mined lawns
exploded at every second
rocked back by the starshellfire
concussion of gold on green
brining battle-fatigue

pow by lionface firefur pow by
goldburst shellshock pow by
whoosh splat splinteryellow pow by
pow by pow
tomorrow smoke drifts up
from the wrecked battalions,
all the ammunition, firegold fury, gone.
over the war-zone, only
here and there, in the shade by the
pow in the crack by the
curbstone pow and back of the
ashcan, lonely
guerrilla snipers, hoarding

their fire shrewdly



June 15, 2005

SWF is seeking...

Did that catch your attention?

Sorry for the deception. No, the Word Nerd isn't looking for a date. She's looking for a poem. Maybe one of the brilliant, erudite, illustrious readers of this blog (hey, flattery never hurts, right?) can help her find it.

In 1991, I took a creative writing class. The instructor introduced us to a wide variety of reading materials. All in all, it was a life-altering experience; I'll probably post about it at some point. At any rate, one of the reading assignments was a poem about dandelions. If I remember correctly, no one knew who had written it. The basic "schtick" of the poem was that it sounded like it was about war; you didn't realize that it was really talking about dandelions until the end. It compared the onslaught of dandelions to invading batallions and described the seed puffs as smoke and parachutes. Stylistically, it reminded me of e.e. cummings; the line breaks were attention-grabbing and the poet used a lot of onomatopoeia.

Does this sound familiar to anyone? Seriously, I'm dying over here...

June 09, 2005

e.e. cummings

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite a new thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like,, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh . . . . And eyes big Love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you quite so new

May 26, 2005

Memphis Word Nerd: Mising In Action

Erm...yes, it has been a while since I posted. No, I don't have a good excuse. Yes, I do have a real life outside of the internet. Sadly, it's not a very interesting one.

I'm not here to say anything particularly fascinating. It has been a long, long time since the BlogMuse came to visit, bringing a fresh dose of inspiration. I've done a little reading (Anna Karenina, Great Expectations, Beautiful Child by Torey Hayden) but none of it has been very bloggable.

Perhaps some of you have a topic? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

March 26, 2005

Literary Dinners

"I prefer bread and water with books to the best of eating without them."
- Stephen Fuller Austin, written in his journal in 1834 while he was in prison

When I was a little girl, my mother and I would frequently read at the dinner table when my father went out of town. I remember eating fruit plates (plums, nectarines, cheese and summer sausage) while perusing the pages of a Susan Cooper novel. I don't remember what my mother read; more recent memories of her intrude and I imagine her reading Anita Shreve or Maeve Binchy, though I know that this wasn't the case in the 1980's.

As a college student, I waited tables on Beale Street. We had a semi-regular customer who would come in alone and read during his meal. The waitresses all joked about him; he seemed so strange to us. Now, ten years later, I have discovered that I frequently prefer to read while I eat.

Tonight I turned down dinner plans in order to eat lasagna while I reread Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. Earlier, thumbing through Nafisi's memoirs, I was reminded of the solitary patron of that Beale Street establishment. In retrospect, I realize that he probably knew that we were laughing at him. I think that he was enjoying his book so deeply that he didn't care. Strangely, I'm glad that I've reached that point, too.

Mr. Austin's quote, however, does not just refer to gustatory pleasures. He is taking the seemingly astonishing position that he would rather remain incarcerated with his books than go free without them. This quote is a different perspective on the same basic concept addressed by Ms. Nafisi: the nature of freedom and the role of literature in the absence of liberty. Ms. Nafisi was similarly "incarcerated": she lived in Tehran throughout the first decade of the Iranian Revolution. In the end, Mr. Austin and Ms. Nafisi, though separated by almost two centuries, come to the same conclusion: intellectual freedom and physical freedom do not always go hand-in-hand. Of the two, they agree, intellectual freedom is much more difficult to suppress. In the face of adversity, literature can provide the single most crucial survival tool. It serves as "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul." Literature provides, in a word, hope.

Here's to singing the tune without the words, Austin. Pour me another glass of water.

March 23, 2005


I haven't been feeling very inspired to write recently but I've still been making occasional visits to a few of my favorite blogs. I ended up at one of the best tonight and noticed a great question: What book most represents your personality?

