Category Archives: writing mechanics

An Exclamation Point


exclamationpoint-GIANT-LEECHES-POSTERA WORD ABOUT USING EXCLAMATION POINTS: Don’t. At least, not often. Let your narrative convey excitement, even in dialogue, when the speaker is saying something terribly important, such as, “The Giant Leeches from Space have landed.”

Why? Because if you use an exclamation point at the end of an important sentence— “The Giant Leeches from Space have landed!”—and then something even more important happens—”They are entering the Schmerdlings’ house, which is next door!!”—you’ll have to use two exclamation points; and by the time the Giant Leeches from Space have drained the blood from all five Schmerdlings and their housekeeper and their Great Dane, have munched on a cluster of field mice, and have started dismantling the window of the nursery where your 18-month-old triplets just fell asleep, the exclamation points alone will have consumed two black-ink cartridges—unless you’re using a different color, maybe “Merlot,” but somehow I don’t see you fiddling with color schemes during emergencies, especially the critically important ones.

Punctuation with Friends


THE POPULAR GAME WORDS WITH FRIENDS has a dictionary all its own. For some reason, it includes quite a few Scots and Welsh words. In any case, success is largely trial and error. When I accidentally spell an actual word—GLED, in this case—I look it up in the WWF dictionary; I might want to use it again. I am informed that GLED “is a valid Words with Friends word.”

This happens all the time in WWF. It’s okay. I got my 48 points, so to my mind the subject is closed—unless I really want to know the meaning, in which case I Google the word. I sometimes pause to imagine a place where only “valid Words with Friends words” are spoken—”AARRGH! GLED HOOKME, AAL! TEUGH WHEEP. TREX?”—but then I let it go and move on.

But Words with Friends isn’t finished. After defining GLED as “a valid Words with Friends word,” it apologizes:

Sorry, no definition is available at this time!

Really! You don’t say! What a curious spot for an exclamation point! Might want to save your excitement till you’re ready to announce that, yes, at last, a definition has become available!



AS SOON AS I LEARNED TO READ, I started devouring the comic strips in the evening and Sunday newspapers, including the lame ones (Henry, Nancy) and the ones that went way over my head (Pogo, the Katzenjammer Kids). I never understood why, in many of the strips, all the characters seemed to be shouting, all the time. Every sentence ended with an exclamation point, even if it was a question. “Hello!” “How are you?!” “Not so good!” “Oh!” “What’s up with you?!” “Not much!” “I see!”


In one vintage comic strip, Mary Worth—a kindly widow who was at least 50 when she was born, which puts her somewhere in her 130s—is wearing a dowdy hat and white cotton gloves, her brow furrowed in what I take to be a worried expression. Clearly, she is getting ready to go somewhere on a matter of grave importance.

The doorbell rings. Mary opens the door, and there, weeping, looking wretched but perfectly coiffed, is her attractive but despondent young friend Elaine, or Jeannine, or Delilah, who suspects that her husband is cheating on her but who has been in denial since 1955. (I was only 8 years old when I started reading Mary Worth, but it was pretty clear to me that Elaine, Jeannine, and Delilah were all married to the same worthless piece-of-shit traveling salesman.)

ELAINE: Mrs. Worth! You’re wearing your white gloves and goofy hat with a black net veil that makes it look like spiders are crawling on your forehead! You must be going out!

MARY: Yes, Elaine! I have an appointment with Dr. Edgemont!

ELAINE: Dr. Edgemont! The distinguished and handsome heart surgeon with a mysterious past! Mrs. Worth, are you all right?! Is something wrong with your heart?!

MARY: I’m fine, Elaine! Never better! As you can see, I have plenty of money though I’ve never worked a day in my life! I’m seeing a heart surgeon merely to pass the time! But I don’t have to leave right this minute! Do you have news about your faithless husband, Trent, who was seen trysting at L’Intimité with Delilah?! Please come in!

The people who wrote the Mary Worth comic strip evidently wanted us to think that what Mary and her friend were saying was critically important—more important than what Dr. Rex Morgan and his attractive nurse, June Gale, were discussing in the adjacent comic strip. In retaliation, Rex and June had to start exclaiming everything, too. The last time I read Li’l Abner, I noticed that every sentence ended with two exclamation points.


Rex Morgan, M.D.

Of course, they were all competing with real adventure comics—Dick Tracy, Steve Canyon, and others, in which stuff actually happened—kidnappings, plane crashes, bank robberies—whereas, in Mary Worth, it took an entire week to get Elaine from the doorstep to the living-room sofa and another week to find out if she took cream in her coffee. The only actual plot movement in Mary WorthRex Morgan, M.D.Winnie Winkleand other soap-opera-type series occurred in the Sunday funnies, when the strips were in color and occupied a third of a page instead of a few inches next to the crossword puzzle. With all that color and activity and dialogue, the shouting rose to a din!!!!

winnie-sundayAct now! Operators are standing by!      

I HAVE IN FRONT OF ME A POSTCARD from the University of Arizona Alumni Association. It contains numerous sentences but no exclamation points. Nevertheless, I know that this is One Frigging Important Postcard. For one thing, it’s bright yellow. But besides that, just above my address there is a box with a wide black border surrounding the words—which are in bold capital letters—IMPORTANT ALUMNI VERIFICATION NOW DUE. On the other side is another box containing the words CONFIRMATION NECESSARY.

