Tuesday, February 7, 2023

O Tempo, O Morae!

 On the Nature of Poetry

Had poetry no nature,
How would you know
You had written one?

And yes, the title of today's post is a pun on Cicero's famous epigram, "O tempora, o mores."

TOF once heard a member of a writers group explain that she did not wish to be confined by rules, and so her poem fell into no particular pattern, But then how do we know it was a poem rather than some perhaps pithy prose lopped into lines? That is called Advertising Copy, in whuch "Eat at Joe's. Open all night.: becomes

At Joe's
Open all night.
(Which actually does have a pattern. It is a doubling of syllables: 1-2-4.)

The Art of poetry consists not of gushing thoughts -- nothing gushy about Beowulf -- but of patterns of sounds. It is the ability of the artisan to express those thoughts, gushy or not, within constraints. Poetry without the form is like tennis without the net.The oomph depends on the thought rather than on how it is expressed. And most of our thoughts,,, Well, Faithful Reader may complete that thought. 

Pitter Pattern

If poetry is patterned sound, what are the patterns?

That depends on the sounds. Each language has its own grace and beauty, and the best forms take advantage of this. That is why haiku are so prototypically Japanese and come awkwardly to English-speaking lips. In Japanese, there is no strong stress and the pattern emerges from the rhythm of the syllables, English OTOH has very strong stresses, and the poetry come from the "beat." Think of Robert Browning's poem "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix."

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;

 in which the beat invokes galloping horses Or Kipling's "In the Neolithic Age"

In the Neolithic Age savage warfare did I wage
  For food and fame and woolly horses' pelt.
I was singer to my clan in that dim, red Dawn of Man,
     And I sang of all we fought and feared and felt. 

in which the rollicking, singing beat evokes the music hall, building to last lines

Here's my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
  And the reindeer roamed where Paris roars to-night:—
"There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,

which is to say that there is no one pattern for poetry. A version sung by the great Leslie Fish skips a verse or two and changes a now-obscure reference, but indicates how poetry should be sung aloud.

Different languages find oatters differently. Ancient Greek found its groove in the pattern of long and short syllables, as in the opening of the Iliad:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
5οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι,

which translates as

Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus,
destructive as it was, which gave the Achaeans much grief;
and it hurled down to Hades many strong souls
of heroes, and made them spoils for the dogs
and every bird;

It's hard to see the poetry there, because it is not the bumpity-bump of English, but the aa-a-aa of ancient Greek. The translation looks like free verse1 

I modified this as a template for the opening of In the Lion's Mouth 

Sing, O harper, the anger of Donovan buigh,
That graced us all with boundless grief,
And left brave men a prey to dogs and kites
As we foresaw upon that fateful day
When Donovan buigh and Those of Name
First fell out.

but it incorporates elements of English poetry -- note the alliterations and rhythm. 

Greek 'quantitative; poetry' was prestigious enough that when the Romans wrote their own epic, they tried the same gimmick, even though the native lilt of Latin lay elsewhere. Virgil famously opens the Aeneid with these lines

Arma virumque canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs
Ītaliam, fātō profugus, Lāvīniaque vēnit
lītora, multum ille et terrīs iactātus et altō
vī superum saevae memorem Iūnōnis ob īram;

I sing of arms and the man, he who, exiled by fate,
first came from the coast of Troy to Italy, and to
Lavinian shores – hurled about endlessly by land and sea,
by the will of the gods, by cruel Juno’s remorseless anger,

Latin has the property that the endings of words tell us what English tells us with prepositions and word order. Hence, the words can be arranged for poetic effect, laying out the long and short syllables to the pattern. The first line literally reads

arms-(of) man-(and) sing-(I), Troy-(of) who first from coast,

We know ab ōrīs (from coast) applies to Troy, not Italy, because Trōiae is in the genitive and Ītaliam is in the accusative. Not until we get to qui do we get the subject of the subordinate clause, which we recognize because it is in the nominative case, (The subject of the main clause =I= lurks in the suffix of cano.)

