Category Archives: prose

What Do You Want?

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 33.1
Chapter 11: Living Poetically

What Does It Mean to ‘Live Poetically’?

Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady

Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady

This journal… does for me what prayer must do for the truly religious—sets things in proportion again…. What is interesting, after all, is the making of a self, an act of creation, like any other, that does imply a certain amount of conscious work. Ellen is very much aware of this, I feel. She would agree with Keats about “a vale of soul-making”…. May Sarton, Kinds of Love

Jean Lall… calls housework “a path of contemplation” and says that if we denigrate the work that is to be done around the house every day, from cooking to doing laundry, we lose our attachment to our immediate world…. [Something as homely as a scrub brush can be] a sacramental object, and when we use this implement with care we are giving something to the soul. In this sense, cleaning the bathroom is a form of therapy because there is a correspondence between the actual room and a certain chamber of the heart. The bathroom that appears in our dreams is both the room in our house and a poetic object that describes a space in the soul. —Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul : A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life

nebr_purple_coneflower-140x138

I can’t tell you, item by item, how to live poetically any more than I could write my poetry and call it yours. The only “rule” that I know of for poetic living is practicing the “I-Thou” relationship that Martin Buber wrote about in his 1923 book I and Thou. 

The Parable of the Good Samaritan, Van Gogh, 1890

The Parable of the Good Samaritan, Van Gogh, 1890

I and Thou, Martin Buber’s classic philosophical work, is among the 20th century’s foundational documents of religious ethics. “The close association of the relation to God with the relation to one’s fellow-men … is my most essential concern,” Buber explains in the Afterword…. “One should [never view]… the conversation with God … as something that occurs merely apart from or above the everyday,” Buber explains. “God’s address to man penetrates the events in all our lives and all the events in the world around us, everything biographical and everything historical, and turns it into instruction, into demands for you and me.”

Throughout I and Thou, Buber argues for an ethic that does not use other people (or books, or trees, or God), and does not consider them objects of one’s own personal experience. Instead, Buber writes, we must learn to consider everything around us as “You” speaking to “me,” and requiring a response…. Walter Kaufmann’s definitive 1970 translation contains hundreds of helpful footnotes providing Buber’s own explanations of the book’s most difficult passages. —Michael Joseph Gross, Amazon.com review

In a way, Buber’s book is an elaboration on the “do unto others…” maxim often referred to as the Golden Rule

As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.
—Luke 6:31

—which scholars refer to as the Ethic of Reciprocity and which exists in some form in virtually every religion. Anne Lamott has expressed it thus:

Jesus said, “The point is to not hate and kill each other today, and if you can, to help the forgotten and powerless. Can you write that down, and leave it by the phone?”  —Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

Anne Lamott (www.metroactive.com)

Anne Lamott (www.metroactive.com)

If you can consistently and joyfully practice I-Thou relationships (or the Ethic of Reciprocity), I have nothing more to tell you. You are already gentle with others and gentle with yourself. You never, ever beat yourself up. When you make a mistake, you correct it or, if that’s not possible, you learn from it and go on with your life. 

If — and this is more likely — you flounder around like the rest of us, then you might benefit from the modest wisdom I have gained on living joyfully and poetically:

Lighten up! The title of the late Richard Carlson’s 1997 book says it all: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff — and It’s All Small Stuff.

Defy entropy. Have a plan but don’t be a slave to it. Find and practice your dharma, your “righteous path, way of living, and ethical system… largely found within oneself, through contemplation, rather than in the external world.” ProQuest

Engage your imagination. As Nora Roberts points out in her novel Captivated, “The imagination [is] portable, unbreakable, and extremely malleable.” Be creative. Know that your potential is literally unlimited.

Show up. Be conscious and aware and totally in the moment.

Liberate yourself. Be larger than life. Do what you do with class and panache, beauty and grace. Practice courage. Be brave. Go the distance to become not just a good singer/dancer/accountant/cashier but a great one. 

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some; it is in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others. Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles” quoted by Nelson Mandela in his inaugural speech of 10 May 1994

Keep moving. Continually co-create yourself. Let your actions be learned and practiced but not slavishly habitual. Play. Pretend. Always be aware that you have choices. Solve your problems as they arise.

Find your balance — that place between (a) spontaneity and intuition and (b) wisdom and orderliness. Napoleon Hill, in The Law of Success, maintains that the most successful people are those who trust their sixth sense.

Assignment 33.2

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  1. Make a list of 100 things you want. We’ll call these your goals. The items on your list can be grand or trivial: a movie you want to see, a new restaurant you want to try, habits you want to form, things you want to do before you die, places you want to visit, people you’d like to meet, desired changes in relationships….
  2. Choose just one thing from your list. It makes absolutely no difference which goal you choose.
  3. Write loosely in prose about, or make a diagram of, the distance between you and the goal and the steps you can take to overcome that distance. Conclude with reaching the goal.
  4. Close your eyes and imagine, but don’t write down, how you will feel when your goal is reached.
  5. Condense your prose into a Spenserian sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab, bcbc, cdcd, ee. An example is the following sonnet (1595) by the English poet Edmund Spenser. The metrical pattern is generally iambic pentameter, and it is easier to discern if you understand that, four hundred years ago, many words were pronounced differently, with added syllables. The first line, for example, might have been spoken thus: “Hap-PY [or, more likely, HAP-py, making the line slightly irregular] ye LEAV-es! WHEN those LIL-y HANDS”; and the word derived in line 10 was probably pronounced “de-RIVE-ed.”

    Happy ye leaves! when those lily hands, (a)
    Which hold my life in their dead doing might, (b)
    Shall handle you, and hold in love’s soft bands, (a)
    Like captives trembling at the victor’s sight. (b)
    And happy lines on which, with starry light, (b)
    Those lamping eyes will deign sometimes to look,(c)
    And read the sorrows of my dying sprite, (b)
    Written with tears in heart’s close bleeding book. (c)
    And happy rhymes! bathed in the sacred brook (c)
    Of Helicon, whence she derived is, (d)
    When ye behold that angel’s blessed look, (c)
    My soul’s long lacked food, my heaven’s bliss. (d)
    Leaves, lines, and rhymes seek her to please alone, (e)
    Whom if ye please, I care for other none. (e)

    NOTE: Do not overtly express your feelings of victory or accomplishment in your poem. Let your artistry, and the rhetorical devices you use, do that for you.

    • Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
    • Keep exploring the meditations at www.LifeIsPoetry.net, and continue with your meditation journal.

    Edmund Spenser 1552-1599
    Edmund Spenser 1552-1599

     

     

     

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The Sun Returns…

…and other metaphors of Christmastide

victorian_calendarsanta

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 22

Chapter 9: Rituals and Celebrations
Part 1: Christmastide

At no time of the year — with the possible exception of Easter — are our activities more saturated with metaphor than at Christmastide. The –tide in Christmastide refers to “a time or season.” Technically, Christmastide is the Christian festival observed from December 24, Christmas Eve, to January 5, the eve of Epiphany.

It is no accident that ancient pagan customs are so tightly woven into Christian holidays. The missionaries who were called to “Christianize the heathens” believed, correctly, that Christianity would find greater acceptance if the converts were not required to shed all vestiges of the old religion.

Thus it happened that December 25 — coinciding roughly with the ancient Roman weeklong Saturnalia celebration and with other winter solstice feasts — was “selected” as the date of Jesus’ birth. The solstice occurs on the shortest day (or longest night) of the year, between December 20 and December 23 in the Northern Hemisphere and between June 20 and June 23 in the Southern Hemisphere.

Cultures throughout the world have, from prehistoric times, celebrated the winter solstice, when the “sun stands still”—that is, when the sun, as observed in the Northern Hemisphere, appears to stop “moving southward” and returns to the north, bringing with it the promise of warmth and spring.

Winter was a dangerous season for our long-ago ancestors. Death claimed them more often in the winter, when they huddled in their meager shelters for warmth, and when there was no fresh meat or produce. And so they rejoiced when the longest night was past, and the sun stayed a bit longer each day, though the bitter cold remained.

NEWGRANGE

Newgrange today, aerial view

Newgrange today, aerial view

There are many prehistoric winter-solstice monuments into which the sun shines at dawn on the shortest day of the year and sometimes the days surrounding it, striking a particular spot in the monument and dramatically illuminating it. One of the most precise of these monuments, in terms of solar alignment, is the passage-tomb of Newgrange, in Ireland.

Newgrange light passage entry, 1901

Newgrange sunlight passageway, 1901

Erected more than five thousand years ago, Newgrange is the oldest building in the world. It was once surrounded  by dozens of immense standing stones, of which just twelve remain. The structure itself, in addition to its connection with the solstice, was apparently a tomb and the center of a site where religious rituals and ceremonies took place. 
The first solstice rays enter Newgrange

The first solstice rays enter Newgrange

Abandoned after a thousand years, Newgrange lay hidden for four millennia, until late-17th-century workmen found the entrance to what they believed was a cave. Excavation and restoration began in 1962. The restoration continues to be controversial; some consider the site overcommercialized, others feel that the new work is not in keeping with the period.

Nevertheless, seeing the sun’s first solstice rays striking the stone must be exhilarating indeed, even for jaded citizens of the twenty-first century. “In the bleak midwinter,” the life-giving sun signals a pledge to complete its circuit ‘round the sky and bring with it the seasons of planting, cultivating, and harvesting.