Dear Mrs. Campbell [the postcard reads], More than 80 percent of the University of Arizona alumni we’ve spoken with in regard to the verification project have made important revisions to their alumni data. This is the reason I urge you to call 1-866-555-5555 today.

If the postcard said, “Last year, more than 80 percent of the University of Arizona alumni ate mayonnaise. This is the reason I urge you to call…” it would make the same amount of sense. I can almost hear my dear mother’s voice: “Mary, if 80 percent of the University of Arizona alumni jumped off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff?”

But wait! There’s more!! “It’s critically important [the paragraph continues] to talk with each University of Arizona graduate.”

toxic-cleaningCritically important for me to talk with each U of A graduate? Or for Melinda B—, the Alumni Association president, whose name appears at the bottom of the postcard? Either way, I’m sort of busy. My toddler is spraying toilet-bowl cleaner on the cat, and a glop of the foam is on the finger she’s about to stick into her own nose. Is it okay if I take care of that before I call 1-866-555-5555? Although… Wow! I don’t know…. There’s another box around some bold type—upper and lower case, but the letters are HUGE—asking me nicely to “Please call 1-866-555-5555 (toll-free) to take care of this important matter today.” Still no exclamation point, but those letters are pretty big, and Melinda does say it’s important, and… Oh! Toll-free. Well, then. I’ll call 911 right now, and by the time the EMTs get here I’ll have finished talking to Melinda.

What’s in it for me?

ACTUALLY, I WON’T BE TALKING TO MELINDA but to someone at a company called Publishing Concepts, “a trusted partner of the University of Arizona Alumni Association.” This means that the Alumni Association has paid an obscene sum to an outside firm to compose this ill-judged attempt to coerce me into making a donation—ill-judged because (a) in 20 years I’ve never given the U of A Alumni Association a dime, and (b) the postcard is worse than a waste of time, ink, and yellow card stock; it’s offensive, and I’m not easily offended.

Ten years have passed since my last mammogram, and this yellow postcard that pretends to be from the University of Arizona Alumni Association but is mailed from Dallas, Texas, is telling me what’s critically important? No.

  • “Critically important” is cleaning up the water supply in Flint, Michigan.
  • “Critically important” is talking someone down from a suicide attempt.
  • My mammogram is important, but I’d hardly say it’s critical.

Calling 1-866-555-5555 doesn’t even make my list of “things to do after I’ve read every book in the library, painted my house, sterilized the switch-plate covers, ironed all my clothes and hung them in the closet sorted by color, and achieved world peace.”

Even if you allow that vulgar marketing instruments have their uses and you judge the yellow postcard against similar solicitations rather than the Bible or Macbeth, the yellow postcard violates the first rule of marketing:

Tell me what’s in it for me.

Melissa, or whoever, gives me no incentive to comply. Do I care that 80 percent of my fellow alums have updated their information? Is it in my interest to “ensure that the upcoming University of Arizona alumni directory project is completely accurate and up to date”?


Roman-numeral converter at Google Play

Even if such perfection were possible, for all I care the upcoming University of Arizona alumni directory can be printed entirely in classical Latin. If it were, I’d buy it, just to see the phone numbers. Mine would be CDXXII-DCCXIX-MMCXXXIII.

The marketing drones who wrote my yellow postcard aren’t completely stupid, because they know that so many things are clamoring for our attention, claiming to be important, that if we have no clear purpose we might not rely on our own judgment. If they can convince us, even for a minute, that calling 1-866-555-5555 is more important than locking up the toxic household chemicals or taking our kids to the park or meditating or whatever it is that we know we should do but feel we don’t have time for, then they’ve got a good shot at getting our annual donation, which is what they really want. And if they’d just say so, I might cooperate. When I feel that they’re trying to deceive me, it just puts my back up.

VI; ILI; DI; Magnum, PI; mud in your eye; etc.

WE HAVE A SITUATION—I won’t even call it a problem—with language that I call verbal inflation or, when I want it to sound important, inflated linguistic importance (ILI). ILI occurs when words, phrases, and, yes, punctuation marks (often in combination with type styles) are overused and lose their shape, like old shoes, or lose their sharpness, like my mother’s expensive sewing shears that my brother and I always “borrowed” for cutting paper, which (according to my mother) dulled the blades, making the scissors unusable for sewing.

There really was a time when, to indicate that something was important, we simply said it was important. Now we add modifying words and phrases (“critically,” “extremely,” “beyond the reach of human understanding”), set the words in bold-face capital letters, italicized for good measure, and wrap them in a box.

Any more, to call a woman “pretty” is almost an insult. So, what did you think of my new girlfriend? She’s pretty. Pretty? Just pretty? Okay, she’s gorgeous. How gorgeous? Really gorgeous. Really, really, seriously, downright frigging, drop-dead, hose-me-down-and-hang-me-out-to-dry gorgeous.