Browbeating English   Submit ye Saxons

The Latinate grammarians of post-Renaissance England kept trying to shoehorn the feet of English into the boot of Latin. They couldn't manage it with the long and short syllables because English lengthens her vowels by ablauting, not by holding the sound for two beats [morae] instead of one as Greek and Latin did. So the classical meters were reinterpreted as heavy and light stress instead. An iamb was originally a-aa, short-long. In English, this became ba-BOOM, light stress-heavy stress.

But when we look at Old English, we see that Anglo-Saxon poetry used alliteration for its pattern-making. The line is broken in two with a pause between and the same consonants are repeated. In Beowulf, for example:

Hwæt. We Gardena    in geardagum,
þeodcyninga,    þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas    ellen fremedon.

Seamus Heaney tried to keep much of this in his English translation. [It takes an Irishman to properly translate Anglo-Saxon poetry into English!]

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

It's Time to Rhyme

Late Latin poetry turned to rhyme and therefore classicists insisted that English poetry ought to rhyme as well. This is easy to do in Latin, since standardized case endings provided ready-made rhymes.

Tantum ergo sacramentum
veneremur cernui
et antiquum documentum
novo cedat ritui
praestet fides supplementum
sensuum defectui
Rhyming is much harder in English than in Latin, which is why it requires greater art to pull it off in English. Done poorly, unless for humorous effect, it becomes doggeral, especially if dome in a thumping beat. Hence, many would-be poets resort to blank verse ir even free verse, It seems easuer; but we can do those poorly as well.

The confluence of rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration provides a rich bouillabaisse, with a variety of rhyme schemes and rhythm meters. Larger forms, like ballads, sonnets, epics, and the like are also available, Then there are forms that use patterns of repeated words (sestina) or whole repeated sentences (villanelle), such as Dylan Thomas, "Do not go gentle into that good night."

.TOF once attempted a sestina and wrestled with it until it had defeated him. He failed to alter the meanings of the repeated words each time they appeared. Presented for your horror and disgust: 

Though finer points of their philosophy may prove obscure

Alas we seem alone; no other mind takes form
On this fair Earth – nor any other place
That eye can see or instruments appraise.
From distant stars no missives we receive.
As if in that vast vacuum no soul
Abides save only those we call our own.

Such life, we’re told, will be unlike our own;
That’s true for trivia: species, body, form,
Appetites and senses foreign to our soul.
(What lusts do bats endure when squeaks they place,
What pleasures due to echoes they receive?
Our minds cannot conceive what bats appraise.) 

But not unlike entire, for kinship we appraise
Beneath those accidents they call their own:
They too preserve, perfect what they receive.
(The struggle to survive is higher form
Of that by which a boulder holds its place.
Inertia is but life deprived of soul.)

They will pursue the good known to their soul,
Whatever good it is that they appraise
In foreign far-flung interstellar place.
Survival’s urge is much alike our own,
Though executed through some other form:
Those powers and appetites that they receive.

Do bats admire the echoes they receive?
Do certain sounds enrich their very soul?
What drives impel the unfamiliar form
On distant stars we do not yet appraise?
Far from and yet alike unto our own
They are, no matter where their outré place.

And what awaits, would we fare to their place
Or they to ours? What welcome to receive?
A sister mind? A tasty snack? A pet to own?
It all depends on what completes their soul
And how both good and ill they do appraise.
When seeing us, what image do they form?

A place within each soul
Receives and does appraise
Its own and other’s form.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Ode to the Hog of Grounding


On Groundhog Day, the rodent sees
His shadow on the ground then flees
Back to his burrow, safe and sound,
And so Winter hangs around.
(Or is it SHE? Die Deitsche say
GrundSAUsdag all on that day.)
Hence, the paradox. O'ercast skies
Cast no shadows when rodents rise;
And so announce the coming spring
With all the pleasures rodents bring.
Burma Shave!