Unlike the proto-Celtic peoples who worshiped at Newgrange, few of us today are wholly at the mercy of nature’s fickle temperament as we go about our daily lives. But when all is said and done, we are every bit as dependent upon the steady turning of the great solar wheel.

***

MRS. ARTHUR’S ANCIENT TALES

Some say it is a sin to practice pagan things at
Christmastide, and give each other presents, and be
festive much at all. But Mrs. Arthur, who is wise, lives
in a house that looks like gingerbread, with ivy growing
up the garden wall, and she believes that ancient
celebrations were the peasants’ or the common people’s
preparation to receive their own, the Baby Jesus, and
for all I know, she might have been there, Mrs. Arthur,
that’s how old she is.

Morris dancers, Thames at Richmond, 1620

Morris dancers, Thames at Richmond, 1620

We sit up in her attic room and listen to the wind
blow cold around the chimney, though we and
Mrs. Arthur’s pug, Sir Bedivere, are snug and warm,
while she knits or crochets and talks about the
days when Christmas mumming plays were practiced
in advance for weeks and weeks. “They had the time,
you see,” she says. “The grain was harvested, and
anyway, the solstice means ‘the sun stands still.’ There
was a man who played the Fool, and one was the Old
Hobby Horse, he wore a giant skirt in which to catch
the maids, of course. And someone’s killed and
resurrected in the mumming, for the earth is dead and
bare and so the mumming is a kind of prayer, a begging
to the sun to come and stay another year.

“And even now, upon St. Stephen’s Day, in Ireland and
Wales, grown men called ‘wren boys’ dress in straw or
some disguise and go from house to house, for
revelry—a merry time, no doubt, they have.”

Maenad

Maenad on Wheel of Life

She talks about the Yuletide and she doesn’t turn a
hair when telling of the sacrifice of goats and,
auld lang syne, of men, but mostly boars, and
that, she adds, is why we feast on Christmas ham.
“And what is Yule?” she asks, rhetorically (I’m not
supposed to answer). “It’s the wheel, of course,” she
says, as if I should have known; “just as the mummers
and the morris dancers mark the turning of the year;
likewise, the golden chariot and its path around the
earth. It disappears, the world goes dark and cold, and it
returns; but in the days of old, before the sacred birth,
before the Christ, the folk were never sure if they would
see the spring again. They feared that Death would come
for them, and so they wore the skins of goats and such,
and covered up their heads, and drank a great deal
too much wine, and hoped Death’s angel wouldn’t
recognize them when it was their time to go.

Druid cutting oak mistletoe

Druid cutting oak mistletoe

“Now, mistletoe—‘dung-on-a-twig’ it means in the
old Saxon tongue, because it grew where birds had
left their droppings on a branch—
has long been sacred, for it stays when all the autumn
leaves have fallen down and pranced away and would
be prancing still, except the snow comes, and the leaves
decay, and that’s what makes the garden bloom.”

Now Mrs. Arthur draws a breath and then resumes her
chattering, and I adore the stories and the soft and
secret voice she tells them in, as if it’s she and I alone who
are allowed to know the ancient tales.

Decorative mistletoe

Decorative mistletoe

“The mistletoe is
sacred as a symbol of fertility [she winked at me], and that
which grows upon the oak is the most mystical of all,
because it’s rare to find it there; it lives more commonly
on apple trees. The Druid priests believed it was the spirit
of the tree itself, and so they gathered it midwinter, as a
healing charm and life-giver, and at summer solstice so
the cattle and the flocks would flourish
and the crops would thrive.”

“And was it wrong of them?” I asked, just as I
always did, so she could say, “Oh, no. You see, it
was the only way they knew. And there is wisdom in
tradition and in ritual (though not in human sacrifice,
of course, but in the principle of giving to the
earth her own).”

And so, each year, we hang the mistletoe, suspended
from an oaken beam, and decorate a living Christmas
tree with lights and ornaments and candy canes, and
give each other presents that we’ve made, though hers
to me are thick and cozy sweaters, mine to her are
mittens with an extra thumb or some such thing.

At Christmas dinner there are nine. We thank the
Lord for nourishment, and then we drink a toast
with wine: “A Merry Christmas to you,” Mrs. Arthur
lifts her glass. “To you as well,” we chorus, and we
lift our glasses also. “Tell the gospel,” she says, and
we echo, “Tell the gospel. Tell the people that they
are made new today, and always, by the grace of
God.” She smiles and nods then, and we say,
as one, “Amen.”

 

* * *

THE HOLLY AND THE IVY

The holly and the ivy when they are both full grown
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown

Refrain

Oh, the rising of the sun and the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing in the choir

The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet savior

The holly bears a berry as red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good

The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
on Christmas Day in the morn

The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all

Historians believe that the first stanza — the only one that mentions ivy — is based on another song — traced back to the 12th century but probably much older — in which holly represents men and ivy represents women. Deer are also mentioned in the older song, called “The Contest of the Holly and the Ivy.” Here is one version of a stanza from that song, which clearly comes down on the side of the men:

Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.

In another ancient song, “Ivy, Chief of Trees,” however, the ivy prevails.

European holly; photo by Jürgen Howaldt

European holly; photo by Jürgen Howaldt

Sister Alma Rose drinks holly tea, but she won’t let me
have any. “Don’t even think about it, dear,” she says.
“Don’t even touch. It’s poison if y’all take too much,
but such a feast for birds,” she says. “I heard about a
boy bit off a piece; the leaf, it cut his lips to shreds.
A wonder that he isn’t dead,” she says, and sips her
brew contentedly. (I disobeyed and had a taste; I
won’t make that mistake again.)

Yule log

Yule log

“Holly frightens witches, too, and goblins, some believe,”
says she, “and it protects the house from lightning, and
a holly switch is good for bees. In ancient Rome, it was
the sacred plant of Saturn, pagan god of farm and harvest.
Secret Christians decked their homes with holly during
Saturnalia in December, Saturn’s time of celebration,
for it wasn’t safe to be a Christian then, you see.
Some people still put holly on the bedpost as protection
from disease and, too, to bring them pleasant dreams.

“And the Druids, centuries ago, they treasured holly
(for it blossomed even in the snow), and wore it when
they went to cut the sacred mistletoe. And nowadays
we bring all kind of greenery inside at Christmastide,
as in the times of old, to signify the things that never die,
despite the winter’s dark and cold.”

* * *

Wassailing

Wassailing

WASSAILING

Have you ever wondered why, at Christmastime, we go “a-wassailing among the leaves so green”? The word wassail is akin to Old English “be healthy,” but originally wassailers drank to the health of apple trees (and other vegetation, as well as livestock), not necessarily to each other. The custom of “apple wassailing” involved pouring spiced hard cider, or placing cider-soaked bread, on the roots of the trees “for their health.” Of course, there was always enough wassail to quench the thirst of the revelers as well.

In medieval Europe, the lord of the manor traditionally opened his home to his serfs, serving food and wassail as a gesture of goodwill and as reassurance that he would protect them from harm, as was his obligation.

* * *

TOMTE: THE CHRISTMAS GNOME

A tomte watches at the cradle

A tomte watches at the cradle

A tomte  (Swedish) or nisse (Danish) is a delightful creature of Norse pagan origin—a gnome (or brownie—it all depends on whom you ask) who protected a farmer’s home and children, especially at night. The word tomte comes from the Swedish tomt,  a farmstead.

Gnomes have been distributing Christmas presents since the 1500s, you see, but the people had forgotten until the folklore revival of the 1800s. All of Scandinavia recalled then that the Christmas gnome  (Danish julenisse, Swedish jultomte) brought gifts at Christmastime. An 1881 issue of the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning featured the first published painting by Jenny Nystrom, who linked the Swedish Santa Claus with the gnomes of Scandinavian folklore. Nystrom’s tomte was jolly, white-bearded, and red-capped, though not exceedingly plump.

Jenny Nystrom's tree gnome

Jenny Nystrom's tree gnome

The appearance of goats in Nystrom’s artwork also draws from ancient Scandinavian lore. Long ago, people disguised in goatskins knocked on their neighbors’ doors as a sort of practical joke. (One assumes that the skins had been dried, cleaned, and de-loused.) Goats pulled the god Thor’s chariot, you know, and masquerading at holiday times is a tradition older than history. It survives at Christmastime in morris dances and mumming plays.

Well—before the gnomes arrived in Sweden, Christmas presents were delivered by goats. It was a huge undertaking, as you can imagine, for the goat; and when gnomes began to dwell in Sweden, the goats quite understandably sought their help. With goats pulling gnome-built sleds piled with gifts, the task became a joyful one indeed.

Assignment 22.1

Describe in a brief essay (about 250 words) the predominant metaphors of pre-Christian winter-solstice celebrations and customs, and the way these metaphors correlate with traditional Christian celebrations of the birth of Jesus. Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

An early Santa Claus riding a goat

An early Santa Claus riding a goat

Gnome and goat arrive to deliver Christmas gifts (Jenny Nystrom)

Gnome and goat arrive to deliver Christmas gifts (Jenny Nystrom)

Sidebar: Pore Me

pp_sadman

Pore Me

Homophones are words that sound alike but that have different meanings and origins — poor, pour, and pore, for example. (Depending on where you were raised, you might pronounce these words slightly differently from one another. Poor might sound a bit like POO-er, and the O sound in pore might be more rounded than that in pour.)