I thought about it for a long time but I kept coming back to my first instinct: Ayn Rand's lesser-known novella, "Anthem." Her novels are well known for their discursive approach and philosophical themes. The reader is pretty much guaranteed a paradigm-shifting experience IF he/she can slog through the verbal explosion (which most people can't/won't). "Anthem", on the other hand, is absolutely awe-inspiring. The whole novella is a perfectly-paced build up to two of the most passionately written pages in recent American literature. Actually, I almost hesitate to call it literature because the sociopolitical agenda is so strong...her work dances between propaganda and art. However, no matter how you classify it, this is one of the most personally resonant passages that I've ever read.

What about you?

March 15, 2005

From Papa Wordnerd

And Death Shall Have No Dominion (Dylan Thomas)

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan't crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

March 04, 2005

"Writing" by Howard Nemerov, from The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov. © University of Chicago Press.

The cursive crawl, the squared-off characters
these by themselves delight, even without
a meaning, in a foreign language, in
Chinese, for instance, or when skaters curve
all day across the lake, scoring their white
records in ice. Being intelligible,
these winding ways with their audacities
and delicate hesitations, they become
miraculous, so intimately, out there
at the pen's point or brush's tip, do world
and spirit wed. The small bones of the wrist
balance against great skeletons of stars
exactly; the blind bat surveys his way
by echo alone. Still, the point of style
is character. The universe induces
a different tremor in every hand, from the
check-forger's to that of the Emperor
Hui Tsung, who called his own calligraphy
the 'Slender Gold.' A nervous man
writers nervously of a nervous world, and so on.

Miraculous. It is as thought the world
were a great writing. Having said so much,
let us allow there is more to the world
than writing: continental faults are not
bare convoluted fissures in the brain.
Not only must the skaters soon go home;
also the hard inscription of their skates
is scored across the open water, which long
remembers nothing, neither wind nor wake.

January 02, 2005

Why books?

Why books, you might ask? I truly don’t know. I was that kid in elementary school who would rather read a book than play outside, the fifth grader who got in trouble at school for reading her mother’s books rather than something “more appropriate” for a ten year old, the middle school student who frequently got caught hiding novels behind her math book, the ninth grader voted “most likely to be found with her nose in a book” and the twenty-something who would rather read than date. Perhaps it’s because I was raised by bookish parents and most likely it had a lot to do with the fact that I was an only child who didn’t have any same age neighbors until I was school-aged. Whatever the cause, I was an incurable addict long before I started school.

I think that those bibliophiles among us (I feel certain that you must be at least an occasional member of this fringe society if you have taken the time to read this far into this blog) are part of a strangely elite group, or perhaps it would be better to say reverse elite because I think that we make efforts to be inclusive despite opposition. The exclusion, if any, comes from a culture that treats reading as a second-rate pastime. The poor, misguided book enthusiast is handled with gentle condescension. He is given names like bookworm and dreamer to hint at the strangeness of his obsession. This group takes for its mascots the elephant and the primate, that literary pachyderm behemoth who, when given paint and paper, chooses to make art, and our oft-scorned simian cousins who can not only master basic words (ASL) and concepts but who can string them together in increasingly complex communication and who, when left to their own devices, promulgate these words and ideas by passing them on to their young. We elect leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, who said that his best friend was anyone who could give him a book that he had not yet read. We sigh in sympathy with Emily Dickinson’s praise of her “kinsmen of the shelf” and cringe in horror at the totalitarian regime depicted in Farenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury’s futuristic novel, named after the temperature at which books burn). We speak the same language and walk the same streets no matter where we live, as was best described by Lizette Woodward Reese. I think that somewhere, at a level that few of us would admit, we wonder if our veins aren’t filled with ink rather than something as mundane as blood. Whether reading leads to a life of dissipation (as asserted by thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Huxley and Rousseau) or it is a crucial part of the conscious life (as per Gertrude Stein, Emerson and Charles Scribner), is irrelevant: we read because we have to do so. True bibliophiles, like any other addicts, read because we have no choice.

So, if any of these statements ring true for you, come in. Sit down. Be welcome. Put up your feet and stay awhile because you have found a new home. Most importantly: join the dialogue. Be part of the community. Share your thoughts. Challenge your perceptions. Introduce each other to literary gems and hidden treasures. Ask questions. Voice opinions. Argue when it seems appropriate. Celebrate your passion for words. Just be sure to speak up…I want to hear you.

December 24, 2004

Scientific American's Sense of Snow

Another favorite myth debunked...

I can think of a few other terms for snow: pain in the butt, annoyance, hassle and nuisance, just to name a few. In case you can't tell, I'm not very happy about the ice storm that hit the midsouth this week.