The flip side of ILI, which I call disastrous insinuation [DI], is exemplified by the following:

Dear Ms. Campbell: Your recent MRI showed a small mass, called an incidentaloma, above your right kidney. The radiologist who read the MRI described the mass as “anomalous” and commented, “I’ve never seen anything like it. I wonder what it is.” If you’re wondering the same thing, you could try calling our office at your convenience to get on a waiting list to make an appointment for follow-up with one of our physicians or nurse practitioners. Good luck with that.

This sort of communication never arrives on a yellow postcard. Usually it comes in a plain white envelope. Half of these letters probably get mistaken for bills or solicitations and tossed in the recycling. You do recycle, right? Because you should. It’s critically important.

Do what you love

MY SISTER HAS ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE. She still recognizes me, and we have conversations that might appear normal to others, until they notice that it’s really just one conversation over and over, but my sister and I have a good time. She used to be a professional organizer. She wrote a book called Ready, Set, Organize. (I was coauthor of the second edition. That’s how important I am.)

ready-set-organizeIn Ready, Set, Organize, she describes the technique she used with consistent success. Briefly, it works like this:

Before you can organize your schedule and your stuff, you have to define your values. When you figure out what’s important to you, and you develop goals and objectives around those values, only then can you make sensible, productive decisions about your time and your space. Without that structure, everything seems important, and the loudest and most persistent demands get the greatest share of attention. Whatever you’re doing, you have this nagging feeling that you should be doing something else, and you never really relax. You might even find yourself calling 1-866-555-5555 and giving money to a total stranger in Dallas, Texas, while your child eats toilet-bowl cleaner and Giant Leeches from Space devour your next-door neighbors.

So if you want take control of your life and gain mastery of your schedule, I suggest that you start by eliminating exclamation points. Just don’t use them. If nothing else, you’ll save on ink.

tumblr_miaakgKGu21r358q4o8_250EDDIE IZZARD ON IMPORTANT COMMUNICATIONS (from “Wikipedia and iTunes,” Live at Madison Square Garden (2011),

You’re tip-tapping away and the thing comes up and it says Would you like a software update?  And you go Yeah! I don’t see why not.

Would you like to know details of the software update? And you go No! Or sometimes you go Yeah! … But before you can get the update, it says Sign a new agreement with iTunes.

… I have signed many agreements with iTunes. I don’t know what they want from us any more. Don’t they know we agree with them? They must be paranoid at iTunes, going We must ask them again, one more time, if they really, truly… we’ve asked them thirty-eight times, but one more time, just to make sure that they agree with us.

And they have made us liars. You cannot reprimand your children. No, Johnny, you said you didn’t have a biscuit but there’s crumbs all over your face and you did have a biscuit. You have lied.

[Johnny replies] But you said you had read the terms and conditions when you clicked that box, but it’s too quick for you to have read the terms and conditions.

The truth is, no one in this room has read the terms and conditions. No one in New York has read the terms and conditions. No one in the universe… even God has not read the terms and conditions. That’s probably the big gap between the beginning of the earth and when we effing turned up. He was reading the terms and conditions of the thing he just made.

Anything could be in the terms and conditions. We will take your buttocks and sell them to the Chinese…. We’re going to rearrange your toes and number them…. We’re going to put your underpants in hedges around the… and you get to the point where you want the update. You didn’t know what it was, but now you want the…  Now give me the effing update! And then you get the update.

And nothing has changed.

Speaking of Homophones

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Sidebar: Sound-Alikes

Charlie Chan (

Charlie Chan

I read this afternoon — in a novel, by a usually careful or at least painstakingly edited author (Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb) — about how the heroine’s strategy wasn’t succeeding so she decided to try a different tact.

I can’t even imagine what that would look like. Pretending she is British, perhaps? Or emulating Charlie Chan?

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    Sidebar: Pore Me


    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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    Sistine Chapel celing, Michelangelo, 1508

    Sistine Chapel celing, Michelangelo, 1508

    Authentic art is not done for an audience. It is the Self communicating with the self (although, to be truly “finished,” art must be shared — not necessarily with the hoi polloi, but with somebody).

    Does that mean that commissioned visual art, poetry, or music isn’t authentic? Is Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel something less than genuine art?

    I believe that most true artists, when they accept commissions, find a way to separate their art from — or to integrate it with — the expectations of their patrons. In some cases, commissioned works are rejected or, if accepted, despised. Usually, however, those who commission statues or symphonies are familiar with the artists’ previous work, and so they are not caught off guard when the sculptor they’ve engaged, who has produced dozens of mammoth sculptures that resemble the claws of vultures, gives them a clawlike monument for their money.

    Picasso sculpture in Chicago; photo by J. Crocker
    Picasso sculpture in Chicago; photo by J. Crocker

    The Self communicating with the self


    Author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, talking with host Krista Tippett on National Public Radio’s weekly program Speaking of Faith (August 14, 2008), said,    

    I was in the depth of depression and I lived in anxiety about my life and my problems and my future. And one night I woke up in the middle of the night again feeling this sense of dread, and a phrase came into my head, which said, “I can’t live with myself any longer. I can’t live with myself any longer.” And that phrase went around in my head a few times and suddenly, I was able to stand back and look at that phrase: “I can’t live with myself any longer.” And I thought, “Oh, that is strange. I cannot live with myself. Who am I and who is the self that I cannot live with? Because there must be two of me here, if that phrase is correct.”

