Tag Archives: wordplay

Calling the Poem: 12. ‘Memorableness’

That* for an idea, for an idea’s transmission.
But that isn’t poetry. Poetry’s mission
is memory – every quick trick of the tongue
to give ear-to-mouth memory,
words sung and strung
from an ear to an ear,
bearing clear repetition,
not just the idea,
but the idea’s expression,
silk wrapping the emery –
rhythm and rhyme,
form, pattern, compression,
feet, movements, beat, time,
iter-, reiter- and alliteration,
sense, nonsense and assonance, insinuation,
barbs and allusions,
hooks, jokes and confusions,
directions, inflections, creating connections…
So memory favours your chanting, reciting,
enchanting beyond all mere reading and writing –
and magicking into the mind of forever.
You’ve taken control of poetic endeavour.

*****

*The first word, “That”, is referring back to the previous poem in the e-chapbook’s sequence, dealing with the process of obtaining the thoughts and ideas for a poem. This poem shifts the focus to the wordsmithing that makes a poem word-for-word memorable, memorisable, repeatable, recitable.

Consider the pieces of verse that are easiest for you, personally, to recite… nursery rhymes, passages of Shakespeare, bits of Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, quatrains from FitzGerald’s ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’, an Emily Dickinson or Edward Lear poem?

Then consider how many prose passages of similar length you can recite – perhaps a Bible passage or part of Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address‘? There will be some, prose passages you have heard many, many times. But poetry is going to win out over prose by number of pieces, length of pieces, and accuracy, because poetry is deliberately uses a variety of tricks that make memorisation as easy as possible.

Poetry is not just the idea but also, essentially, the idea’s expression.

Photo: “Maori Chant” by pietroizzo is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Review: ‘By Heart – 101 poems to remember’, ed. Ted Hughes

This book’s theme is the memorisation of poems, and there are things I like and things I don’t like about both Ted Hughes’ introduction to the subject and the 101 poems that he has chosen.

First, the introduction. I like that it encourages people to learn poems by heart. But although the book’s title is ‘By Heart‘, Hughes instead teaches ‘by head’. His method is extremely cerebral, using the kind of image-association-chain taught by neuro-linguisitic program consultants to help you remember the names of business associates and clients. Hughes would have you construct a Cumberbatch-Sherlock Holmes ‘mind palace’. Taking Hopkins’ poem ‘Inversnaid’ as an example, Hughes explains that the opening lines
This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
can be dealt with as follows:
For ‘peaty burn’ it might be enough simply to imagine, like a frame in a colour film, a dark torrential mountain stream coming down among boulders. But to make sure it is ‘burn’ and not ‘stream’ that you remember, it might be better to imagine the stream actually burning, sending up flames and smoke: a cascade of dark fire, scorching the banks. The next item, ‘brown horse’, now has to be connected to the burning stream. The most obvious short-cut is to put the horse in the torrent of fire, trying to scramble out – possibly with its mane in flames.
He then goes on to connect it to the horse causing an avalanche (rollrock highroad) which comes down on a lion (roaring down), and so on.

My difficulty with all this is that the images he is creating are simply not what the poem is about. When Hopkins writes ‘burn’ meaning stream, it’s not appropriate to set it on fire. Of course the poem summons up images, and they are useful for memorizing… but for godssake, why not think of it as a Scottish stream rather than setting it on fire? The burn is brown and in spate, and rocks are rolling down it and it makes a roaring noise – and that is the picture you can hold in your head as you recite Hopkins’ lovely rich words, without having to involve fires, animals and avalanches.

It seems to me that Hughes is in danger of losing the beauty of the actual poem by going through his ‘mind palace’ activities. He appears to be reducing the memorisation of poetry to a party trick, performed at the expense of the poem itself. If he didn’t love the poem for its actual imagery, what did he love it for? When he memorised a poem, did he check it off and then forget it? Wouldn’t all the peripheral imagery have gotten in the way when he tried to recite the poem a few decades later? Better and safer to my mind to stay with the essential images and the richness of the language, rather than setting fire to a stream because the poet uses the word ‘burn’.

And this leads in to my thoughts about the selection of the 101 poems to be learnt by heart. Auden, Blake, Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Wordsworth and Yeats each get at least five poems, and Shakespeare over a dozen. The less-represented poets are a wider mix, from John Betjeman to Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Lewis Carroll… The poems themselves are interesting, and many of them are perfect for memorising, so it is a worthwhile read.

But I don’t think it appropriate to waste five or six pages on the 130 or 170 lines of Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ or Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’. Perhaps Ted Hughes learnt those two along with Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ and Wordsworth’s ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’, but the latter two are far more suitable than the former for a book that is meant to encourage others to achieve memorisation.

Again, most of the poems are good for learning by heart, but too many of them have none of the qualities that make it easy to learn poetry in English: rhyme, metre, alliteration, wordplay. William Empson’s translation of the Japanese poem ‘From the Small Bird to the Big’ is interesting, but inappropriate for this book. The same goes for Pound’s ‘The Return’ and Eliot’s ‘Marina’ – inappropriate because they are missing the music, the song-like qualities, that make memorisation easy. Easy, that is, if you are learning by heart, as the book’s title requires.