December 10, 2004


A few posts ago, I asked what books have the most personal meaning for you. I got some wonderful responses and my Christmas wish list got muuuuuuch longer. Tonight I happened across a wonderful blog that linked to a BBC article on the top thirty books that British women considered to be watersheds. I strongly agreed with some of the selections (The Awakening and The Bell Jar), questioned others (The Poisonwood Bible), giggled about one (Bridget Jones' Diary) and felt cheered by the inclusion of others (The Color Purple). A few of the selections were by my favorite authors but I felt like they had chosen second-tier samples of that author's skill (such as Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse rather than A Room of One's Own and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time rather than Vida). In at least two instances (Rebecca and Pride and Prejudice) I wondered what aspect of the books had been so monumental to the readers. Pride and Prejudice, for instance, is one of my favorite books. It never fails to cheer me up (it is one of my "comfort books") but I have never felt like it particularly changed my life. I would love to hear from someone who can better explain the inspiration...anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

However, the thing that I found the most striking was the difference between the books listed by Brits and the books that I predict would be selected by my countrywomen on this side of the Atlantic. Ladies, what books have influenced you? Gentlemen, feel free to weigh in, too. This is the perfect chance for all of the North American bibliophiles out there to prove to ourselves and to our European counterparts that we are just as culturally rich. (If nothing else, I'm hoping that an appeal to your patriotism will drum up some good replies.) What do you think?

It sounds like this poet is describing his experience surfing blogs.

Poem: "The Mind is a Hawk," by Walter McDonald, from Night Landing © Harper and Row

The Mind is a Hawk

The mind is like a hawk, trying to survive
on hardscrabble. Hunting, you wheel
sometimes for hours on thermals

rising from sand so dry
no trees
grow native. Some days, you circle
only bones and snakeskin, the same old

cactus and mesquite. The secret
is not to give up on shadows, but glide
until nothing expects it, staring

to make a desert give up dead-still
ideas like rabbits with round eyes
and rapidly beating hearts.

December 09, 2004

Jisei (Japanese death poetry)

When autumn winds blow
not one leaf remains
the way it was.
- Togyu, writing Jisei (Japanese death poetry)

December 02, 2004


Today has been the kind of day that makes me wish that I had stayed at home, in bed, with a good book. No, that's not a good description because I would almost always rather be at home with a book. A better descriptor would be to say that it was the kind of day that made me wish that I had been hit by a Mack truck or tortured at the hands of leperous pygmies. Needless to say, by 6:30 pm, as I sit at my office desk and wish that I could rewind the afternoon, I am *not* in a good mood. Why, you might ask, am I choosing to burden you, my occasional reader, with something as irrelevant as the mood of a complete stranger who happens to have created a sporadically readable literary blog? (You might also wonder why I'm using such melodramatic run-on sentences but that's a completely different concern.) My response is simple: I need your help. That's right, this is your civic call to duty, your opportunity to make a difference in someone's life, the chance to practice a random act of kindness. In short, I'm soliciting your input. After all, doesn't everyone love being asked for his or her opinion?

I have two questions for you:

1) What is your favorite book to read when you're having a rough day?
2) What book holds the most personal meaning for you?

This is your chance to get on your soapbox. Why is your favorite pick-me-up book the best pick-me-up book in the world? Why should my readers (all half-dozen of you) read it? What about it whisks you away from the madding crowds and soothes your savage breast? Write a sentence or compose a sonnet about it; just share your thoughts. Please? Don't make me start whining about my awful day again...

November 29, 2004


In honor of his birthday, I'm posting this C.S. Lewis quote. Doesn't this sound like a wonderful childhood?

"I am a product...[of] books. There were books in the study, books in the drawing-room, books in the cloak room, books in a bedroom, books piled as high as my shoulder in the attic, books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents' interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not. Nothing was forbidden me. In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves."
On a more personal note, one of the things that I admire most about my parents (Mom and Pop Wordnerd) is that they never tried to censor my reading material (well, there was that one time in junior high when I bought a copy of the National Enquirer and my mom threw it in the trash but that was an anomaly). They trusted me to choose my own books and develop my own sense of what was worth reading and what was morally acceptable. In doing so, they gave me the message that I was capable of thinking for myself.

I remember reading The Mists of Avalon in fifth grade. Admittedly, I missed some of the more subtle sexual innuendo, but I understood the vast majority of the book. However, I first experienced censorship one day when I made the mistake of taking the book to school with me. My fifth grade teacher, Ms. Ordover, was absolutely scandalized that I was reading it and refused to believe that my parents would let me read "that kind of filth". I remember feeling like my feet were nailed to the floor, standing in absolute shock as she took the book away from me and told me that I was too young to know what I was reading and shouldn't be reading it anyway. That experience made me feel smaller and weaker than I had ever felt before. This was the first time that I remember being told that I was not capable of making decisions for myself. It is ironic that this battle took place over a book which (within the framework of the King Arthur myths) focuses largely on themes of choice and consequence, independence vs. independence and censorship vs. intellectual freedom.