    Most of us suffer, at one time or another, from “imposter syndrome.” We are afraid to let too much of ourselves show. We have public selves who are smiling and agreeable, and we have private selves who kick puppies — or who are afraid we might. When people seem to like us, we think, “Oh, if they knew what I really am deep down….”

    Poets can be a broody lot…

    Allen Ginsberg, 1978; photo by Ludwig Urning

    Allen Ginsberg, 1978; photo by Ludwig Urning

    …who in humorless protest overturned only one symbolic pingpong table,
      resting briefly in catatonia,
    returning years later truly bald except for a wig of blood, and tears and
      fingers, to the visible madman doom of the wards of the madtowns
      of the East,
    Pilgrim State’s Rockland’s and Greystone’s foetid halls, bickering with the
      echoes of the soul, rocking and rolling in the midnight solitude-bench
      dolmen-realms of love, dream of life a nightmare, bodies turned to
      stone as heavy as the moon….
     Allen Ginsberg, “Howl,” Part I

    Hot springs 

    Blood Pond Hot Spring, Beppu, Japan

    Blood Pond Hot Spring, Beppu, Japan

    If writing poetry helps you peel away the superficial layers of the self toward a deeper consciousness, you might find some darkness before you reach the inner light — just as, if you could drill a hole through the earth, you would (depending on where you started) encounter a lot of muck and mire and stubborn stone before you came to the fiery magma. Some people begin their digging where the crust is thick, and they encounter dirt and rock and more rock until they give up, concluding that cold, hard rock is all that’s there.

    But we are going to be intelligent and commence where the crust is thin and the magma is nearer the surface — someplace where there are geysers or hot springs, for example. If our goal is to penetrate to the core, why not do so where there is evidence that the core is, indeed, warm and bright.

    It will not do to carry this metaphor too far. Our planet’s very center is actually extremely hot solid iron. It is in the outer core and surrounding mantle where magma is found; and where magma comes close to the earth’s surface, it makes its presence known through volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, and other phenomena. 

    Mt. Cleveland volcano, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams

    Mt. Cleveland volcano, Aleutian Islands, Alaska, taken from the International Space Station by astronaut Jeffrey N. Williams

    So let’s abandon our earth-crust metaphor and use a very different simile instead: Reaching the shining inner self is a bit like cleaning an oven. You can scrape and scrub and bang your head several times on the oven’s rim; or you can — more easily and perhaps more poetically — pour a half-cup or so of household ammonia into a bowl, leave the ammonia-filled bowl in the closed oven overnight, let the ammonia fumes loosen the grime, and in the morning sponge away the mess with comparative ease.  

    (I don’t have to tell you not to mix the ammonia with other cleaners or chemicals, right?) 

    However you go about it, if you really want your oven to be clean, you persist, because you know that the baked-on grease is not the oven. It is simply among the contents of the oven. Eckhart Tolle writes, in The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment,

    You may not want to know yourself because you are afraid of what you may find out. Many people have a secret fear that they are bad. But nothing you can find out about yourself is you.

    Nothing you can know about you is you.

    Most people define themselves through the content of their lives…. When you think or say, “my life,” you are not referring to the life that you are but the life that you have, or seem to have. You are referring to content — your age, health, relationships, finances, work and living situation, as well as your mental-emotional state. The inner and outer circumstances of your life, your past and your future, all belong to the realm of content — as do events, that is to say, anything that happens.

    What is there other than content? That which enables the content to be — the inner space of consciousness.

    Whenever I write a poem that arises from a dark place, I begin where my emotions are closest to the surface and I persist until the light appears. Here are three examples from my book Unfamiliar Territory:


    "The Other Side"Over on the other side, there is a quiet
    cottage on a grassy slope, where trees
    protect and decorate and cast their pleasing
    shadows on the water; and 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. An
    old man and a young man and a boy are sharing
    rituals and mending fences, while a woman,
    unaccountably serene, sips coffee, shuts her
    eyes, and says a prayer of thanks for all that
    providence provides.

    But on this side are broken shutters, dusty
    shelves, unanswered letters, leaves in piles, and
    moldy flower beds; and seams half-sewn on
    half-done dresses; half-forgotten words in
    half-read books; and pressing obligations
    half-remembered, half despaired of. Morning
    struggles through the cloudy panes of windows —
    gray and half-neglected or, perhaps, defied. A
    pallid beam succeeds at last and penetrates the
    barrier. It comes to rest upon the drooping
    pothos, which persists in barely living, never
    mind the diffidence its garden is.

    The ray of sullen light turns motes of dust to
    fireflies. At first they float at random; then they
    glide; then, whimsical, they dance as if to
    challenge gravity or chance; as if they
    will their time aloft, to have an audience, to
    shine like stars.

    They catch the sun and flicker. They have won a
    moment’s glory. Soon it ends, but they have shone.

    On the other side are peace and order; on this
    side is eagerness to cross the wide,
    intimidating border, to be purposeful and
    more, to yet achieve, to meet and to exceed an
    expectation, even one—to finish what’s begun;
    half-perfection wishing to be whole, to be
    forgiven for attaining less than paradise. But for
    all that, this side is painted with the brush that,
    dipped in heaven’s glory, must in time adorn
    the swale with yellow clover and, today, in dust
    makes manifest the morning stars.