Pouring Over the Bible

Pouring Over the Bible

In a sentence on studying the Bible, in the book Prayer, Faith, and Healing: Cure Your Body, Heal Your Mind, and Restore Your Soul, the authorsKenneth Winston Caine and Brian Paul Kaufman—recommend that we “ponder …[the Bible], study it, and really pour over it [emphasis added].”

It’s easy to use the wrong member of a set of homophones because sometimes the incorrect word seems to make more sense than the correct one. I thought for years that a sound bite was a sound byte.

* * *

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Metaphorical You

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 19
Chapter 7 (continued): Metaphorically Speaking

All the Animals You Are

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1

 

Blake was a painter as well as a poet. Here is Blake's *The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun* (1805)

Blake was a painter as well as a poet. Here is Blake's *The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with Sun* (1805)

Sharpen your intellectual claws. We are going to attack (metaphorically) one of the most famous and admired poems in English literature, “The Tiger” (or “The Tyger”), by William Blake (1757–1827). First, though, you’ll read another of Blake’s poems, “The Lamb,” which is often studied as a contrast to “The Tiger.”

THE LAMB

Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, and bid thee feed,
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, woolly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb, I’ll tell thee.
He is called by thy name,
For He calls Himself a Lamb.
He is meek, and He is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, and thou a lamb,
We are called by His name.
Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Little Lamb, God bless thee!

THE TIGER

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Jargon to impress your friends

William Blake's Title Plate for *Songs of Experience*

William Blake's title plate for *Songs of Experience*

Here’s a bit of vocabulary that you can use to sound really smart when discussing the mechanics of these poems:

Quatrain — Four-line stanza, usually containing a rhyme scheme. “The Tiger” consists of six quatrains.

Rhyme scheme — Pattern of rhymes in verse. A different letter represents each rhyming sound. In “The Lamb,” the rhyme scheme of the first eight lines is AABBCCDD. In “The Tiger,” the rhyme scheme of each quatrain is AABB, if you allow eye and symmetry to rhyme. Blake might have been indulging in “near rhyme” (half rhyme, slant rhyme) there. It’s also possible that the words were pronounced differently in the late 1700s, when Blake wrote the poem. Or there might be intentional irony in the nonrhyming couplet, which is, in a sense, not symmetrical. (Other common quatrain rhyme schemes are ABAB, ABBA, and ABCB.)

Couplet — Pair of consecutive rhyming lines. In “The Tiger,” each quatrain has two couplets.

Foot — A group of 2 or 3 syllables — one stressed, one or two unstressed — forming a “metrical unit,” the basic unit of poetic rhythm (TI-ger is a foot in “The Tiger.” Compare with “ARE you // GO-ing to // SCAR-bor-ough // FAIR,” which combines two-syllable and three-syllable feet.)

Trochaic foot (trochee) — A two-syllable foot, in poetry, in which the first syllable is stressed and the second syllable is unstressed, as in the four trochees “PE-ter, // PE-ter, // PUMP-kin // EAT-er” (as well as in “TI-ger, // TI-ger, // BURN-ing // BRIGHT.” The absence of a final unstressed syllable [which would be present if Blake had written “TI-ger, TI-ger, BURN-ing BRIGHT-ly”] is called catalexis).

Iambic foot (iamb) — A two-syllable foot, in poetry, in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second is stressed (Christopher Marlowe‘s famous line “Come LIVE // with ME // and BE // my LOVE” consists of four iambs.)

Tetrameter — A line of poetry in which there are four metrical feet (All the examples above are either in trochaic tetrameter or, as in the Marlowe line, in iambic tetrameter.)

Trimeter — A line of poetry in which there are three metrical feet (In “The Lamb,” the first two lines are in trochaic trimeter; the following six lines are in troachic tetrameter with catalexis.)

Frontispiece, by William Blake, for *Songs of Innocence and of Experience*

Frontispiece, by William Blake, for *Songs of Innocence and of Experience*

Observe how Blake uses, in addition to metaphor, the following rhetorical devices in the two poems:

Anaphora — Repetition of words or phrases at the beginnings of lines

Alliteration — Repetition of the same beginning letter or sound for words in a series or in close proximity

Cacophony — Harsh-sounding passages in poetry or prose; note that harshness comes from hard consonant sounds (K, T, and CH, for example) as well as word meanings (The cacophony in “Tiger” contrasts markedly with the euphony in “Lamb.”)

Euphony — The opposite of cacophony — pleasant-sounding, perhaps mellifluous; note that pleasing sounds come from soft consonants (such as L, R, and V) as well as word meanings

A poem you can sink your teeth into

“The Tyger” seems to provide unending food for thought, which is one of the things that make it a truly great poem. Here is one analysis:

Of course, there can be no gainsaying [denying] that the tiger symbolizes evil, or the incarnation of evil, and that the lamb (Line 20) represents goodness, or Christ. Blake’s inquiry is a variation on an old philosophical and theological question: Why does evil exist in a universe created and ruled by a benevolent God?  Blake provides no answer. His mission is to reflect reality in arresting images. A poet’s first purpose, after all, is to present the world and its denizens in language that stimulates the aesthetic sense; he is not to exhort or moralize. Nevertheless, the poem does stir the reader to deep thought. Here is the tiger, fierce and brutal in its quest for sustenance; there is the lamb, meek and gentle in its quest for survival. Is it possible that the same God who made the lamb also made the tiger? Or was the tiger the devil’s work? —Cummings Study Guides, accessed November 4, 2008

This commentator sees the tiger as a symbol of evil and the lamb as a symbol of Christ. I respectfully gainsay his or her view. A symbol can be but is not always a metaphor. A handshake might symbolize friendship or agreement, but it is not a metaphor for friendship or agreement, just as the U.S. flag is not, in itself, a metaphor for our country.

William Blake, in an 1807 portrait by Thomas Phillips

William Blake, in an 1807 portrait by Thomas Phillips

The writer fails to consider “The Tiger,” which appeared in Blake’s book Songs of Experience, in relationship to “The Lamb,” from Blake’s Songs of Innocence. (Blake considered the two books a unit and published them together, as Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.) Another shortcoming of the reviewer’s analysis, in my opinion, is that it assumes a conventional attitude toward religion, Christianity, God, and Christ that Blake did not possess.

He did not hold with the doctrine of God as Lord, an entity separate from and superior to mankind; this is shown clearly in his words about Jesus Christ: “He is the only God … and so am I, and so are you.” —Wikipedia, accessed November 4, 2008

Finally, it’s not at all clear that Blake saw his metaphorical tiger as pure evil — the lamb and the tiger are not necessarily opposites — but rather as beautiful and terrifying.

Because scholars have for over two hundred years continued to debate the complex message of “The Tiger” without reaching consensus, I shall boldly contribute my own theory: The lamb (both in the poem “The Lamb” and in the allusion to the lamb in “The Tiger”) are metaphors for facets of the human personality, including Blake’s own inner angels and demons, and the “contrary states” of human life.

When one is young and innocent — untested — one is “tender,” “meek,” “mild.” (Need I mention that Blake and his wife and lifelong companion, Catherine Boucher Blake, had no children?) With adulthood comes experience and power, to be used for good or ill. One does not stop altogether being a “lamb” when one gains the “fearful symmetry” of a “tiger.”

The following analysis of “The Tiger” presents a more refined understanding, I think, of the poem and its intricacy:

The reference to the lamb in the penultimate [second-from-the-last] stanza reminds the reader that a tiger and a lamb have been created by the same God, and raises questions about the implications of this. It also invites a contrast between the perspectives of “experience” and “innocence” represented here and in the poem “The Lamb.” “The Tyger” consists entirely of unanswered questions, and the poet leaves us [in]… awe at the complexity of creation, the sheer magnitude of God’s power, and the inscrutability of divine will. The perspective of experience in this poem involves a sophisticated acknowledgment of what is unexplainable in the universe, presenting evil as the prime example of something that cannot be denied, but will not withstand facile explanation, either. The open awe of “The Tyger” contrasts with the easy confidence, in “The Lamb,” of a child’s innocent faith in a benevolent universe.Sparknotes.com, accessed November 4, 2008

Assignment 19.1

What animal are you?

Regardless of Blake’s intention — and who’s to say that it was static and fully formed even as he wrote the poems? — I believe it’s fair to say that we are all, metaphorically, at different times and in different situations, an entire menagerie. Throughout history and literature, people have been compared to and represented as lions, puppies, rats, mice, panthers, fawns, even elephants.

I wrote “The Kitten” (below) strictly to illustrate this lesson — as a metaphor for my own vulnerability — not to win any poetry prizes. I live alone now, but I was once pampered and protected. I can be sturdy and resilient — like, say, a Saint Bernard. I can be an “eager beaver.” Sometimes I like to hibernate, like a bear. But occasionally — when, for example, I have to carry a bag of groceries home from the store, or when the plumbing gets stopped up, or when I’m weary or just plain lonely — I’d enjoy being treasured and taken care of.

THE KITTEN

I am a kitten, wishing to lie
in a soft, sunny spot with my lover nearby,
to be fed when I’m hungry and stroked when I sigh
and held all through the night when the wind rises high.

Your assignment is to write something similar — it needn’t be in the form of a rhyming poem; a few lines of graceful prose will do as well — about yourself. Begin with the words “I am a,” then name the animal you are, and describe a few of that animal’s features that are like your own characteristics.