A few years later (perhaps in eighth grade?) I picked up a slasher thriller with some fairly lurid sexual murders, almost pornographic in nature. My parents were probably unaware of what I was reading but I believe that even had they known they would have maintained their laissez faire policy. That book taught me the consequences of making bad reading choices: I was so frightened by it that I couldn't stop reading until the killer was stopped and I was too afraid to sleep alone for the next two nights. I quickly learned that I didn't want to read anything like that again.

In retrospect, The Mists of Avalon might not have been the best choice for a ten year old and the sexual slasher book is (in my opinion) inappropriate for any reader regardless of age but I greatly respect my parents for allowing me to make that decision for myself.

November 26, 2004

Les fraises d'antan

Strawberries, we ate,
Big, fat juicy ones,
The liquid running down our fingers like communion wine
Sun-warmed and sticky
Only to be wiped away on the nearest patch of grass.
That spring was a pause
A comma in my life
A rising breath and hic-
before the inevitable exhale of summer.

We sat in the park
by the ginko tree
- and I note here, for the sake of honesty,
that I do not know if it was ginko or sycamore or
any other everyday tree –
but it was there
and it sheltered us
for a time.
I remember it as ginko because I love the word,
The tart, gutteral taste of ginko rolling off of my tongue
And I choose to remember it thus.

How many of my memories are the same?

November 23, 2004


Here's another list of fun words. How many of these do you know and use?

abulia, bathetic, clerisy, dobbin, euthenics, folderol, forlorn hope, idlesse, ingle, lazar, mufti, obtund, pater noster (not the religious definition), rennin, satori, squamous, succes d'estime, tristful, virid, zero-sum

November 17, 2004

My Reading List

I've been a bit busy lately and I can't seem to find enough time to read. I might fit in a few pages before bedtime but I am mostly cut off from the literary world. Subsequently, the pile of unfinished books on my bedside table is growing at an alarming rate. At the moment, I'm sleeping with a plethora of authors. This level of bibliophilic promiscuity is exhausting. In the past week I've started (but not finished) reading or rereading an anthology of Daniel Pinkwater's commentaries, Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Emerson's essays (Self-Reliance and Friendship, to be exact), Driving to Detroit (journalist Leslie Hazleton's paean to cars and the open road), a collection of Wallace Stevens' poetry and Harold Pinter's The Caretaker. I also finally finished reading Bel Canto (which reminds me…if anyone who happens to be reading my blog can explain to me why Bel Canto was so well-received, please let me know because I wasn't impressed). Somewhere at the bottom of the unfinished stack is Reading Lolita in Tehran, my current favorite new book.

One of the reasons why I haven't had time to finish more of these books is that I have been reorganizing my library. I have a wall full of bookcases but I still have extra stacks that don't fit. Finally, in a fit of frustration I broke down and decided to winnow out a few books to give to charity. After several hours of soul searching I picked about 40 books that I was willing to live without (including Piers Anthony's Xanth series). I still have more books than space but at least it's not quite as overwhelming. However, I ended up selling several of the discarded books to the local used book store. Now I have $50 in credit to spend on, you guessed it…books! So, being the out-of-control addict that I am, I bought A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, several psych texts (I justified buying those by telling myself that I needed them for work) and a second copy of Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris (hey, it's a gift!).

All of this discarding and shopping got me to start thinking about what books I absolutely couldn't live without. Off the top of my head, here's a partial list:
1. The Ink Dark Moon (an anthology of haiku by Ono No Komachi and Izumi Shikibu)
2. A Walk Across America (Peter Jenkins)
3. Where The Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak)
4. Northanger Abbey (Jane Austen)
5. Dogfish (my favorite Mary Oliver poem)
6. Doonesbury cartoons from the Vietnam era (Gary Trudeau)
7. Le Petit Nicolas (Rene Goscinny)
8. For Whom the Bell Tolls (Ernest Hemingway)
9. Alas, Babylon (Pat Frank)

November 04, 2004

Grammar 101

Frustrated by the incorrect usage of "your" and "you're"? Aggravated by misapplied apostrophes in "it's" and "who's"? This rant brightened my day; it's nice to know that I'm not the only OCD reader extant. On a side note, many of Ms. Bunting's posts are well-written and highly enjoyable. I strongly suggest perusing her site.

