Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

A Child’s Song

©2016 By Bob Litton

¶Can you play this? I’m serious, because I composed it and yet can’t play it. 

in-my-sleep-p-1

in-my-sleep-p-2

¶Of course those two sentences above require some explanation. You see, I was ten years old when I submitted the lyrics to a poetry contest jointly sponsored by the Dallas Independent School District and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. At the time, 1951, Walter Hendl was music director of the DSO; and he was an enthusiastic promoter of children’s music programs.
¶Our music teacher, a young woman whose name I don’t recall, announced the opening of the contest and gave us the rules for it. The competition was divided into two parts. The first was to write a poem about one of five subjects: homeland, school, play…and I forget the remaining two. The second contest was to compose music for the winning poem.
¶Now is the time for a bit of full disclosure. I couldn’t read music; nor could I play an instrument, even though I had a guitar my father had bought for me, and took a couple of lessons from a man who tried to switch me to the violin. I did enjoy listening to the popular music of the day, but my only acquaintance with classical music came from listening to the themes of radio shows such as “The Lone Ranger”, “The Shadow”, “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon”, etc. And I wasn’t even aware that those themes were not composed for the radio shows but were instead segments from famous classical music compositions. I didn’t even know what classical music as a “genre” was.
¶However, I often wrote little two-page stories which I also illustrated, so writing and drawing were already “in my blood”. I still find it odd then that one or two days after I heard the announcement for the contest, I busied myself in art class not with drawing anything but with writing a poem on a large sheet of manila paper, with crayons. I think now that I actually believed that the variety of colors would give me an edge in the contest.
¶Several weeks later, the music teacher informed me that I had won the poetry contest. Now I was faced with the ordeal, for me, of trying to contrive some music for it. At the end of the school day, the teacher sat at the piano, with my poem and a sheet of music paper before her, while I stood by a corner of the piano feeling like an idiot. I don’t recall how she managed to lure some tune out of me, but she did and scored it; and the result is what you see above.
¶After a few weeks had passed, my music teacher informed me that the contest judges had considered my music as “too jazzy”. That surprised me because, although I too viewed the music as too lively, in places, for its theme, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could see it as “jazzy”. However, I wasn’t crestfallen, for I hadn’t been very fond of my melodic result either.
¶ Fortunately, a fifth grade class at a school clear across town, in Oak Cliff, won the music composition part of the contest. When I heard their music set to my lyrics I was very much pleased with it. Although that class was credited with composing the music as a group, I supposed that the actual composer was the little girl who waited in a stage wing with me; we walked out on the stage together at Maestro Hendl’s invitation. That was a big day in my life, at Southern Methodist University’s McFarlin auditorium, hearing the DSO play the music and children from schools all over Dallas sing my lyrics.
¶I carried that music among all my other belongings for most of my adult life. Three times I asked friends who were adepts on the piano to play my version of the song for me. They tried but gave up. Too easily? I don’t feel qualified to say. Once, I called the DSO office and asked if they might have the “Oak Cliff version” in their archive, but the woman on the other end of the line acted as though she thought I must be some kind of a nut and said they don’t retain stuff like that.
¶One day a couple of years ago, I got disgusted because the music is way below par and apparently unplayable. I tore up the sheet music; but I keyed the lyrics into my computer, so it was not lost entirely. (Well, actually they  were pretty much embedded in my memory, but at my age memory is not a very reliable repository.) Recently, an acquaintance of mine in Dallas informed me that, while reorganizing her files she had noticed a photocopy of “In My Sleep”, and asked me if I wanted it. “Certainly!” I said, and she sent it to me.
¶Now, since the lyrics are slightly difficult to read in the photos above, I will present them here:

When the clouds have hurried by,
And the evening moon is nigh,
To my bed I fairly fly,
And there I sleepy lie.
Castles of dreams come into sight,
Lands of wonder every night.
To the many lands I go,
To bold deeds long ago.
Dreams of battles and marching soldiers,
Story books and picture folders,
Dreams of cowboys and painted Indians,
Pirates and sailors and Mounted Canadians.
I never fuss; I never weep
When I must go to bed to and sleep.