Please e-mail your assignment to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your work, but I will return it to you with comments.

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If Only I’d Gone to Parma

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 16.1 Assignment
Using Figures of Speech

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

Parma in the 15th Century

Parma in the 15th Century

Now you are going to begin to write poetically, using the figures of speech defined in Lesson 16.

There is no need to memorize the terms. What is important is that you become thoroughly familiar with how the elements of rhetoric are used… and that, in using many of them, you will need to reach inside, just a little… enough to call up pictures, emotions, and impressions that transform straightforward prose into poetry.

Below you will find selected figures of speech with brief definitions and with four numbered sentences under each.

  1. A sentence.
  2. An example of the sentence recast, using the defined figure of speech.
  3. Another sentence.
  4. A place for you to recast (rephrase) the sentence, using the defined figure of speech. It’s okay if you go a little wild, deviating from the strict meaning of the sentence, if that’s where your imagination takes you.

When you finish the assignment, please e-mail it to me at Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.

Have fun!

Parallelism — Repetitive use of a grammatical element

  1. There was nothing I wanted more than to take a hot bath, to climb under the warm covers, and read in bed.
  2. Recast: There was nothing I wanted more than to take a hot bath, to climb under the warm covers, and to read in bed.
  3. The résumé listed her skills as watching television, sleeping late on Saturdays, and computers.
  4. Recast:

Antithesis — Juxtaposition of opposing or contrasting ideas

  1. You pronounce the word tomato differently than I do.
  2. Jack Sprat preferred skinless chicken, so he gave the skin to his wife. She liked only the greasy parts of meat and poultry.
  3. Recast:
Ethelred II (the Unready), King of England from 978 to 1016

Ethelred II (the Unready), King of England from 978 to 1016

Parenthesis — Insertion of a clarifying word or phrase within a sentence, set off by commas, dashes, or parentheses

  1. I have three sisters. The eldest one has a wart on her nose. She looks like Wanda the Witch.
  2. Recast: My eldest sister — the one with a wart on her nose — looks like Wanda the Witch.
  3. Ethelred II was king of England from 978 to 1013 and 1014 to 1016. He was called Ethelred the Unready.
  4. Recast:

Appositive — A parenthetical element (see above) that defines or renames (is in apposition to) an adjacent element.

  1. His eyes were strange to behold. One was deep brown, the other was cobalt blue.
  2. Recast: His unmatched eyes — one deep brown, one cobalt blue — were strange to behold.
  3. Judith was the company president’s administrative assistant. She was feared throughout the organization.
  4. Recast:
A Giant Panda in the Washington Zoo, 2004

A Giant Panda in the Washington Zoo, 2004

Alliteration — Repetition of the same beginning letter or sound for words in a series or in close proximity

  1. Paul turned white when panda bears touched him with their feet.
  2. Recast: Paul paled when pandas put their paws on his person.
  3. There were small waves in the river, which wound through hilly farmland.
  4. Recast:

Assonance — Repetition of a vowel sound or similar vowel sounds

  1. Bart continued to drive west, unwilling to stay in one place.
  2. Recast: Bart kept heading west, not yet ready to settle.
  3. The flames grew higher and seemed to grin.
  4. Recast:
Winning entry, Hairdressing Fashion Exhibition, London, 1935, by Louis Calvete

Winning entry, Hairdressing Fashion Exhibition, London, 1935, by Louis Calvete

Anaphora — Beginning successive clauses or phrases with the same word or group of words

  1. If only I’d gone to live in Parma when I had the opportunity. I could have traveled Europe and had adventures I’ve merely dreamed of.
  2. Recast: If only I’d gone to live in Parma. If only I’d seized the chance. If only I’d traveled Europe. If only I’d had the adventures I’ve yearned for.
  3. My grandmother was a famous movie star. She was absolutely stunning, even with the marcel waves that were trendy for the time. Accordingly, she was completely self-absorbed, with little time or inclination to be bothered with the needs of her husband and children.
  4. Recast:

Epistrophe — Ending successive clauses with the same word or phrase

  1. They teased me, but I held my ground. When they mocked me, I didn’t even blink. Even their threats didn’t shake my resolve.
  2. Recast: They teased me, but I held my ground. When they mocked me, I held my ground. Even when they threatened me, I held my ground.
  3. They seeded the clouds, but no rain came down. The Methodists prayed, the Muslims prayed, the congregation at St. Mary Magdalene prayed; and still there was no rain.
  4. Recast:

Apostrophe — Addressing a personified abstraction (see personification, below) or inanimate object

  1. I asked for courage to keep me steady.
  2. Recast: Courage, don’t fail me now!
  3. I wish the rain would stop now and come back some other day.
  4. Recast:
A Sunset View of Hurricane Isidore's Rain Bands, NOAA, 2002

A Sunset View of Hurricane Isidore's Rain Bands, NOAA, 2002

Cacophony — Harsh-sounding passages in poetry or prose; note that harshness comes from hard consonant sounds (K, T, and CH, for example) as well as word meanings

  1. The wind was wild in the trees, blowing away all the leaves.
  2. Recast: Fierce and cruel, storm winds wracked the trees, snapping brittle leaves from their branches and flinging them across the angry sky.
  3. Weary but unable to sleep, the bereaved mother mourned alone in the night.
  4. Recast:
Benito Mussolini, Italian Prime Minister, 1922-1943

Benito Mussolini, Italian Prime Minister, 1922-1943

Consonance — The repetition of consonant sounds, especially the final consonants of accented syllables, often within a short passage of verse

  1. Hester wasn’t very tall, but she was perky and fashionably dressed.
  2. Recast: Hester was short, pert, and smartly dressed.
  3. Mussolini was a cruel dictator.
  4. Recast:

Euphony — The opposite of cacophony — pleasant-sounding, perhaps mellifluous; note that pleasing sounds come from soft consonants (such as L, R, and V) as well as word meanings

  1. The ballerina was graceful.
  2. Recast: The ballerina’s fluid movements recalled the natural grace of a lovely, lazy river.
  3. Sunday nights on the porch are my favorite times.
  4. Recast:

Hyperbole — Exaggeration beyond reason (“Yo’ mama” jokes are hyperbolic: “Yo’ mama so fat she got her own ZIP code.”)

  1. There were hundreds of people at Ebenezer’s funeral.
  2. Recast: I think the entire population of Pennsylvania and a few surrounding states came to Ebenezer’s funeral.
  3. My Grandma Hazel has never been more than five feet tall, but she has shrunk a few inches in her old age.
  4. Recast:
A Dissipating Thunderstorm over Kent (U.K.), 2008

A Dissipating Thunderstorm over Kent (U.K.), 2008

Internal rhyme — The presence of rhyming words in a single line (usually, of verse)

  1. A storm was coming, and the sky was heavy with dark clouds.
  2. Recast: The golden day turned gray and cold; the lazy clouds grew bold and threatening.
  3. Peter was angry — I could tell by the coldness of his eyes and the flush in his cheeks.
  4. Recast:

Onomatopoeia: The quality (of a word) of sounding like what is described: the buzzing of bees, the bark of a dog; a hacking cough; hiss; murmur, thrum

  1. I didn’t need an alarm clock; the noisy birds awoke me every morning.
  2. Recast: The chirping and twittering of lively birds woke me as reliably as my jingling alarm clock.
  3. I was weary of the constant construction noise as a building went up next door.
  4. Recast:
Spotted Python — Photo by Stewart Macdonald

Spotted Python — Photo by Stewart Macdonald

Sibilance — Repetition of the sound of the letter S (sometimes also the combination SH); a form of alliteration

  1. Snakes have an eerie way of making their presence known.
  2. Recast: Snakes slither into sight, hissing in their sinuous assault.
  3. My mother sang the baby to sleep.
  4. Recast:

Simile — An explicit comparison between two things, using the word like or as

  1. When David’s little boy was abducted, David was angry and restless.
  2. Recast: When David’s little boy was abducted, David roamed the house like a hungry tiger with no prey to hunt down.
  3. My sister swished down the stairs in her stunning ball gown, looking regal.
  4. Recast:

Metaphor — Representation of an object or idea through juxtaposition of very different things with a similar characteristic, such as describing a courageous person as having a “heart of a lion”; an implied comparison of two unlike things

  1. I was very happy.
  2. Recast: I was on top of the world.
  3. June was a rainy month.
  4. Recast:
Cottonwood in Autumn — Photo by Mike Pedroncelli

Cottonwood in Autumn — Photo by Mike Pedroncelli

Personification/
prosopopoeia/
anthropomorphism/
pathetic fallacy:
Attributing or applying human qualities to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena

  1. The evening breeze rustled the cottonwood trees, making a pleasing, relaxing sound.
  2. Recast: The cottonwood, leaves rustling in the evening breeze, sang a lullaby.
  3. Maple trees seem maternal and nurturing to me.
  4. Recast:

Also …

Allegory — A sustained metaphor, carried through sentences, paragraphs, even entire works. An extended metaphor in which a story is told to illustrate an important attribute of the subject. The books Pilgrim’s Progress and The Faerie Queen are allegories.

You don’t need to provide examples of allegories, but please keep this concept in mind as we begin writing poems later in this section.