Thursday, January 19, 2023


 Recently, TOF happened upon the following list of words to avoid in one's scrivening and thought to share it with his Faithful Reader. The original YouTuber was unbearably chatty and triggers one of TOF's Pet Peeves [vide infra], so he will not actually link it here. However, a few comments may be in order. 

First, at the risk of falling into the Spanish Barber Paradox, TOF will state the First Unbreakable Law of Writing; viz., There are no unbreakable laws. IOW, each of these shunwords may find a seat at your verbal table, "if God be willing and the creeks don't rise." Foremost among these occasions is dialogue, where any sort of verbal infelicity may be allowable as a means of characterization.

Second, you should shun these words because they usually weaken or distance your prose or add bulk without adding value. The OP kept saying "passive vice," which was TOF's Peeve. She meant passivity as such, not specifically the passive voice. The latter is a particular grammatical form in the conjugation of verbs. It should indeed be eschewed, save in scientific papers, where it has been customary, and in TOF's blog, for its arch flavor.

Third, the list is neither magical nor proprietary. TOF is neither the first nor will he be the last to take note of them. Nor is the list epistemically closed. The Reader may append other words should he be so inclined.

The List [in order alphabetical]

  • definitely 

You should definitely shun this word. (See what I did there? Nyuk-nyuk.) Nothing is lost were TOF to have written instead "You should shun this word." It is one of a family of shunwords that includes actually, really, very, and similar general intensifiers (vide infra). In the sentence

Betsy was definitely worried.
omitting the intensifier loses nothing:
Betsy was worried
  •  is/was
But it's still not quite there. The OP called this "passive voice," but the criminal act here is telling rather than showing. Dropping the word "definitely" still  leaves the sentence flaccid.  Is/was is a colorless word. Other verbs may serve. Instead, the writer should show us Betsy being worried:

Betsy fiddled with the bottles on the sideboard, casting quick glances over her shoulder toward the door. Once, hearing footsteps in the hallway, she muffled the clinking of the bottles and held her breath until the footsteps continued on their way.
  • just
This word is just unnecessary in most cases. It is the literary equivalence of filler, adding bulk without adding value.
  • seem
"Seem" is a wimpy word.
The dark corridor seemed ominous.
First, to whom does it seem so? Second, is the corridor ominous or not. This is like "was." It doesn't say anything. "Seem" might be okay to use in portraying a POV for a character, but there are usually better ways to make the point. Show the corridor in such a way as to make the Reader feel it, 
The corridor loomed dark before her. A draft wafted through it coaxing a low moan from the walls. Somewhere in the darkness a door creaked.
  • somehow
Another wimpy word. Don't tell us a thing somehow happened. Show us how it did happen. Or else in POV how it reflects the character's ignorance. 
Somehow, Betsy found herself walking down that corridor. 
Really? I bet
Summoning her last scrap of courage, Betsy walked down the corridor.
  • somewhat/slightly 
More wimpery! Compare:
Betsy was slightly afraid.
Betsy was afraid.
Betsy's trembling diminished with each step, but never ceased entirely.
  • start
 Do not start doing something; just do it, Compare:
Betsy started to walk down the dark corridor.
Betsy walked down the dark corridor.
  • then
Betsy took a deep breath then stepped into the darkened hallway.
The Reader is no doubt already familiar with the usual passage of time. There is no need to tell him that after one thing happens, then another happens. 
Taking a deep breath Betsy stepped into the darkened hallway.
  • very/really
These words fall into the family of general intensifiers (cf. definitely, supra). It is almost always better to find a more intense word simpliciter. For example, change:
The vampire's teeth were very sharp.
The vampire's teeth were nails piercing her neck,
Or change
Gareth spoke in a really loud voice.
What, compared to a fake loud voice? Try
Gareth shouted.