Ode to American English

"Ode to American English" by Barbara Hamby, from Babel © University of Pittsburgh Press.

I was missing English one day, American, really,
with its pill-popping Hungarian goulash of everything
from Anglo-Saxon to Zulu, because British English
is not the same, if the paperback dictionary
I bought at Brentano's on the Avenue de l'Opera
is any indication, too cultured by half. Oh, the English
know their dahlias, but what about doowop, donuts,
Dick Tracy, Tricky Dick? With their elegant Oxfordian
accents, how could they understand my yearning for the hotrod,
hotdog, hot flash vocabulary of the U. S. of A.,
the fragmented fandango of Dagwood's everyday flattening
of Mr. Beasley on the sidewalk, fetuses floating
on billboards, drive-by monster hip-hop stereos shaking
the windows of my dining room like a 7.5 earthquake,
Ebonics, Spanglish, "you know" used as comma and period,
the inability of 90% of the population to get the past perfect:
I have went, I have saw, I have tooken Jesus into my heart,
the battle cry of the Bible Belt, but no one uses
the King James anymore, only plain-speak versions,
in which Jesus, raising Lazarus from the dead, says,
"Dude, wake up," and the L-man bolts up like a B-movie
mummy, "Whoa, I was toasted." Yes, ma'am,
I miss the mongrel plentitude of American English, its fall-guy,
rat-terrier, dog-pound neologisms, the bomb of it all,
the rushing River Jordan backwoods mutability of it, the low-rider,
boom-box cruise of it, from New Joisey to Ha-wah-ya
with its sly dog, malasada-scarfing beach blanket lingo
to the ubiquitous Valley Girl's like-like stuttering,
shopaholic rant. I miss its quotidian beauty, its querulous
back-biting righteous indignation, its preening rotgut
flag-waving cowardice. Suffering Succotash, sputters
Sylvester the Cat; sine die, say the pork-bellied legislators
of the swamps and plains. I miss all those guys, their Tweety-bird
resilience, their Doris Day optimism, the candid unguent
of utter unhappiness on every channel, the midnight televangelist
euphoric stew, the junk mail, voice mail vernacular.
On every boulevard and rue I miss the Tarzan cry of Johnny
Weismueller, Johnny Cash, Johnny B. Goode,
and all the smart-talking, gum-snapping hard-girl dialogue,
finger-popping x-rated street talk, sports babble,
Cheetoes, Cheerios, chili dog diatribes. Yeah, I miss them all,
sitting here on my sidewalk throne sipping champagne
verses lined up like hearses, metaphors juking, nouns zipping
in my head like Corvettes on Dexadrine, French verbs
slitting my throat, yearning for James Dean to jump my curb.

October 29, 2004

Idiots of the world, unite!

I'm not going to jump on the political bandwagon here; I have strong views but I don't choose to post them on this blog. However, with that said, I would like to point out yet another example of why many people assume that all southerners are redneck idiots. Aren't you just thrilled that people like this take the time to learn about the issues so that they can make informed voting decisions? You know, whether or not Kerry speaks French...

For the record, I speak French so it's probably a good thing that I'm not running for public office in this state.

October 25, 2004

Isn't this one of the signs of the apocalypse?

I know, I know...I'm being elitist here. However, no matter how proletarian my sympathies, I can't help but shudder to learn that the last bastion of the English language, the OED, has been infiltrated with words like "doh!" in what can only be called the slippery slope of Simpson. What's next? Queen Elizabeth telling Camilla to "talk to the hand"? Tony Blair beginning a Parliament address by screeching "Whazzzzzzzzzzzup"? If we can't count on the veddy proper British to maintain the English language, what's left to believe in? Certainly not the American Linguistic Society, which selected this Homerism as one of the most useful words of 1996. They were offended by stalkerazzi but somehow viewed Homer Simpson as original and clever...reminds me of another over-used bon mot: dumbing down.

October 23, 2004

The Ethics of Children's Literature

Next on my reading list: Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up.

Today on NPR, Barbara Feinberg discussed what she views as a disturbing trend in current children's literature. She explains her position that children's books have become increasingly gloomy and depressing, with a tendency of showing children as unempowered victims of an dreary world in which adults' miseries prevent children from developing their own sense of competence. They are generally shown as facing these challenges alone. She points out numerous examples from award-winning books that focus on topics such as alcoholism, sexual abuse, abandonment and suicide.