¶Obviously, the song is more descriptive of a boy’s day-dream than of something he is likely to experience in his sleep. Let’s just grant it the excuse of “poetic license”.

Finis

Shop Talk: Our Changing Language

© 2016 By Bob Litton > All Rights Reserved (except for quoted passages).

All right, I admit: I am consistent only in my inconsistency. That might explain why I am back into my blog, at least for this post about my native language. I consider it to be that important.

This morning I listened to WBUR.org.’s Tom Ashbrook — the regular host of the weekday “On Point” program — interview linguist John McWhorter, of Columbia University, about how the English language is constantly “morphing” (not “evolving”) and how we should accept the sometimes disconcerting changes as natural. I tried about half a dozen times to phone in and offer my input but each time got a busy signal, so I gave up. As an alternative approach, I am resuming the chair in front of my dormant blog.

As a former working journalist and sometime teacher of English composition, I have feelings about English grammar and expression just as fervid as my feelings about democracy. Discussions about either one cause me to grab my sword and buckler, figuratively speaking.

One of the offerings I had in store for Ashbrook and McWhorter was to assert that while it is true that, as McWhorter said, our grammar and spelling became crystallized in the 18th Century through such efforts as Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, most of the subsequent deviations from the “rules” were actually sensible gestations attributable to easier pronunciation and reading comprehension. Former crimes like the use of such terms as “ain’t” as a contraction for “am not” (have you ever tried to say “amn’t”?), the beginning of sentences with “But”, and the ending of sentences with a preposition have now become established as acceptable in general communication, although they are still considered Nonstandard (U.S.) or Informal (U.K.) in academic, professional and business papers.

Another influence on the development of our language was the employment of Latin grammatical structure and definitions by our pioneering grammarians. Unlike McWhorter and his cohorts, I appreciate the historical efforts to maintain the rules of Latin grammar, even though those rules are not entirely symbiotic to English. In its early centuries, English was just as inflected as Latin:the uses of its words were determined by orthography, not by position in the sentence as they are now. The result of our language’s pupation is that now we have to be taught explicitly not only the case names but how and where they are to be used in sentences.

Most of us literary types, regardless of how tolerant we might consider ourselves, still retain, I believe, prejudices toward grammatical infractions. One fault which McWhorter dwelt upon that particularly irritates me, but which he finds perfectly acceptable, is the confusion of cases in pronouns. His example was the use of “me” (the objective case) as the subject of a sentence, a role normally reserved for nominative case pronouns, in this instance “I”. A typical erroneous sentence would be “Me and her went to the show.” For anybody who doesn’t see the problem, that should be “She and I went to the show.” Actually there are two problems here: one is the grammatical issue already noted; the other is a matter of etiquette — politeness dictates that we mention other people prior to ourselves. When “I” and “me” become legitimized as identical twins, then our language will indeed become chaotic.

Another modern infraction which McWhorter and Ashbrook discussed was the term “like”, used principally by teenagers as a meaningless interpolation during their jabbering, as, for example, “So my mom was, like, going ballistic because I didn’t get home before eleven last night!” I would add to that grievously ubiquitous error the phrase “you know”, which I constantly hear even educated guests repeating on Ashbrook’s show (and elsewhere); it seems to serve as a substitute for “uh”, the old-timey pause syllable many of us utter when we haven’t quite got our phrasing organized in the brain. Those terms wouldn’t be so annoying if they were used less, but many people employ them repeatedly within a single comment.

One caller, a teacher, astutely remarked that we need to try and inculcate Standard English into children’s minds if they are to cope well in society and business. McWhorter acknowledged as much but maintained that children are very capable of handling two and even more languages adeptly; they can readily use Formal English in their school papers and Informal, even slang, at home and among their friends on the street.