Passive Voice

Sometimes more than a word ought be shunned, but a construction. Passive Voice is an example. In fiction, the passive voice wimps out because it evicts the actor from the subject slot and replaces it with the recipient. In the active voice, an actor does a thing. In the passive voice, a thing is done (by an actor). The actor is oft omitted, too. Compare:
Active voice:  The parched vampire drained Betsy's blood. 
Here, the vampire is the actor and the subject of the sentence.
Passive voice: Betsy's blood was drained [by the parched vampire] 
In this version, the recipient of the act [Betsy's blood] is made the subject of the sentence, and the actor [the vampire] is exiled to a modifying phrase, to cower behind a preposition.
Passive voice is not mere passivity. Betsy is inactive in the blood-draining. It is the structure of the sentence that distances the Reader from the narrative.

Overkill sentences

Another macroshun is the extra sentence at the end of a paragraph.
The frigate rotated slowly on her long axis as she orbited the Moon. The melted rent down her side marked where a laser cannon had opened her interior to the vacuum. A debris cloud surrounded the wreck, and fitful sparks flashed in the oxygen outgassing from her fittings. No one answered our hails.  The ship was utterly destroyed.
Oh, was she now? No fooling? You mean Faithful Reader couldn't pick up on that from the description? The last sentence in that passage should be utterly destroyed.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

The Secret of Western Dominance

 What do the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Dodgers, a steel mill, and a chapel of Benedictine nuns have in common? 

Nothing more or less than the rise of the West from a backwater to a formerly dominant position in the world -- as well as her later decay. 

There are any number of factors that contributed. For example, the specific shoreline of Western Europe, her broad continental shelf, the winds and currents of the Atlantic, the freedom of women, etc. No big thing in history has a single causal factor. 

But what of the Philharmonic, Dodgers , et al.?

The playing of a symphony [or similar work] requires 1st and 2nd Violins, Violas, Cellos, Double Basses, Flutes, Clarinets, Oboes, Bassoons, French Horns, Trumpets, Trombones, and others each  playing a different line of music and yet producing a coordinated whole. The Dodgers require pitchers, catchers, 1st basemen, 2nd basemen, shortstops, third basemen, and sundry outfielders each doing his own thing, yet playing together toward a harmonious outcome. The same can be said of the crane operators, puddlers, millwrights, chemists, metallurgists, inspectors, mechanics, accountants, salesmen, managers, et al. who comprise the steel mill; not to mention the sundry voices that comprise a choir. 


A key invention of medieval Christendom was polyphony, in which several voices in a choir sang different lines which combined harmoniously and contrapuntally into a whole. This mentality informed the newfangled "corporate persons," like universities and guilds, which also featured different people doing different things that combined into a whole. The modern corporation is an example of such communal enterprise. So s an orchestra or a team sport. Teamwork and coordinated disparate roles were a key factor in the rise of the West. It's one of the reasons, the West entered the middle ages a follower but emerged as a leader.


Other cultures were quite adept at top-down, not so accomplished at bottom-up. An Indian raga played on the sitar is a masterpiece of virtuosity. The melodic lines are complex and the development subtle and intricate; but the only second voice is that of the rhythm beat of the tabla, and that is more like an accompanist than a colleague. There were no orchestras in India -- or in China, Japan, or the House of Submission. There were no corporations. Team sports like polo were more like a bunch of guys all trying to do the same thing than a variety of different roles all trying to do different things, but in a coordinated manner. Likewise, communal singing is not polyphonic if everyone is trying to sing the same melody.

As the rest of the world picked up on corporate effort, they began also to excel. One finds orchestras everywhere. Japan fields excellent baseball teams; India, outstanding cricket teams. Japan organized world-class industrial corporations; India has begun to do so now that the "red tape Raj" has been trimmed back.

But of late, Western music has been subsiding into noise. After a polyphonic heyday that gave us the Mmas and the Papas in popular tunes, the blending of multiple voices has shed first counterpoint, then harmony, and finally melody, so that we are left with mere rhythm. The coordination of disparate voices in parliaments and congresses has faded into a search for a Leader who, like the One Man of China, the rajah or the emir, or the Emperor of Rome, can guide us out of our troubles. We have begun to put our faith into autocracy rather than group effort.

O Tempo, O Morae!

  On the Nature of Poetry Had poetry no nature, How would you know You had written one? And yes, the title of today's post is a pun on C...