    "The Summer of Going Barefoot"When I was very small,
    and I was very small indeed, and light on tiny
    feet, I found some great, thick, heavy leather
    boots, with soles like Frisbees, and I put them
    on. I often had to carry heavy things, you
    see, or so they seemed to me. I didn’t like to
    feel that I was sinking down into the ground,
    or wet sand at the waterside, or sliding on the
    ice or falling through the snow.

    A summer breeze would blow and tousle
    leaves on maple trees, then make its way to
    me, not stopping to say “By your leave,” but arcing
    almost imperceptibly to lift and sweep away the
    heavy things. Then I’d sit down, right where I was,
    unlace the heavy boots, take off my socks, and
    chase the wind. The load was my responsibility, you
    see, or so it seemed to me. But who can catch the
    wind? Not I. There was no cause for worry, I soon
    realized, and I stopped hurrying and felt how
    free I was and loved the feeling of the sand, like gentle
    hands massaging me. I lay down in a grassy place and
    felt the ground resist and then embrace me, or, maybe,
    the other way around.

    I could have stayed for hours and
    watched as clouds like giant puffballs skidded through
    the sky and seabirds rose and watched, then dove into
    the ocean. Slowly, steadily, the gentle sun caressed
    me on its progress to the far side of the earth. I might
    have slept awhile, for all too soon the sun was
    low, the grass was cold.

    The years flew by. I hadn’t worn my boots or even
    thought about them till the day I felt the weight again. It
    only ached a bit at first, but It grew heavy with alarming
    speed. I needed boots without delay, so I gave everything
    I had away to buy a pair and slip them on. The load became
    so big I couldn’t see where it began or ended. Winters chilled
    my bones without relief, and summer heat bore down, and I
    was sure it was the earth itself that I was carrying. My soles
    were almost bare by now, and I had lost myself.

    One summer day a little bright-eyed bird was perched upon
    the sand, and she, and she alone, seemed sympathetic, so
    together we trudged on a bit, until I almost tripped upon a
    man; he sat so still, and he was so serene, it seemed to me
    that he might give me some advice, so tired was I and so
    dispirited. He smiled and stretched his hands to me; I
    thought that he would take the weight away, but he just tipped
    it till it fell and rolled into the bay and out to sea and disappeared.

    “Now give your boots to me,” he said, but they’d become a part of
    me—so I believed. “Just try,” he said, and I untied them easily and
    peeled them off my feet. “Now fly,” he said. My little bird and I ran
    barefoot down the beach, and laughed to feel the sand and
    see the daylight once again. We turned and waved to
    him, and then we flew away.


    All-engorging, thick with vile effluvium, and
    restive, Night still heaves against the pane and
    probes the porous mortar, thus to gain a
    continent, and breathe again, but holding breath
    within, as if release would leave it spent of form and
    substance, vanished in a photon storm.

    No, to find fragility and penetrate, just as the hungry
    sea assaults the levee where it groans, and swallows up the
    shore—except that Night can but devour and look for
    more, can ebb but not abate, for it is powerless to
    moderate its gluttony, nor would it,
    if it could.

    Anna tosses in her sleep, and if she feels the indolent
    oppression, swollen with its kill, she feels it
    inwardly, and moans, the speech of wan resistance,
    drained of will, a feeble protestation, habit murmuring,
    “I am.” Something in her knows the enemy and would
    arrest it, summoning a name, essaying ownership.
    It rises out of bounds before the net is thrown.

    Bereft of thought and consciousness, it senses
    nonetheless that I alone am here to watch and to
    resist — to fill the lamp until the fuel is gone.

    One forgets at midnight that this too will pass; not even
    Night outlasts the unremitting circle. But at midnight one
    unreasoning expends what has been grown and gathered
    season after season, sacrifices every treasure, throws
    into the flame a hundred fragile artifacts, to gain a moment’s
    clarity. At midnight, friends have settled in and locked their
    doors, oblivious to ghastly appetite, now thickened by the
    certainty that Anna will comply and abdicate her shape, to be a
    pool, a fog, and then evaporate.

    Perhaps she dreams that Night will hide her face and nobody
    will notice that the Anna space, once occupied by negligible
    molecules, is vacant now. But Night and I were taken by
    surprise; we had forgotten that the planet turns. At sunrise,
    the tenacious lamp still burns, and
    Anna sighs.


    In “The Other Side,” I began in frustration, approaching despair, over the orderliness of my sister’s and my daughter’s lives compared to my own chaotic existence. In “The Summer of Going Barefoot,” I work through a spell of depression by recalling the liberation from my first, and most debilitating, depression episode. When I wrote “Anna Sighs,” I was struggling with a demanding, draining, and unsatisfying employment experience, one in which I felt irrelevant and invisible.

    When I began writing these poems, I didn’t know how they would end, except in light. I wasn’t sure how the light would appear — only that I was reaching toward it.

    Assignment 20.1

    Write a poem about one source of emotional turmoil in your life. Your poem should

    • work toward enlightment about, not necessarily resolution of, the tumultuous situation, your feelings about it, and your responsibility for it

    • identify the emotion or the situation metaphorically (For example, if you are stressed beyond endurance by an incorrigible son or daughter, you might be “a blade of grass in the jaws of a wildebeest.”)