Next: Great poems

 

Poetic Devices

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 16
Chapter 6: Figuratively Speaking

 Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

The Plays of William Shakespeare, by Sir John Gilbert, 1849
The Plays of William Shakespeare, by Sir John Gilbert, 1849

 

Figures of speech are tools of poetry. Please do not even think about memorizing this list. The most important concepts are those in bold type.

Figures of Speech (Rhetorical Devices)

Figures of speech are linguistic tools that turn plain writing into art. They are words or phrases used in nonliteral, unexpected ways — for any of a hundred reasons, including

A young Robert Frost (c. 1910)

A young Robert Frost (c. 1910)

* emphasis
* elaboration
* dramatic effect
* tone (resonance, smoothness, softness, roughness…)
* clarity
* deliberate ambiguity
* shading
* freshness
* humor

 

Figures of speech are sometimes classified as schemes and tropes. There is, as you can see, a good deal of overlap between schemes and tropes.

Schemes

Figures of speech involving the arrangement (balance, order, repetition, or omission) of words or sounds

Balance

Parallelism-Repetitive use of a grammatical element (in the example below, repetition of gerund phrases)

Standing on the corner, watching all the world go by;
Standing on the corner, giving all the girls the eye. (1)

Antithesis-Juxtaposition of opposing or contrasting ideas

When they met, Alice was pure uptown; Jake was down on his luck.

Word Order

Anastrophe-Departure from usual word order

[Death] dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell —John Donne (1572-1631), Holy Sonnet 10 (“Death, be not proud”)

Anne Lamott (www.metroactive.com)

Anne Lamott (www.metroactive.com)

Parenthesis — A clarifying word or phrase within a sentence, set off by commas, dashes, or parentheses

My friend, the writer I was so jealous of, would call and say, like some Southern belle, “I just don’t know why God is giving me so much money this year.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (2)

Four of the church’s elders — all women — …were having a prayer meeting. — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Appositive — A parenthetical element that defines or renames (is in apposition to) an adjacent element (In the example below, the “something” that “glittered in her eyes” was “tears or old memories.”)

Something glittered in her eyes — tears or old memories…. — Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

Omission

Ellipsis — Omission of words, usually indicated by … (At the end of a sentence, the period is added, as in the examples below.)

If she knew he was still dealing with Delrickio…. Well, he didn’t have to worry there. — Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

Well, you know what they say: “When in Rome….”

Repetition

Alliteration — Repetition of the same beginning letter or sound for words in a series or in close proximity

Was he not unmistakably a little man? A creature of the petty rake-off, pocketed with a petty joke in private and denied with the stainless platitudes in his public utterances.” — C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Little Lea, the childhood home of C. S. Lewis, in East Belfast

Little Lea, the childhood home of C. S. Lewis, in East Belfast

Assonance — Repetition of a vowel sound or similar vowel sounds

Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea. — W. B. Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium” (The poem opens with the words, “That is no country for old men,” from which American author Cormac McCarthy drew the title of his 2005 novel. The film adaptation 2007 film adaptation earned four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. 

Anaphora — Beginning successive clauses or phrases with the same word or group of words

I am neither Christian nor Jew, neither Zoroastrian nor Muslim,
I am not from east or west, not from land or sea,
not from the shafts of nature nor from the spheres of the firmament,
not of the earth, not of water, not of air, not of fire. — Rumi

Epistrophe — The same word or phrase used to end consecutive clauses. (The following example illustrates both anaphora [“They compassed me about”] and epistrophe.)

And all nations compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord will I destroy them.
They compassed me about; yea, they compassed me about: but in the name of the Lord I will destroy them.
They compassed me about like bees; they are quenched as the fire of thorns: for in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. —
Psalm 118:10-12

______________

* aposiopesis: A break or pause in speech for dramatic effect

Paul grabbed hold of Haffner’s shirt, tearing seams. “If you had anything to do with Eve’s murder — ”
— Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

* apostrophe: Addressing a personified abstraction or inanimate object

0 Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud —
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light. —
Robert Frost, “Take Something Like a Star”

* cacophony: Harsh-sounding passages in poetry or prose

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe. — Lewis Carroll, “Jabberwocky

* consonance: The repetition of consonant sounds, especially the final consonants of accented syllables, often within a short passage of verse

An Arizona Arbor in Summer

An Arizona Arbor in Summer

This is why I live here,
this immaculate occasion once
a day. Desert turns to fairyland,
early-morning light turns drab
dead gray to glory, wind stirs
sunlit leaves like thirty kinds of
lettuce, green and gold, green
and gold, limb motion whispers;
creosote and squat mesquite
quiver in devotion —
sweet-smelling, sunlight-drenched, still
cool and fresh and equal to the
coming heat. —
Mary Campbell, “An Arizona Arbor in Summer”

* enjambment: A breaking of a syntactic unit (a phrase, clause, or sentence) by the end of a line or between two verses.

I wonder — How can people find
the world such a contaminated
kind of place when sunlight
reaches into every pore of
being — sanctifying, desiccating foul
detritus of anxiety and indolence? — Mary Campbell, “An Arizona Arbor in Summer”

* euphony: The opposite of cacophony — pleasant sounding, perhaps mellifluous

Lord Byron's House in Southwell, Nottinghamshire

Lord Byron's house in Southwell, Nottinghamshire

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair’d the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress
Or softly lightens o’er her face,
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place. — Lord Byron, “She Walks in Beauty, Like the Night”

* homographs: Words that are identical in spelling but different in origin and meaning

Claire ripped the ruffle off her petticoat and wound it around the delirious soldier’s wound.

* homonyms: Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation and spelling, but differing in origin and meaning.

key: “metal piece that works a lock,” from O.E. cæg
key: “low island,” 1697, from Sp. cayo “shoal, reef” (3 )

* homophones: Words that are identical with each other in pronunciation but differing in origin and meaning (led and lead, for example)

* hyperbole: Exaggeration beyond reason (“Yo’ mamma” jokes are hyperbolic: “Yo’ mamma so fat she got her own ZIP code.”)

* isocolon: Juxtaposition of parallel structures of the same length in adjacent clauses: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

* internal rhyme: The presence of rhyming words in a single line of verse

…where
children, hyacinths, and roses, cucumbers, and peppers
grow, and snowy linens hung to dry are blowing in the
breeze. Inside, bread rises in the oven, herbs depend from
oaken beams, and last night’s chicken in its steaming broth
becomes this evening’s stew,
tomorrow’s casserole. — Mary Campbell, “On This Side”

Yeast bread rising before baking

Yeast bread rising before baking

* non sequitur: A statement that marks an abrupt, and often puzzling, change of subject

* onomatopoeia: The quality (of a word) of sounding like what is described: the buzzing of bees, the bark of a dog; a hacking cough; hiss; murmur, thrum

* pun: Use of a word or phrase in two different senses at the same time

* sibilance: Alliteration in which the letter or sound of S is repeated

* superlative: Unequaled; uttermost

* spoonerism: Interchanging of (usually initial) letters of words with amusing effect (“Madam, may I sew you to your sheet?”)

* tautology: Redundancy due to superfluous qualification; saying the same thing twice (“Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”; “I decided to go to New York because it was my decision to go to New York.”)

* tmesis: Division of the elements of a compound or other multisyllabic word (Example: “Hoo-freaking-ray”)

Omission

Ellipsis — Omission of words, usually indicated by … (At the end of a sentence, the period is added, as in the examples below.)

If she knew he was still dealing with Delrickio…. Well, he didn’t have to worry there. —Nora Roberts, Genuine Lies

Well, you know what they say: “When in Rome….”

Tropes

In linguistics, trope is a rhetorical figure of speech that consists of a play on words — that is, using a word in a way other than what is considered its literal or expected form. The other major category of figures of speech is the scheme (see above), which involves changing the pattern of words in a sentence.

Trope comes from a Greek word meaning “a turn, a change.” We can imagine a trope as a way of turning a word away from its normal meaning, or turning it into something else.

Types of Tropes

Metonymy — Using a word associated with an object or idea for the object or idea itself (e.g., referring to actions of the U.S. president as “actions of the White House”)

Irony — A word are phrase used in a way that is opposite to its standard meaning, such as describing poverty as “good times”

Simile — An explicit comparison between two things using the word like or as (“When she was angry, she was as fierce as a tiger,” and “When she was angry, she was like a tiger” are examples of simile; “When she was angry, she was a tiger” exemplifies a metaphor.)

Mom was (metaphorically) a tiger

Mom was (metaphorically) a tiger

Metaphor — Representation of an object or idea — often intangible —using a tangible, dissimilar substitute (“My mother had a cocker spaniel’s eyes and a lion’s heart.”)

Synecdoche — Related to metonymy and metaphor, creates a play on words by referring to something with a related concept: for example, referring to the whole with the name of a part, such as “hired hands” for workers; a part with the name of the whole, such as “the law” for police officers; the general with the specific, such as “bread” for food; the specific with the general, such as “cat” for a lion; or an object with the material it is made from, such as “bricks and mortar” for a building

Allegory — A sustained metaphor, carried through entire stories, sometimes even long works of literature, such as The Faerie Queen. An extended metaphor in which a story is told to illustrate an important attribute of the subject. Aesop’s Fables are usually short allegories.