Another aspect of our changing tongue which McWhorter mentioned and which always fascinates me is the more glaring differences between the English of the Beowulf saga, Chaucer’s Tales, and Shakespeare’s plays; we need defining footnotes — in the cases of the first two, even facing page “translations” — to comprehend those works now.

I might add that we can include much 19th Century literature among the works that require footnote definitions or good guessing. Among these latter I can list George Eliot’s 1860 novel Mill on the Floss, which I have almost finished reading. In particular, there are some terms the less-educated characters frequently use which in my first encounters I had to read twice to glean what was meant. The heroine’s father, Edward Tulliver, for instance, has a habit of proclaiming his confusion with life, as in Chapter IX of Book III, where he says to his employee, Luke:

 ‘The old mill ’ud miss me, I think, Luke. There’s a story as when the mill changes hands, the river’s angry — I’ve heard my father say it many a time. There’s no telling whether there mayn’t be summat in the story, for this is a puzzling world, and Old Harry’s got a finger in it — it’s been too many for me, I know.’

The “’ud” and the “summat” most of us readers would easily enough interpret as “would” and “somewhat”. Also, nowadays even an uneducated character would say “many times” instead of “many a time”, but we get it. One might suppose that the “as” is a typo, but really it is an antique way of saying “that”.  A reader unacquainted with English folklore might wonder who “Old Harry” is, but the rest of us would recognize him as the Devil. The phrase that really caused me to pause, however, was that last one: “too many”: what I finally discerned Tulliver to be saying is “too much for me”.

Further in on their conversation, Luke says to Tulliver:

‘Ay, sir, you’d be a deal better here nor in some new place….’

In our age, we would say “a good deal” or “a great deal”, but Luke’s meaning there is clear enough. The term that confused me (and it actually occurs several times earlier in the novel) was “nor”; after a little head-scratching, I deduced that it stands for “than”. Wow, I said to myself, I wonder how that came about!

Finally, and on the same page again, Tulliver says:

‘But I doubt, Luke, they’ll be for getting rid o’ Ben, and making you do with a lad — and I must help a bit with the mill. You’ll have a worse place.’

Now, this one really stumped me! Nonetheless, I figured it out. Old Tulliver and other characters in the novel are actually using “doubt” for “believe”! You explain that one to me!

In spite of its confusing and frustrating aspects, my native tongue — and other languages, too, (I’m studying classical Greek right now) — fascinate me. Maybe I should have been a philologist.

Finis

Thanks

Thank you for visiting my blog, which I am dropping for art and health’s sake. I will leave it in cyberspace for anyone who might want to browse through the 43 months of archives.

Goodbye.

BL

Meaningfulness

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Peter: Jesus, you are my Ground of Being!
Paul: Lord, you are my Ultimate Concern!
Jesus: Whaaattt?

This past Friday, my friend Chris and I met in my humble lodging for our regular bi-weekly, two-hour conversation and coffee-sipping. Over the past two months, we have been viewing DVD lectures by the late philosophy professor Robert Solomon, a specialist on Friedrich Nietzsche (N.). Solomon’s wife, Professor Kathleen Higgins, also a Nietzsche scholar, participates in the series. The lectures are about N. — his life, personality, and philosophy — of course; but interspersed among all of them are some comments on previous philosophers who had positively influenced Nietzsche, such as Arthur Schopenhauer (S.), and those who had negatively affected him, such as Socrates. This essay is partly my own take on S.’s and N.’s views concerning the meaning of life. The later part is my own view of purpose and meaningfulness — what the philosophers call teleology.

I have read very little of S. the pessimist, for I don’t need to read anything that will make me more depressed than I already am. Besides, everyone who is literate in Western philosophy, even in the most minor degree, has read or heard that S. considered life as essentially “suffering and death”, and that, given the choice of whether to live or die, the better option would be to die, but that an even better option would be not to have been born.