    • contain a first-person perspective (that is, there must be an “I” narrator)

    • have a regular, rhythmic meter

    • consist of thirty lines or fewer

    • contain rhyme, though the rhyming need not be at the ends of the lines

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

    * * *




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    Sidebar: Face of America?

    Vitriol in Print

    Senator John McCain

    Senator John McCain

    I searched the Internet for metaphorical characterizations of presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama and got my eyes scorched (metaphorically, of course). What ever happened to, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all”? That was Every Mother’s chastisement, at least back in the 1950s. My own dear mom, were she alive, would primly disapprove of the (metaphorical) vitriol being (metaphorically) hurled at these two remarkable public servants.

    I Googled “John McCain is a” and “Barack Obama is a” to see how the candidates are being represented metaphorically. Of course, I had to wade through a lot of nonsense and nonmetaphorical predicate nominatives: John McCain is a socialist, Barack Obama is a socialist, Barack Obama is an elitist, Barack Obama is a Muslim, John McCain is an old fart, John McCain is a coward, and so forth.

    Hardly anyone had anything nice to say.

    But when we go to our polling places next Tuesday, we will not be voting for a metaphor. We will be voting for a flesh-and-blood human being who might (metaphorically) be the face of America for the next four years. (Three different precincts vote in the church in which I live. Do you think any of these precincts is my precinct? No-o-o-o-o! I have to walk six blocks to Dewey Park!)

    Senator Barack Obama

    Senator Barack Obama

    The literal meaning of maverick, by the way, is “an unbranded range animal (especially a stray calf).” The term originated in 1867, referring to a “‘calf or yearling found without an owner’s brand,’ in allusion to Samuel A. Maverick (1803-70), Texas cattle owner who was negligent in branding his calves. Sense of ‘individualist, unconventional person’ is first recorded 1886, via notion of ‘masterless.'” —Online Etymology Dictionary

    Here’s a sample of my search results (If many of these metaphors were on the mark, I would write in the name of my son-in-law, Paul, as I usually do when there’s no one on the ballot who deserves my vote, as was the case in 2004):

    • John McCain is a maverick
    • John McCain is a corporation’s worst nightmare
    • John McCain is a pirate
    • John McCain is a monster
    • John McCain is a superman
    • John McCain is a Walking Senior Moment
    • John McCain is America
    • Barack Obama is a Mac (and Hillary Clinton is a PC)
    • Barack Obama is a flake
    • Barack Obama is a terrorist’s best friend
    • Barack Obama is a blessing to the USA
    • Barack Obama is a popular Mii
    • Barack Obama is a work of art
    • Barack Obama is a disaster


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    Sidebar: Crisis? What Crisis?

    The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. -Franklin Delano Roosevelt

    Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at Yalta, 1945

    Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at Yalta, 1945

    crisis: c.1425, from Gk. krisis “turning point in a disease” (used as such by Hippocrates and Galen), lit. “judgment,” from krinein “to separate, decide, judge,” from PIE base *krei- “to sieve, discriminate, distinguish” (cf. Gk. krinesthai “to explain;” O.E. hriddel “sieve;” L. cribrum “sieve,” crimen “judgment, crime,” cernere (pp. cretus) “to sift, separate;” O.Ir. criathar, O.Welsh cruitr “sieve;” M.Ir. crich “border, boundary”). Transferred non-medical sense is 1627.

    A Time to Decide

    When my older son, Jack, was 3, he barrelled through an enormous plate-glass window – more of a wall, actually – and emerged unscratched, though we were in Arizona and it was 104 degrees and he was barefoot and wearing shorts and a T-shirt. About two years later, on a balmy Sunday afternoon in April, he had a bit of a tantrum and launched a fist through a window in our dining room and cut his wrist. There was quite a lot of blood, so I called Dr. Cherven at home – you could do that, in Hutchinson, Kansas, in those days – and Dr. Cherven instructed us to meet him at the hospital.

    The Reno County Courthouse, Hutchinson, Kansas

    The Reno County Courthouse, Hutchinson, Kansas

    Both Jack (the window-shattering culprit) and I were terrified, though the hospital was only a five-minute drive from our house. A nurse in the emergency room confirmed that the cut was crisis-worthy, and moments later Dr. Cherven strode in, wearing jeans and a tattered plaid shirt – he had been replacing storm windows with screens in his Victorian house. He scrubbed his hands, picked up Jack’s wrist, wiped away the blood, and uncovered a superficial cut hardly worthy of a Band-Aid. Crisis diffused. More accurately, crisis unmasked. The child had skin like new rubber.

    Parents of active and fearless children learn to be cautious in their use of words such as crisis and emergency. These are volatile terms. When you apply them to situations, particularly those involving loved ones, they are stress-inducing, to say the least. Blood rushes to the heart, which starts pumping like a jogger in subzero temperatures.

    What you need to do then is, you need to breathe evenly and focus on your toes. Seriously. This reminds your body that it has components other than the heart. Merely paying attention to your toes causes blood to flow there, your heart stops pounding in your ears, and you can make a rational decision.

