Category Archives: Poetry

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It Ain’t We, Babe

BBXPtI7CQAEQVqYReasons abound for why I’m glad I don’t have a teenager prepping for the SAT at the moment. But the latest word, from the pop star Taylor Swift, on the Princeton Review’s practice test tripled my relief at having passed that hurdle. The test introduces a section titled Grammar in Real Life with the following prompt: “Pop lyrics are a great source of bad grammar. See if you can find the error in each of the following.” The lyrics that follow are by Swift, Katy Perry, Whitney Houston, and Lady…

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Naming the Numbers of March Madness

As warriors of the hard court advance from contest to contest in the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, the names of the stages of the struggle follow a heroic poetic pattern going back beyond even the Old English age of Beowulf. This pattern is alliteration, the repetition not of the ends of words (as in rhyme) but the beginnings.

The whole event has the alliterative title March Madness, repeating initial M. And the tournament, encompassing 68 tribes or clans, begins with competition …

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Smile, Smile, Smile

The centennial commemoration of the start of the First World War has brought to the fore some of the music of that war, including an unsung gem that could well be the greatest fight song of all time.
(Granted, it’s not exactly unsung, since it’s a song. And the BBC recently praised it for its musical qualities.
But the song, “Pack Up Your Troubles,” has yet to be appreciated for its matchless galvanizing effect as pure language. And not really matchless, either, since it calls for a match.)

Here…

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The True Secret of Office Packing

My all-time favorite Chronicle article, “Yagoda’s Unfamiliar Quotations” (mentioned here once before, in The Case of the Extra Word), is a reminiscence about a collection of unquoted quotables—memorable remarks by ordinary folk who never got famous.

You can pick up such remarks almost any day if you keep your ear tuned. Last week my partner, struggling to pinpoint why a friend’s outrageous name-dropping seemed illogical as well as irritating, burst out: “Status is not like pubic lice!” Nicely pu…

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Like as the Waves Make Towards the Pebbled Shore

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Una and the Redcross Knight

Whoa, that’s Shakespeare. (Sonnet 60.) But it’s the best description I know of the verse form invented by his contemporary Edmund Spenser for The Fairy Queen, a marathon of a poem set in an allegorical Fairyland full of “fierce wars and faithful loves” (in Spenser’s words) and populated by believable characters. If you get the olde fashyonde spelyng out of the way, and concentrate on the story rather than the complicated allegory, as I have argued in two previou…

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Spenser’s Allegorical Trap

Spenser WeekLast week I regretted that modern editors use olde fashyondde spelyng for The Faerie Queene, the grand poem by Shakespeare’s contemporary Edmund Spenser. We modernize spelling for Shakespeare and just about every author of that time, but not Spenser. And that puts an unnecessary barrier between Spenser and the modern reader.

And as I noted last week, olde spellynge is not the only barrier for modern readers. To begin with, the title Fairy Queen (to use modern spelling) has connotations today tha…

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Bad Spell

Rayse your hand yff you prefer reedying olde wrytynges in olde-fashionede spellyng. Anyone for Shakespeare’s Sonnette 73?

That time of yeeare thou maist in me behold,
When yellow leaues, or none, or fewe doe hange
Vpon those boughes which shake against the could,
Bare rn’wd quiers, where late the sweet birds sang. …

No, thank goodness we usually get it in modern spelling. Same words, different look:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those…

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Summarize Your Thesis (One Line)

The game at lolmythesis.com is to reduce the main message of your thesis or dissertation down to a single line, ideally one short candid sentence. Much self-deprecating humor can be found on the site, along with occasional signs of cynicism or desperation.

Not many theses in my discipline show up, for linguistics is a minority pursuit. But I did find this one, from the University of Colorado:

“It appears, based on experimental evidence, that vowel perception is pretty much magic.”

I can well bel…

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Sestinapalooza

Elizabeth Bishop in 1954

Elizabeth Bishop in 1954

I’ve been waiting 40 years for The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody Publishing), without realizing it. Like many people, I was introduced to this poetic form by Elizabeth Bishop’s breathtaking poem “Sestina,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1956 (hence the spelling of the key word “marvellous”), and which my roommate was reading for a college class. The poem begins:

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits…

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Who’d Want to Be a Dick Swiveller?

Dick Swiveller

“What’s going on with this ’twas ever thus thing?” said my partner, Tricia. The phrase had been uttered twice before 9 a.m. on the BBC’s radio news program already that morning. Prime Minister David Cameron said it when talking about Syria, and later another Conservative politician used it in a segment about badger culling.

“A couple of years ago I’d never heard it,” said Tricia, “but now everyone’s saying it.”

Casual claims about the suddenness of additions to the language are al…