As Feinberg stated earlier this fall during an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, "Instead of trying to imagine what young people should be hearing from an adult point of view, just take a couple steps back and be more observant and respectful of children whose actual childhoods are unfolding right before us. We need to be more humble."

Many people would disagree with Ms. Feinberg's conclusion that current literature is frequently harmful to children. She herself acknowledges that the underlying reason for this trend is well-intentioned, though ultimately flawed: she posits that the current trend has arisen from the 1960's societal emphasis on showing the truth, no matter how ugly, rather than glossing it over for comfort's sake. However, she does not disagree with the need to teach children about the trials and tribulations of real life. She points out that traditional literature also deals with societal and personal issues such as death and abandonment. The difference, Ms. Feinberg seems to say, is that traditional literature shows the child protagonist as an individual who can create change in his life and who gains positive lessons from each upset.

Whichever side of the debate you fall on, Ms. Feinberg's comments lead me to an important question: ethically, what version of reality are we obligated to show to our children? At what point do we decide that something is too harsh for them? Alternately, how much harshness do they need to see in order to develop coping skills that they will need in life? In literature, as much as in any other form of input, we provide cues as to what children can expect from the world. This is a heavy onus on parents and caregivers because young children do not have the experience and objectivity to see the effects that our messages will have on them. Do we shield them from anything that might upset them and thereby stunt their nascent coping skills? Or do we allow them access to anything that they may want to read and trust their ability to assimilate it? Finally, if we notice that educators are only providing our children with one type of literature, to what extent is it incumbent upon us to show them alternative types of literature?

Who would have thought that a family trip to the library would raise so many concerns?

October 15, 2004

Junior English redux

How many of these words can you define?

adytum, alcaid, balkanization, compendia, darksome, elegiac, exsanguinate, falciform, grimoire, iteration, jape, kilim, myrmidon, miscegenate, paludal, rectilinear, schadenfreude, sesquipedalian, triptych, zizith

October 11, 2004

Confessions of a COMMON reader???

This book is a dream come true for all of you workaholic bibliophiles out there. Small enough to fit in your purse or briefcase, full of short (eg, perfect for reading on the subway, in a waiting room, during your lunch break, etc), witty and thought-provoking essays about, what else, reading. For a even smaller (but equally tantalizing) taste of Ms. Fadiman's work, read her Amazon.com essay.

October 05, 2004

Eats, Reads and Leaves

I'll admit it: I was skeptical at first. Honestly, how many of you can say that the subject of punctuation fascinates you? Yeah, same here. However, after hearing rave reviews from friends and news sources alike, I sat down in my favorite book store with a slice of carrot cake and a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Within moments, I was laughing so hard that I sprayed carrot crumbs across my table, necessitating a quick departure.

October 02, 2004

Marge Piercy

Here is a list of books recommended by poet, novelist and activist Marge Piercy (according to The Reader's Companion):

Scriptures and Midrash: I can’t separate the importance of the two. The first is rich and sparse at once; the second shows how any tale has a hundred interpretations and as many points of view as there are people who can tell it.

Ulysses, James Joyce. I read it six times through and once aloud before I was 22 and it taught me an enormous amount about language, myth and the imagination.

Moby Dick, Herman Melville. Another book I reread and read aloud. He caused me to begin thinking about the differences between the British, the Irish and the American languages and myths.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë, captured my romantic imagination in adolescence and also instructed me that social class was important in fiction, no matter what the American critics said.

The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir, I read when I was choking in an early marriage. It named feelings and ideas that I could not grasp without having a vocabulary in which to think about them and begin to discuss them.

Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Jane Harrison and The Golden Bough, James Frazer. I was led to Frazer by reading T.S. Eliot in high school, and Jane Harrison I came to from cultural anthropology during my first year in college. Both taught me to think about tale and myth in ways that I found fruitful and exciting, to see larger patterns, to link up story with the cultural and economic base.

U.S.A. by John Dos Passos. This was very important in showing an interesting way to combine traditional fiction form with the mass media.

October 01, 2004

Audio post: The Letter by Amy Lowell

this is an audio post - click to play


startled into life like fire by Charles Bukowski, from Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame (Black Sparrow Press)

in grievous deity my cat
walks around
he walks around and around
electric tail and

he is
alive and
plush and
final as a plum tree

neither of us understands
cathedrals or
the man outside
watering his

if I were all the man
that he is
if there were men
like this
the world could

he leaps up on the couch
and walks through
porticoes of my

Morning by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press)

Salt shining behind its glass cylinder.
Milk in a blue bowl. The yellow linoleum.
The cat stretching her black body from the pillow.
The way she makes her curvaceous response to the small, kind gesture.
Then laps the bowl clean.
Then wants to go out into the world
where she leaps lightly and for no apparent reason across the lawn,
then sits, perfectly still, in the grass.
I watch her a little while, thinking:
what more could I do with wild words?
I stand in the cold kitchen, bowing down to her.
I stand in the cold kitchen, everything wonderful around me.