    The origin of the word crisis suggests “time to make a decision,” not “time to panic.” With apologies to anyone who is without genuine necessities due to the current financial climate – food, shelter, medical care, and so forth – an unstable economy is not cause for panic.

    Lord Peter, by John Campbell, 1926

    Lord Peter, by John Campbell, 1926

    I am reminded of Dorothy L. Sayers‘s mystery novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, in which one of the club’s members observes, “I say, you fellows, … here’s another unpleasantness. Penberthy’s shot himself in the library. People ought to have more consideration for the members.” Lord Peter Wimsey, of course, uncovers the murderer (Penberthy did not shoot himself) in his trademark quirky style, unruffled and scrupulously attired throughout.

    Might I suggest that we emulate the British and adopt the practice of understatement? I wish that American journalists would do so… but then, it requires less ink (in newspapers and magazines) and less air time to say “financial crisis” than it would to say “financial unpleasantness.”


    Person, Place, or Thing

    How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

    Free E-Course Lesson 17
    Chapter 7: Metaphorically Speaking
    Part 1: Things That Don’t Go Bump in the Night

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

    Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923)

    [A National Public Radio reporter] said that for some people “Medicare was literally their lifeline.” That is a shocking misuse of literal…. The correct thing to say would be, “Medicare is their virtual lifeline.” [A literal lifeline is]… a rope or a cord on a boat to which sailors can cling to prevent them from falling into the water. [The reporter meant that] Medicare is like a lifeline; it is a figurative lifeline. —From a listener’s letter to, published March 29, 2005

    Baby boomers’ almost comic fear of aging reminds me of that silent movie scene in which Harold Lloyd hangs precariously from the hand of a giant clock, literally pulling time from its moorings [emphasis added by the editor].  —New York Timessyndicated columnist Maureen Dowd, “Recline Yourself, Resign Yourself, You’re Through,” April 13, 2005

    Let us focus for a moment on the difference between literal expressions and nonliteral expressions. By so doing, we will begin to understand how the truth of poetry is genuine and necessary, and we will perhaps not embarrass ourselves by having our grammatical lapses called to the attention of the entire English-speaking public.

    The untidiness of nouns

    How well I remember sitting in Miss McCluskey’s cozy classroom at Dundee Elementary School, wrapped in the schoolroom scents of floor polish, eraser dust, books and paper and Miss McCluskey’s talcum powder, and mesmerized by her passion for parsing sentences. How wonderful to have such power over words, assigning the parts of speech to their proper places in sentences such as “Jane gave the ball to Jim” and “Jane gave Jim the ball.”

    Jane Is Generous

    Figure 1: Jane Is Generous

    It was all so easy then, learning that a noun is “a person, place, or thing,” and the things were always stuff you could handle or eat or touch or see or at least wrap your mind around, like marshmallow, cow, apple, Cincinnati, and Mother.

    Just when you thought you’d mastered the concept, you got promoted to the next grade and they threw stuff at you like this:

    Jane was gripped by excruciating fear.

    Some of my fellow pupils in Miss Rubelman’s class, the future social scientists, actually spared a thought or two for poor Jane and her terror. Why was she so afraid? Was she in an airplane plummeting toward a shark-infested sea? Had her boyfriend, Ned, found out that she was really at the amusement park with Victor when she’d told Ned she was visiting Monique at the hospital? Or was it existential angst wrought by the uncertainties of contemporary society?

    A majority of the class cared nothing about Jane and her problems or about the meaning of excruciating. It was almost time for recess.

    But a few of us had already diagrammed the sentence, as follows: 

    Jane Is Afraid

    Figure 2: Jane Is Afraid

    Gorilla — easy to grasp (metaphorically speaking)

    Gorilla — easy to grasp (metaphorically speaking)

    It was as easy to identify the noun — the object of the preposition by (In this case, fear) — as it would have been if Jane had been gripped by a gorilla. Even so, a noun such as fear — not a person, not a place, not exactly a thing — didn’t fit neatly into the little noun-world we had learned about. Suddenly nouns weren’t so tidy. In fact, the whole noun business got out of hand in a hurry. Nouns could be collective, concrete, countable, uncountable, animate, inanimate, mass, proper, and any number of other things — gerunds, infinitives, and on and on and on.

    This, I believe, is where the entire population of the world separates itself into two groups: (1) people who care about nouns, in any form, as well as verbs and conjunctions and subordinate clauses, and (2) people who realize that it’s just going to get more complicated from here on out and it’s probably time to become interested in the opposite sex. I, alas, was One who Cared.

    The people who want to know more about the subjunctive mood, and why “if he were at the party” is different from “if he was at the party”; the people to whom it matters whether to use which or that, as in “It was the pollen that made my eyes water, not the mold, which makes me sneeze” — these people study Latin because verb conjugations aren’t enough for them, they want noun declensions too. These people are doomed to forever probe the Nature of Things, if for no other reason than to line them up in sentence diagrams.

    These people eventually become English majors. You read about them in the newspapers, running their cars off the road while proofreading billboards: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette shou—!” And as the EMTs carry the crash victim’s mangled body to the ambulance, he or she moans, “As a cigarette should. Not like a cigarette should….”