______________

* allusion: An indirect reference to a quotation, event, or work of literature. “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more” is a common allusion to Judy Garland’s famous line in the (1939) film version of The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland, as Dorothy, in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland, as Dorothy, in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz

* anthimeria: The substitution of one part of speech for another, often turning a noun into a verb

* anthropomorphism: A word or phrase that ascribes human characteristics to something that is not human, such as an animal or a god (see zoomorphism)

* aphorism: A tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion, an adage

* aporia: Deliberating with oneself, often with the use of rhetorical questions

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1

* archaism: Use of an obsolete, archaic, word (a word used in olden language)

* catachresis: A mixed metaphor (sometimes used on purpose and sometimes by mistake)

* circumlocution: “Talking around” a topic by substituting or adding words, as in euphemism or periphrasis

* commiseration: Evoking pity in the audience.

* double negative: Redundant repetition of negative words (“I don’t have no money.”)

* dysphemism: Substitution of a harsher, more offensive, or more disagreeable term for another. Opposite of euphemism.

* erotema: Synonym for rhetorical question

* euphemism: Substitution of a less offensive or more agreeable term for another (e.g., downsizing for layoffs)

* hypophora: Answering one’s own rhetorical question at length

* innuendo: Sly suggestion; hidden meaning

* invocation: An apostrophe to a god or muse

* malapropism: Confusing a word with another word that sounds similar (“Put your hand in the hand of the man who spilled the water.”)

* meiosis: Use of understatement, usually to diminish the importance of something

* metonymy: Substitution of a related word or phrase for a larger idea.

Many standard items of vocabulary are metonymic. A red-letter day is important, like the feast days marked in red on church calendars. Red tide, the marine disease that kills fish, takes its name from the color of one-celled, plantlike animals in the water…. On the level of slang, a redneck is a stereotypical member of the white rural working class in the Southern U.S., originally a reference to necks sunburned from working in the fields. — Connie C. Eble, “Metonymy,” The Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1992

* neologism: The use of a word or term that has recently been created, or has been in use for a short time. Opposite of archaism.

* oxymoron: Contradiction in terms; using two terms together that normally contradict each other (e.g., “sour sweetness”)

* parable: An extended metaphor told as an anecdote to illustrate or teach a moral lesson

* paradox: Use of apparently contradictory ideas to point out some underlying truth

* parallel irony: An ironic juxtaposition of sentences or situations (informal)

* paralipsis: Drawing attention to something while pretending to pass it over

* pathetic fallacy: Ascribing human actions or feelings to nonhuman objects

* periphrasis: Using several words instead of few

* personification/prosopopoeia/anthropomorphism: Attributing or applying human qualities to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena (see pathetic fallacy)

* proverb: A succinct or pithy expression of what is commonly observed and believed to be true

* rhetorical question: A query that doesn’t require an answer

* superlative: Uttermost: the ugliest, the most precious, etc.

* synecdoche: A form of metonymy in which a part stands for the whole (Example: “Keep your nose out of my business.”)

* truism: A self-evident statement

* zoomorphism: Animal characteristics ascribed to humans or gods

_________

1 From the song “Standing on the Corner,” by Frank Loesser 1956), composed for the Broadway Musical The Most Happy Fella. Recorded by the pop quartet the Four Lads, it reached number 3 on the charts that year.

2 The parenthetical phrase “the writer I was so jealous of” is also an appositive; it is in apposition to “my friend.”

3 Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=key, accessed May 20, 2008

Next: If Only I’d Gone to Parma

 

The Seven Words That Changed My Life

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 2. Preface (part 2)

April 1991. I want to be anywhere but indoors. A light rain has rinsed the dust off the creosote bushes, leaving that fresh, ephemeral scent of just-washed desert foliage that you absolutely cannot describe but that makes you feel earthy somehow. By dusk, the whole world smells of Mock-orange in bloom. Nothing can compete — rose or jasmine, diesel fumes, steaks cooking over mesquite — nothing brings on spring fever like the Mock-orange at the height of its blooming glory.

Tonight I must forgo my small luxuries: watching the sun set over the mountains, imbibing Mock-orange fragrance and a margarita on the rocks with a solid inch of salt. I have a class to go to. Nor am I drawn to this class by a Hunger for Learning but rather by the need to fulfill a continuing-ed requirement.

I take a last, longing look at the Tucson Mountains to the west — always purple and mysterious when the sun sets, as if somewhere in those backlit hills the Elves’ Masquerade is about to start and you’re invited, if you can find the spot — before I lock my car and enter the windowless building, following the unmistakable pre-evening-class buzz of desultory conversation and languid laughter.

There isn’t a soul I recognize in the large, drab room, which is packed to capacity with bodies steaming slightly from the unseasonably humid warmth of the April night. Tables and chairs are nowhere to be seen, so when the instructor calls us to attention we just plop down on the carpeted floor.

The instructor, whose name is Sheila, is blond, young, compact, and soft-spoken. Her confident, intelligent energy captures my attention as she works her way back to my corner of the room handing out single sheets of paper.

In the years to come I will wish I had kept that paper, though it contains only four or five lines of instructions for our first “exercise.” With little introduction and no fanfare, Sheila explains what we are to do, summarizing the written instructions.

First, we have to “find a partner — someone you’ve never met before tonight.” I am chatting with a woman named Pat, and we give each other that raised-eyebrow “might as well” look that seals our common destiny for the next hour or so.

Normally the words “find a partner” unleash all my latent insecurities. I am back in third-grade gym class trying to be invisible rather than unchosen. To this day I am good-humored and gregarious until an authority figure says “find a partner.” Instantly my hair turns into hideous, writhing spines, the freckles on my nose into warts. My breath is redolent with every onion I have ever eaten. Small spots on my clothes spread and merge into one giant puke stain. Suddenly I need something out of my purse — something small and hard to find, maybe a Chiclet, a nitroglycerine tablet, a microdot — something buried so deep I have to submerge my head and torso to find it.

Tonight I have dodged the find-a-partner bullet. I can relax. Which happens to be the next instruction — to relax, via a mercifully no-nonsense meditation led by Sheila. I’ve undergone guided meditations so drawn out it would have been more efficient to go to the actual ocean and be calmed by the lapping of the actual waves. These exercises were generally led by women with low, crooning, hypnotic voices.

Sheila is no crooner. Her voice doesn’t go all soft and mystical (like Galadriel’s, you know, in The Lord of the Rings, when she is mesmerized by the One Ring that Frodo carries, right before she lights up like Las Vegas and morphs into Oz-the-Great-and-Terrible on steroids). Sheila suggests, in her cheery everyday voice, that we lean back and get comfortable, before she remembers that we are sitting on the floor with nothing to lean back on.

“Okay,” she amends, “just get as comfortable as you can. Relax your shoulders.” We do a few neck stretches, close our eyes, breathe deeply and rhythmically for about thirty seconds, and ultimately achieve a state of relaxation that is about what you’d expect in a room full of sweaty strangers sitting on the floor in business attire.

Seven words with the force of a Light Saber

It is time to begin the exercise. Here’s what’s supposed to happen: One of us (Student A) is to hold in her mind an image of a person she knows. My partner, Pat, has volunteered to be Student A. She is allowed to tell me only three things about “her person”: gender, age, and location. Pat’s person is a forty-two-year-old man in Tucson.

My job (as Student B) is to describe that person — through, I am guessing, some kind of mystical connection Pat and I have formed by sitting a few inches apart and being in a receptive state of deep relaxation. I am supposed to divine his appearance, his surroundings, his appurtenances, whatever occurs to me.

“You’ll feel like you’re making it up,” Sheila cautions. “Don’t wait for a flash of inspiration. Just say whatever comes into your mind. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You’ll be wrong. You’ll get over it.”

You’ll feel like you’re making it up. Seven words with the force of a Light Saber. One sentence to validate a lifetime of intuition.

The man with two red dogs

According to the rules, Pat can ask me only “neutral” questions (“Where is he standing?” “What do you see behind him?” “Is there anything next to him? What is it?”) and affirm or negate my statements. She can’t say stuff like “No, but that’s close” or “You’re getting warmer.” She can’t ask leading questions, either (“So, is he sitting in the white gazebo, or is he cleaning out the garage?”).

I take a deep breath, try to locate my Third Eye, feel a small flutter of anxiety, and then plunge in… and nail it, right from the get-go. Pat’s “forty-two-year-old man in Tucson” is unusually fair-skinned, I announce with authority, about five-foot-ten, has very dark hair but not much of it; he is bald on top, but not on the sides or in back. A thin strip of shiny baldness is covered with, oh, nine or ten strands of dark hair — a comb-over, but a tasteful one as comb-overs go.

I glance at Pat for verification, but I don’t really need it; I can see the guy. She asks where he is, what his surroundings are. I tell her that he is standing in front of a house in the foothills, a long, low, dark-green house that faces north toward the Catalina Mountains. He is beside the front door, a few feet from a curved gravel driveway lined with barrel cacti. He looks serious and intense — like a person who spends most of his time solving important equations in order to pinpoint the precise moment of the Big Bang. I chatter on, now almost oblivious to Pat until, out of the corner of my eye, I see that her face has gone three or four shades paler, a common side effect of forgetting to breathe.

“Do you see anything else?” she whispers.

“Dogs,” I answer promptly. “Two dogs. Two red dogs.”

I have unerringly and meticulously described Pat’s ex-husband, his hair, his house, his two Irish setters, even his profession. It occurs to me that she might be knocking on his door later that evening, asking if she can count the hairs in his comb-over.