Audio post: a song in the front yard by Gwendolyn Brooks, from Selected Poems

this is an audio post - click to play

A rose by any other name...

UC Berkeley linguist Paul Kay revisits the Whorf hypothesis when he asks two questions: "One is, do different languages give rise to different ways of thought? The other is, how different are languages?" It is possible, he says, that the respective answers are "yes" and "not very."

Spontaneous, unedited, naked...warts, zits and all

In this article, David Crystal (see prior posts) argues against prescriptive linguistics, showing the internet as a type of petri dish for languages. FWIW, I agree, though the gramatical glibness found online...well...smtoe.


Verbal Prozac

So, now that this gene has been discovered, how long until Eli Lilly develops a medication that increases our ability to communicate?

Internet? internet? Sounds like much ado over Nothing.

Wired magazine caused technodweebs around the world to gasp in dismay or crow with delight when they announced that they were dropping the capital I in Internet. Now that we have to settle for the plain old internet, are we really losing anything? As always, Geoffrey Nunberg has a theory.

September 28, 2004

New York seasons

Nobody Dies in the Spring by Philip Appleman, from New and Selected Poems, 1956-1996

Nobody dies in the spring
on the Upper West Side:
nobody dies.
On the Upper West Side

we're holding hands with strangers
on the Number 5 bus,
and we're singing the sweet
graffiti on the subway,
and kids are skipping patterns through
the bright haze of incinerators,
and beagles and poodles are making a happy
ruin of the sidewalks,
and hot-dog men are racing
their pushcarts down Riverside Drive,
and Con Ed is tearing up Broadway
from Times Square to the Bronx,
and the world is a morning miracle
of sirens and horns and jackhammers
and Baskin-Robbins' 31 kinds of litter
and sausages at Zabar's floating
overhead like blimps--oh,
it is no place for dying, not
on the Upper West Side, in springtime.

There will be a time
for the smell of burning leaves at Barnard,
for milkweed winging silky over Grant's Tomb,
for apples falling to grass in Needle Park;
but not in all this fresh new golden
smog: now there is something
breaking loose in people's chests,
something that makes butchers and bus boys
and our neighborhood narcs and muggers
go whistling in the streets--now
there is something with goat feet out there, not
waiting for the WALK light, piping
life into West End window-boxes,
pollinating weeds around
condemned residential hotels,
and prancing along at the head
of every elbowing crowd on the West Side,
Follow me-- it's spring--
and nobody dies.

all that by Charles Bukowski, from Open All Night. © Black Sparrow Press.

the only things I remember about
New York City
in the summer
are the fire escapes
and how the people go
out on the fire escapes
in the evening
when the sun is setting
on the other side
of the buildings
and some stretch out
and sleep there
while others sit quietly
where it's cool.

and on many
of the window sills
sit pots of geraniums or
planters filled with red
and the half-dressed people
rest there
on the fire escapes
and there are
red geraniums

this is really
something to see rather
than to talk about.

it's like a great colorful
and surprising painting
not hanging anywhere

September 26, 2004

Sexed-up semantics

As a quasi-quadrilingual, this study by Stanford's Lera Boroditsky intrigues me.

September 25, 2004

Geoff Nunberg is da (nucular) bomb!

This NPR commentary, Going Nucular, touches on what it means when people mispronunciate words.

September 23, 2004

Fucking linguists!

In this "Fresh Air" commentary, Geoffrey Nunberg points out that every generation develops its own obscenities.

September 19, 2004

Words like candy

from "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman, from Poetry and Prose (Library of America)


The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow'd wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

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 bequeath 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.

September 18, 2004

The billboard in your brain

Corporate argot? Who, me?

Sigh...excuse me while I reach for a kleenex....uh, make that a Kleenex.

September 17, 2004

Wow, and I thought that *I* was a geek!

You mean there is a whole club of these people? I can only imagine meetings!!! I like their annual elections, though.

since feeling is first

since feeling is first by e.e. cummings, from Selected Poems. (Liveright)

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
--the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says
we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis

September 06, 2004

Crystal Colloquy

Interesting entretien with linguist David Crystal.