    But this would come later. In elementary school, the future English majors/car-crash survivors were reveling in our discoveries about nouns. A noun could actually be not just a single word —

          Jane found a cat

    — but a whole bunch of words: clauses, clauses within clauses, entire sentences containing three or four prepositional phrases

    Jane found a haunted house in which lived a family of lizards that could speak in Cantonese

    Better yet, nouns could be things that weren’t items but were instead ideas, feelings, concepts, and other intangibles — “things” that can’t be touched, seen, smelled, tasted, or heard. Instead of thinking about her cat, Jane might be thinking about…

    …the dichotomy of good and evil
    …a method of separating egg whites and yolks
    …her future as a thoracic surgeon
    …her desire to throttle her little brother

    The nouns dichotomy, good, evil, separating (here, a gerund), method, future, and desire describe “things” — real, actual, important things — that cannot be discerned by the five physical senses.

    The five senses: their usefulness and their limitations

    We depend so keenly on the five physical senses that the absence of any one of them is tragic. We pity the blind and the deaf, and those whose sense of touch is lost through paralysis.

    The senses of taste and smell are less important; we don’t depend on them for survival, as our primitive ancestors might have. Most of us buy our mushrooms at the grocery store and get our drinking water out of a tap or a bottle. We trust that the grocery-store people don’t stock poisonous mushrooms and that Evian water is pure and clean. Most of the time, our assumptions are justified.

    There are people in this world who have virtually lost the use of all five senses and have yet managed to convey the rich, internal, spiritual life they are experiencing. Such people are rare, and few of us would voluntarily surrender any of our five senses as a path to spiritual purification. Certain individuals do, however, practice sensory deprivation — on purpose — by spending days or weeks in caves. Sometimes the reason for this isolation is to develop what the practitioners consider “spiritual senses” — ways of perceiving that are independent of the five physical senses.

    I hope that you’ll be able to grasp this concept in the comfort of your home. Cave-dwelling isn’t for everyone. There are inconveniences, such as, for example, the proximity of bats.

    My apartment is in an active ninety-year-old church, which is clean and well kept, with modern offices and classrooms and a magnificent sanctuary. But all of us here deal with the occasional bat. People will be chatting in hallways or gathering in their classes when — inexplicably to the clueless observer — everyone screams and runs in some random direction, inevitably smashing into each other in their panic. Bats can be very startling.

    This is especially true if a couple of them fly out from behind your shower while you are showering in it. It’s even worse if the bathroom door is closed and they keep flying around in that erratic sonar-guided way they have, so that you have no idea where they’ll end up or which way to dodge. I speak from experience. One minute I was showering, the next I was naked in the living room, having gotten there without traversing the distance in between, making me the only human being who has ever, literally, made a quantum leap.

    As useful and necessary as the physical senses may be for informing you of the presence of bats, they (the senses, and no doubt the bats as well) are incapable of perceiving abstractions — intangible things — ideas, beliefs, and emotions such as fear, love, happiness, and disgust, as illustrated in Table 1.


    Table 1: Yuck

    Sometimes people make the mistake of classifying tangible things as real and intangibles as unreal. A parent will comfort a child who wakes up in the night, frightened by a dream or an unexplained noise, by saying, “It’s all right. It was only a dream,” or, “It was only your imagination.” Yet it is these intangibles — imagination, dreams, and others, such as love and vengeance — that propel us through life.

    All language is, of course, metaphor. A word is only a symbol of the thing or action it represents. And, as we shall discover, virtually every word in every language — even conjunctions and prepositions — originates in metaphor.

    Lesson 17.1 Assignment

    Find at least ten examples of metaphors in this lesson. E-mail your finished assignment to Your work will not be graded, but I will return it to you with comments.


    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 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

    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.


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


    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 (

    Anne Lamott (

    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


    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….”


    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

    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”)


    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….”


    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,, accessed May 20, 2008

    Next: If Only I’d Gone to Parma


    Sidebar: Profanity Revisited


    "Just the Facts, Ma'am"

    Sergeant Joe Friday (Jack Webb): "Just the Facts, Ma'am"

    On June 10, I wrote in this blog about justifiable uses of the F-word, occasioned by a late-night intrusion of my apartment and a half-hearted attempt to intrude on my personal self. All’s well that ends well (Shakespeare), and I was only superficially scarred physically and not at all damaged emotionally. I’m pretty sure. Although it shook me up a bit when somebody rang my doorbell, repeatedly, at about 5:30 this morning and refused to identify him- or herself.

    In any case, police detectives have questioned and requestioned me, and at this moment I am looking at a “Victim Profile Sheet” that I’m supposed to fill out. Whoever put together this “Victim Profile Sheet” has, you might say, precarious command of the English language:

    ♦ JUST BEFORE THE INCIDENT — What were you doing? ie. walking, running, came home from work, etc.

    There are several questions about my residence— “Is residence and entryway visible from the street?” “Is residence on alley?” “Multi-level?”

    Here’s the one that has me scratching my head:

    ♦ Is residence indoors?

    Is that a gentle way of asking whether I am homeless? Or do they want to know if I live on the roof?

    I’m tempted to editorialize on my “Victim Profile Sheet,” but the likely response would be: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”