Ð

The room goes from quiet to unruly as if someone has rung the dismissal bell. Everybody starts talking at once in giddy, high-pitched voices that remind me of the girls’ bathroom at Central High School on the day of the prom.

Gone are the glazed eyes, the jaded expressions and work-weary faces I saw when I entered the class. Now the room is filled with childlike awe and a hundred stories to tell, each more astonishing than the one before. A man called Biff has apparently decided he’s some kind of sorcerer. As Student B, he explains, he described his partner’s (Student A’s) father’s Indiana farmhouse so precisely that he “saw” the weathered pine step—a replacement that never got painted—on the white stairway leading from the back porch to the “truck garden.”

The stories keep coming. Sheila is impressed, in her low-key way, but hardly overwhelmed, as the rest of us are. Apparently this stuff happens all the time in her classes.

 “You’re not ‘mind-reading,’” she tells us. “You’ve just dipped your toes into what is sometimes called ‘shared consciousness.’ The only purpose of this exercise is for you to see how much power you have that you didn’t know you had.” Then she starts handing out a syllabus about the difference between Management and Leadership.

Rats. I have been hoping for more adventures in the paranormal. We all have. If Sheila were to announce, “Okay, now we’re going to levitate naked,” everybody would say, “Oh, boy! Yeah, let’s levitate,” and start throwing off their business attire.

Someone, probably being whimsical but also not wanting the magic to end, starts to sing: “I am woman, hear me roar / In numbers too big to ignore…” and the rest of the class joins in, the men as heartily as the women.

Ð

Kerensky

Kerensky

When amazing things happen in my life, the more time passes the more unreal they seem, until I wonder if I dreamed them. Like when I escorted Alexander Kerensky (who overthrew Czar Nicholas in 1917) from his residence across the street to my college dorm, holding my umbrella over his head so he wouldn’t get soaked; like when I learned that the man sitting next to me at dinner was the composer Aaron Copland and I tried to sing the soprano part to his song “Las Agachadas” with a mouth full of broccoli; like when I shared an elevator with Margaret Truman, or when, early in Ravi Shankar’s career, I went to see him “in concert” in a dorm lounge with about ten other people…. I’ll be telling one of those stories and I’ll think, “Did I make that up?”

But I’ve never for a minute doubted what happened in that classroom full of novice swimmers in the Great Sea of Cosmic Awareness — that was the genuine article. That was the real deal.

——–

Go to Lesson 3

She Writes a Hell of a Book

Diana, Philippa, or Nora? Take Your Pick

It was my brother, John—a manly man, who thinks The Gulag Archipelago is light summer reading—who turned me on to Diana Gabaldon. Somewhere in our fifties, John and I discovered that our preferences in music and literature intersected more than we might have thought. His taste runs toward Ray Charles, mine toward Ry Cooder. But we both like bluegrass, mysteries, and historical fiction.

It’s my hunch that Diana Gabaldon caught the reading public’s fancy with the steamy sex in her first novel, Outlander, and then, in succeeding books, pumped up the history and toned down the sex. A little. Claire and Jamie are getting on in years, after all, though Claire’s still vain about her “unruly curls,” even if she pretends not to be, and Jamie’s still built like a redwood, and of course we still have Roger and Brianna’s heat to fan ourselves against, and….

I’m sorry. Are you lost?

Diana

A little over ten years ago, John sent me Diana Gabaldon’s first four novels, insisting that I read them in the proper order. I didn’t read novels then. I was writing for the business world, and all my reading dealt with marketplace trends. For recreation, I dipped into books about English-language history, grammar, style, and usage. Outlander remained unread, though John kept nagging. It’s our Scots heritage, he said, that had pulled him in, and his fascination with the idea of time travel.

I always took two weeks off at Christmastime, and everything went to all to hell the Christmas of, I think, ’99, and I desperately needed a diversion, so I picked up Outlander and barely drew a breath until I finished Drums of Autumn, the fourth book in the series, about ten days later. I packed the four paperbacks off to my daughter, and she opened Outlander and then forgot to feed and clothe her children for a couple of months.

I pined for the fifth book, and then the sixth. Most of the English-speaking world is impatient for the promised seventh.

It got so that I could sniff out Gabaldon aficionados, people I casually did business with, knew only by phone or e-mail. I marveled that Diana Gabaldon, who, I believe, has a Ph.D. in marine biology, could write with such fluid, picturesque, assured precision about the eighteenth-century Scottish highlands. I thought that she had spoiled me for other authors… that I would never be able to read anyone else’s novels… that I’d have to go back to reading about corporate culture and profit-sharing.

Philippa

About four years ago, my daughter, Marian, presented me with a wicked new indulgence—the historical fiction of Philippa Gregory. The book was The Other Boleyn Girl. I devoured it. Philippa Gregory doesn’t do steamy sex in her books, really (with the exception noted a few paragraphs down), although the most erotic passage I’ve ever read in any book is Gregory’s depiction of Mary Boleyn and the commoner William Stafford snuggling, fully clothed, on a deserted beach in France.

Gregory has written five novels about the Tudors. I started reading The Queen’s Fool late one Monday night and called in sick on Tuesday. (A sixth book, The Other Queen, about Mary, Queen of Scots’, imprisonment in England, is due out this fall.)

Whereas Gregory writes about people who actually existed, Gabaldon’s main characters are invented, so the question of historical accuracy is less urgent in Gabaldon’s work. It doesn’t trouble me, particularly, in Gregory’s books. I can read the facts in the encyclopedia, but I can’t become immersed in the inconveniences, the injustices, the excesses, and the intrigues of sixteenth-century British royalty—a microcosm that Gregory presents with such exquisite timing and drama. There is, literally, never a dull moment in Gregory’s prose.

(I tried to read Gregory’s first novel, Wideacre, published in 1987. The “heroine’s” amorality was so repellent, complete with steamy sex involving her own brother, that I couldn’t finish the book. Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber [1944] presents a much more sympathetic but equally selfish heroine, and Winsor is more astute about the plight of independent-minded women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.)

Nora

Dare I link Nora Roberts’s name with Gabaldon’s and Gregory’s? Nora Roberts, who has had 124 novels on the New York Times bestseller list? Whose books in print exceed 280 million copies? Who produces a new book more often than I dust?

After my most recent Roberts-fest, the “MacGregors” series, I asked myself, once again, “How does she do it?” How, that is, does she write the same story, over and over and over again, putting her characters into different bodies and different scenic locales (usually by the turbulent sea, Atlantic or Pacific), giving them different names and occupations, but telling essentially the same tale?

She does it beautifully, though I confess I cringe every time she uses disinterested when she means uninterested. Still, I am seldom distracted by careless writing mistakes or poor editing. Her research must be fascinating, and exacting. The men and women who populate her books are very believable cops, boat-builders, U.S. senators, cartoonists, witches, racecar-drivers, innkeepers, sculptors, carpenters, fashion models, certified public accountants, four-star chefs, and horse breeders. None of them, it must be said, is fat or ugly, and if a character in one of her books is short of cash, it’s only temporary.

Boy meets girl, boy is rudely antisocial, girl is fiercely independent, the barriers come down, the clothes come off, someone puts a fly in the ointment, it gets fished out, I’m mixing metaphors, pay no mind, and boy and girl get married, have at least three children, and live happily ever after. If we’re fortunate, as in the case of the MacGregors, we get to read about several generations of lusty young men and women repeating the errors of their elders, toughing it out, proving they can make it on their own, discovering they don’t have to, and, finally, making new grandbabies for The MacGregor—Daniel, the patriarch, who built the castle by the sea—though he claims it’s his beloved Anna, the surgeon, who fusses.

The principals are virtually always caucasian (often of Irish or Scottish descent, though there are French and Comanche strains running through the extended MacGregor clan) and robustly heterosexual, but their close friends might or might not be black, or gay, or both. Roberts writes very comfortably, never coyly, about interracial and gay couples, neither making an issue of “diversity” nor backing away from it.

Her gift, I think, is the ability to pick you up and plop you down in some irresistible setting—an island along the New England or Georgia coastline, a clifftop near Monterey, occasionally a sunset town in Montana—and then surround you with charming people—utterly innocent, thoroughly jaded, and everything in between… and you get to live there for a while, in the beautiful, kaleidoscopic whirlwind she’s painted, and watch people grope their way toward each other… and it’s just lots of fun. Every damn time.

And I learn from them all—these made-up people with genuine humanity—the creations of Gregory, Gabaldon, and Roberts. They inspire me, even if it’s only to have a tidy, well-organized workspace like Cybil Campbell in Roberts’s The Perfect Neighbor. They never let me forget—as engrossing and colorful as their lives and times are, there, on the pages, their affairs so tidy one minute, so messy the next—to live my own life first and peek in on theirs only after my chores are done. Well, except for that “sick day” I spent reading The Queen’s Fool… but I’ve learned my lesson, and it will never happen again… at least not until September….

——-

California Central Coast photo by Paul Lee

A marvelously engrossing read is Audrey Niffenegger’The Time Traveler’s Wife. Couldn’t be less like Gabaldon’s approach to time travel. Marian gave me The Time Traveler’s Wife for Christmas a few years ago and asked to borrow it after I was done. When I relinquished it, I begged her to finish it quick because I wanted to reread it. A day or two later she called me. “Are you sure you want it back?” she wanted to know. “How can you DO that to yourself again?”