September 03, 2004

The loss of a spouse

Some Clouds by Steve Kowit, from The Dumbbell Nebula

Now that I've unplugged the phone
no one can reach me--
At least for this one afternoon
they will have to get by without my advice or opinion.
Now nobody else is going to call
& ask in a tentative voice
if I haven't yet heard that she's dead,
that woman I once loved—
nothing but ashes scattered over a city
that barely itself any longer exists.
Yes, thank you, I've heard.
It had been too lovely a morning.
That in itself should have warned me.
The sun lit up the tangerines
& the blazing poinsettias
like so many candles.
For one afternoon they will have to forgive me.
I am busy watching things happen again
that happened a long time ago,
as I lean back in Josephine's lawn chair
under a sky of incredible blue,
broken--if that is the word for it--
by a few billowing clouds,
all white & unspeakably lovely,
drifting out of one nothingness into another.

Change of Season by Stellasue Lee

I've not wanted to leave the house lately.
I've been content as grass growing
wild with color
deeply rooted,
as an old tree with new growth for spring.

I long for nothing -
dream of just where I am,
worry over the indoor plants,
and the camellias coloring the front porch,
the roses gathering strength from winter.

Oh, did I mention the coyote
walking down the middle of the road
at four in the afternoon yesterday?
And that I woke to rain today?
Did I tell you that I put a log in the fireplace

and when the embers turned bright orange,
I added all the court papers,
all but the final decree,
and watched as the whole thing went up?
They burned bright as a sunny day.

August 30, 2004

Death in the rain

Black Stone Lying On A White Stone by César Vallejo, translated by Robert Bly, from Neruda & Vallejo: Selected Poems (Beacon Press)

I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,
on some day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris--and I don't step aside--
perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.

It will be a Thursday, because today, Thursday, setting down
these lines, I have put my upper arm bones on
wrong, and never so much as today have I found myself
with all the road ahead of me, alone.

César Vallejo is dead. Everyone beat him
although he never does anything to them;
they beat him hard with a stick and hard also

with a rope. These are the witnesses:
the Thursdays, and the bones of my arms,
the solitude, and the rain, and the roads. . .

Marengo by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems

Out of the sump rise the marigolds.
From the rim of the marsh, muslin with mosquitoes,
rises the egret, in his cloud-cloth.
Through the soft rain, like mist, and mica,
the withered acres of moss begin again.

When I have to die, I would like to die
on a day of rain--
long rain, slow rain, the kind you think will never end.

And I would like to have whatever little ceremony there might be
take place while the rain is shoveled and shoveled out of the sky,

and anyone who comes must travel, slowly and with thought,
as around the edges of the great swamp.

A man after my own heart

I won't lie and say this is how I spent NYE Y2K but I like the way that this man thinks.

August 19, 2004

What is wordlust?

I love words - I hoard them like candy, swallow them greedily. Each lozenge disolves slowly, sweet or sour, adding flavor to conversation. Perspicacious. Persnickety. Perfidy. Root words and their many, well, permutations. Why be pigheaded and bossy when you can be pervicacious and peremptory or obdurate and overbearing? Why would anyone use the word old when there are gems such as antediluvian and archaic?

For me, erudition is the essence of elegance, the apogee of appeal. Don’t talk to me, nattering on with flavorless speech. Woo me with a wealth of words. Excite me with expressiveness. Instead of imbuing the world with insipid idiom, saturate it with sensual self-expression.

Words have texture and flavor, they sustain the spirit. Consider, for instance, adamantine. Adamant is a rock; the adjective adamantine means hard, unyielding, unable to be moved or broken. I could describe a belief as firm but adamantine gives it texture. It conjures an image of a solid, squat rock that absolutely will not be changed by personal caprice or external pressure. Adamantine tastes like ice to me, a frozen cube that would probably hurt my teeth if I bit into it. A hint to leave it alone.

Why take a walk when you can saunter, promenade, meander, perambulate, amble, rove or perigrinate? These words are melted butter on the tongue, as warm and soft as they sound. Scuttle, dash, scurry and dart are spicier, more urgent, like a hint of jalapeño. Getting from place to place takes more than walking, it takes inspiration. Why yield to the cardboard and sawdust flavors of walk?

Foreign words that have been adopted (assumed, espoused, embraced, incorporated) by the English language add even more flavor and texture. Éminence grise. Per contra. Gestalt. Fanfaronade. They are menu items that draw one in with their glamour and exoticism: bechamel sauce, corriander seeds and dark, syrupy coffee.