Epigram: ‘Bit with Bite’

I think I’ve blinked
At what you write:
Edgy, succinct–
A bit with bite.

This is in the spirit of a homage to The Asses of Parnassus, in which the poem found a home. Editor Brooke Clark has created a tumblr account that for the past few years has been posting “Short, witty, formal poems” on an occasional (i.e. erratic) basis, much in the spirit of Latin and Greek epigrams (and often translations of them, or modern retellings).

This poem itself is not particularly noteworthy – but I enjoyed rhyming ‘blinked’ with ‘succinct’, as well as the ‘think/blink’ and ‘bit/bite’ pairings. Wordplay is at the heart of poetry, from Anglo-Saxon alliteration to modern rap, from nursery rhymes to Shakespearean sonnets. Wordplay is memorable, and sharpens the pain of an epigrammatic jab. Use it, if you want your barbs to be effective.

Odd poem: Samuel Johnson on wordplay

If I were to be punishèd
For every pun I shed
There would be no puny shed
For my punnish head.

Strictly speaking, of course, this isn’t a poem–it was merely an apparently spontaneous reply (but how many “spontaneous” remarks have been thought of and prepared in advance?)

The story was told in the following way:– “Sir,” said Johnson, “I hate a pun. A man who would perpetrate a pun would have little hesitation in picking a pocket.” Upon this Boswell hinted that his “illustrious” friend’s dislike to this species of small wit might arise from his inability to play upon words. “Sir,” roared Johnson, “if I were punishèd for every pun I shed, there would not be left a puny shed of my punnish head.”

The moral of the story was presumably for Boswell and others to guard their possessions when Doctor Johnson was around…

“statue of Samuel Johnson outside St Clement Danes Church” by ell brown is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Short Poem: ‘The Logophile Picks a Fight’

By the spots of shame with which your life is spattered,
Your position, sir, is grossly overmattered –
Overmattered, sir, or greatly undermined;
And I cannot help but find
That the lot of humankind
Would be bettered, not embittered, were you battered!

After having kicked around for years, this short piece–which has no purpose other than wordplay–finally got an explanatory title (instead of just the first few words) and was published in this month’s Lighten-Up Online in the section ‘Words, Words, Words’. Thanks, Jerome Betts!

Photo: “Picking a fight for net neutrality #ind12” by Kalexanderson is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Photo has been cropped.

Odd poem: Mathematical limerick by Leigh Mercer

That may not look like a limerick to you, but if you read correctly it can be!

A dozen, a gross, and a score
Plus three times the square root of four
Divided by seven
Plus five times eleven
Is nine squared and not a bit more.

Leigh Mercer was a very odd character. Born the son of a Church of England pastor in 1893, he said “I have been taught to regard myself as the fool of the family, a professional ne’er-do-well.” From 1910 to 1959 he held between 60 and 85 different jobs: in the engineering shops of 30 motor car companies including Rolls-Royce and Ford, as a nurse to a wealthy invalid, as a Post Office Savings Bank clerk, a pavement artist, a carnival sideshow assistant, an English tutor in Paris…

He loved puzzles and wordplay, especially palindromes. He is best known for creating “A man, a plan, a canal – Panama.” There is an 8-page biography of him here, including 100 palindromes. Leigh Mercer died in 1977.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Max Gutmann, “Onset”

Max Gutmann

Max Gutmann

ONSET

Remember with my sitting parents I
at napkins red with cloth a table high
things struggling out to figure how these thin
(which home I knew at bags came plastic in)
potatoes were, and hamburger my how
to a connection have could any cow.

Twist change and blithely we our world: we light
and pave like soft, good day the earth, the night.
We wonder so that find what easy it
twist well ourselves as to? We still can sit
for desks behind long money hours for bland
and nation hate on any can command.

Hard shapes for make can strange it us our new
recall in shapes the which we born were to.

Max Gutmann writes: “Onset is probably my most unusual poem, and it tends to inspire strong reactions. In an online competition, it was the favorite of the host, a well-published poet I respect, who commented that she could see it becoming widely anthologized, and it came close to being the readers’ top choice. At the same time, it got far and away the greatest number of negative comments, some of them pretty strong. That combination of reactions is something I’ve been proud of ever since.

The host’s anthology prediction hasn’t come to pass, but Onset is, at long last, forthcoming–in Raintown Review.”

Under the pseudonym Noam D. Plum, Max Gutmann has published in The Spectator, The Country Mouse, Light Quarterly, and elsewhere including, of course, in the Potcake Chapbook Wordplayful. Having won two $500 prizes, as well as some smaller ones, Noam is a more successful breadwinner than the man for whom he fronts.

Given the mental gymnastic similarities between Noam’s Preopr Splelnig and Max’s Onset, however, I think it is reasonable to treat the poets as the same writer… You can see more of his work at https://www.maxgutmann.com/