Remember Little Sioux

All photos in this post show my grandson Pete and fellow Scouts and leaders (including Pete’s dad, Paul).

Surviving the Storm

Who would have dreamed, back in the fresh-faced fifties, when moms wore aprons at home and put on hats and gloves to go shopping… when boys named after their dads were called “Skip” or “Bud”… when families went for a drive in the country to escape the city heat on Sunday afternoons, maybe dining on cold chicken and potato salad at a shaded roadside picnic table… who would have guessed, back then, that the compact little self-explanatory phrase “Boy Scout” would someday take on a pejorative tinge? Overheard: “He’s such a Boy Scout!”  Yep, he’s a lost cause, all right. (The feminine equivalent is, “She’s such a Pollyanna!”)

I remember my brother, John, eagerly packing for the National Jamboree at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. He would have been about 12 at the time. My mom had been a den mother, Dad was the assistant scoutmaster, and they encouraged but never pressured John in his Scouting endeavors. It was not my parents’ way to coerce, so when, in the imprudence that is puberty, John and his friends tossed out their Boys’ Life magazines and started hiding Playboy under their beds—where their nosy little sisters would inevitably find them and go running to Mom—my parents were philosophical, just as they were when my sister quit Girl Scouts and I abandoned the Camp Fire Girls.

It wasn’t until much later—just recently, in fact—that I learned that some of the hippest guys I knew in high school were closet Eagle Scouts. It was the cynical sixties, and anything wholesome was suspect. Being a Boy Scout was the youthful equivalent of belonging to the John Birch Society, I guess.

In the intervening decades, Scouting has survived a storm of hostile scrutiny—some of it perhaps justified, most of it just plain ignorant. Scouting has been labeled sexist, racist, homophobic, fascist, or simply irrelevant. I wonder if Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder has provoked second thoughts about the charge, at least, of irrelevance.

My oldest grandson, Pete, became an Eagle Scout at age 16 last year in a moving ceremony attended by fellow Scouts and adult leaders, as well as family and friends, of course. A few years earlier, on a crisp fall day, I had driven him about forty miles to a weekend campout at one of the other kids’ uncle’s farm, a picturesque spot in the Loess Hills that line the Missouri River on the east. When we arrived, there was no one in sight. Then we heard shouts: “Pete! Up here!” Eight or ten boys were exploring a wooded ridge some fifty feet above where we were standing. After a quick “Thanks, Grandma,” Pete was off like a shot, aiming for the steep path that led to the pinnacle.

They’d be pitching their own tents that evening, building their own fire, cooking their own food, nestling into their sleeping bags when the temperature dropped into the twenties. Where, except in Scouting, do kids experience that stuff? What, I wondered, would he be doing that sunny Saturday if he weren’t soaking up the clean country air (lightly laced, it must be said, with the aroma of livestock leavings)? I did my share of camping, girl-style, when I was a kid, but I also watched a lot of Circus Boy reruns and old Shirley Temple movies on Saturdays.

Last week, on June 12, a tornado killed four Boy Scouts at Little Sioux Scout Ranch, also in Iowa’s Loess Hills but a couple of hours north of the farm where Pete had camped a few years back. By all accounts, the eighty-nine Scouts who survived, and their leaders, reacted heroically.

Associated Press writer Timberly Ross reported that the Scouts helped “administer first aid and search for victims buried in their flattened campsite….” Thirteen-year-old Ethan Hession “said the Scouts’ first-aid training immediately compelled them to act.”

“We knew that we need to place tourniquets on wounds that were bleeding too much. We knew we needed to apply pressure and gauze. We had first-aid kits, we had everything,” he said.

Ethan said one staff member took off his shirt and put it on someone who was bleeding to apply pressure and gauze. Other scouts started digging people out of the rubble, he said.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m ever in the path of a tornado, I’d like to be surrounded by people whose motto is “Be Prepared.”

And if I’m ever in the presence of someone who demeans the principles and practices of Scouting, I hope I have the presence of mind to reply, “Remember Little Sioux.”

 

In Defense of Profanity

Sample blogs on a wide range of topics at Alpha Inventions

The F-Word: A User’s Guide

It’s been my observation that the F-word is much more frequently used for emphasis—typically in adverbial form—than in its literal sense, which alludes to sexual intercourse. In some circles, it seems to be the only intensifying modifier its users can call to mind, as in, “That effing chick is effing gorgeous.” Such immoderation weakens the word’s impact—rendering it less effective on those occasions when it is indispensable. I am about to describe one such occasion—substituting the euphemism frog for the F-word itself.

My house. Really.

My house. Really.

Any word that a speaker uses habitually and indiscriminately quickly loses its power. My piano teacher always said, “That was lovely, dear,” no matter how badly I played, and I soon developed immunity to the word lovely as a compliment. I urge all English-speaking people to avail themselves of the rich, nuanced vocabulary of our language and to save the F-word for Special Situations, such as the one recounted herein.

 

The crime scene

 

To visualize this particular Special Situation, it might be helpful for you to know that I live in an old church, as its caretaker. My apartment is partially below ground level and has a separate entrance, though it is also accessible through the boiler room of the church proper. I have lived in the apartment for five years without incident. Attached to the screen door is an ersatz “alarm”—really just a very shrill buzzer that is activated when the switch is on and the door is opened. (There is also a genuine alarm, which I have recently begun setting at night.) Usually, when people open the screen door and hear the buzzer, they retreat. The retreaters, however, are not, typically, in…

 

Altered states of consciousness

 

Tuesday, June 3, 3 a.m. Am standing in bedroom of apartment. Am working late, facing manuscript deadline, and have gotten up from computer preparatory to moving load of laundry from washer to dryer, with intention of visiting powder room on the way.

 

Front door of apartment is wide open, screen door is ineffectually latched. Obnoxious shrieking buzzer sounds. I wait for intruder to retreat in panic or else announce, “Mom, it’s me” (my son lives in house next door to church). Buzzer continues to shriek, son does not announce self, am considering other possibilities as intruder enters bedroom, grips my wrist in unfriendly manner, says, “Okay, where’s the money? I want the money,” as if we had appointment or I owed gambling debt to Cosa Nostra.

 

Is not son. Is not retreater. Is not disoriented dementia patient seeking late-night snack. Must be dream. No, pain in wrist is genuine. Must be joke. Intruder is wearing odd mask that covers all of head except eyes, though his words are not muffled. He tightens grip on my wrist. Is not joke. Is real deal.

 

Oh, shit.

 

3:03 a.m.  Have displayed contents of wallet, purse, in response to repeated demands for money on the part of intruder (hereinafter referred to as “perp”).

 

Have impression perp is armed, though do not actually see weapon. In retrospect, think of classic Mae West comment: “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?”

 

Perp glances hastily around, as if expecting to see emerald necklace dangling from bedside lamp, then turns his attention to my person. Mutters something unprintable, tugs at my shorts. I tug back. Tussle ensues. Perp exerts strength. I experience moment of panic, immediately succeeded by fury. Am enraged lioness. Have extreme aversion to being constrained, perhaps originating in early childhood when neighborhood bully, called Carol, twice corners me on way home from school, has one of her thugs hold my arms while she punches me in stomach, pulls down my underwear, laughs and goes away. Sick, pointless.

 

 

3:05 a.m. Decide would rather take chance on being shot or stabbed than raped, which would be tedious. Have low tedium tolerance. Extricate self from perp, who makes a few unseemly but largely ineffectual jabs without courtesy of washing hands, which will later necessitate tedious examination of my personal self in search of DNA not my own; also tetanus shot.

 

3:06 a.m. Notice that perp is unfocused, without clear objective. Asks again where money is. I infer, belatedly, that he is impaired. He is standing between me and bedroom door. I start to push, bellow: “Get the frog out of my house! What the frog are you doing here? You don’t belong here! Get the frog out of here!”

 

Perp pushes back, but I push harder. Cannot think of fresh, articulate monologue to paraphrase original tirade, so reiterate, “Get the frog out of here,” and so forth— estimated 437 repetitions. Am shrill, enraged broken record.

 

3:12 a.m. or 5:30 a.m., have no idea. Have pushed perp to screen door. Am about to make final, supreme effort to expel perp, but we both pause to take a breath. Perp looks at me in dismay, announces he is going to get his gun. I express approval of his intention, use left arm to push him against unlatched screen door, swing heavy front door with entire strength of right arm. Perp pushes back, but I have momentum, am not impaired; succeed in closing, locking door.

 

Run through boiler room to church, knowing alarms will sound. Go to nearest phone, call 911. Much tedium ensues—questioning at “crime scene,” more questioning at police headquarters, being transported to hospital, waiting for specially trained nurses who are on call, undergoing invasive examination, which is, inexplicably, legal. Meanwhile, am not allowed to pee, which, as you will recall, was my intention at 3 a.m. when perp entered premises. Is to my credit, don’t you think, that I did not, at that time, pee in shorts?

 

9:30 a.m. Transported home by kind, patient police officers. Slept rest of day.

 

Key points

  •  Security measures too lax; should keep heavy door locked, use alarm system.
  • Am enraged lioness when threatened by lightweight impaired weenie.
  • Dominant residual emotion: annoyance.
  • F-word, used forcefully and repeatedly by grandmother of eight, can catch perp off guard.
  • In sentence “Get the frog out of my house,” “the frog” is adverbial phrase.