What I did not know, however, and one of the bits of interesting notions in Schopenhauer’s weltanschauung, is that S. eschewed Immanuel Kant’s view that one could justify life and find meaning through rationalism, and progress through rationalism to the Christian faith, according to Prof. Solomon. A more visceral response, particularly through an aesthetic appreciation of music, was more effective, S. believed. The benefit of music S. attributed to its abstractness as contrasted with the representational character of pre-20th century visual arts. Listening to, and contemplating, music, he held, would lift the suffering human out of his or her pointless individuality into a consciousness of a larger Reality, or “life as a whole”. But, as I mentioned in one of my early poems, that lift can last only as long as the music lasts.

I have read a few of Friedrich Nietzsche’s works but, unfortunately, not the one which is most pertinent on this topic, The Birth of Tragedy. So, I will have to rely again on Prof. Solomon’s — and Prof. Higgins’ — interpretations. They say that, while N. agreed with most of what S. had to say about life being almost totally a matter of suffering and death, he differed with S. on finding it pointless. Where S. postulated that humans proceed from desire or hunger to satisfaction and back to desire/hunger, always longing for complete satisfaction or contentment (picture a “couch potato”) and never finding it; N. believed that absolute and permanent contentment is not really any human’s desire at all. Rather, N. theorized, meaning is to be found in the passions, i.e. dedication to a person, to a project, or to an art can give meaning to life. Here, again, arises the question of how long that passion can last.

One of the best though tardiest lessons I ever learned was that regular settings and reviews of goals are very important. I recall reading, while a senior at the university, an article that related how frequently college seniors commit suicide. Of course, several reasons can cause young people to kill themselves; the later teens and early twenties are emotionally tumultuous years; but what struck me about this article was that it was specifically about college seniors who were soon to graduate. Either the article stated or I inferred (can’t recall which) that the most likely cause for many of those deaths was that the students had not set any goals beyond college; campus life was all that had mattered to them, and they could not see anything meaningful beyond it.

It is indeed an interesting contrast between S. and N. that while the first sought respite, the latter sought strife (not strife against other people but a continual struggle within the self to make one’s self better). N.’s view is very much in keeping with that of the ancient Athenians. Consider the following passage from Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, in which a Corinthian ambassador, while urging the Spartans to aid them in their conflict with Athens, criticizes them for their lackadaisical attitude:

“The Athenians are revolutionary, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. They are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your way is to attempt less than your power justifies, to mistrust even what your judgment sanctions, and to think that there will be no end to your dangers….So they toil on in trouble and danger all the days of their life, with little opportunity for enjoying, ever engaged in getting: their only idea of a holiday is to do what the occasion demands, and to them laborious occupation is less of a misfortune than inaction and rest. In a word, one might truly say that they were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others.”[1]

As for myself, I believe that the most contented people are also the most active people. To that extent I certainly agree with N. But I also believe that there is a Reality — a spiritual Reality that surrounds us and yet is much too much beyond our capacity to understand. Each of us must search and discover it on his/her own without over-reaching.

A recent NOVA episode on PBS hosted by astrophysicist Brian Greene reveals how the latest frontier of cosmology has forced scientists into theories they are sometime embarrassed to present. One of them is that our universe is actually two dimensional with an edge to it that is comparable to a holograph. Also, they say that space is nowhere empty, not outer space nor molecular space, but that in every part of it “things” are constantly moving, from particles to planets; and that space is not like a vapor but more like a piece of pliable material that can bend and be stretched. Even more nonintuitive: There is no past, present or future; there is only NOW.

I do not mean to imply that all of this new scientific theory-developing is an argument for a higher being: most of the scientists, I think, would deny that absolutely. All I am saying is that, as S. and N. should have, we should refrain from placing absolute designs on “the real world/universe” until a good deal more evidence is in, probably beyond my own remaining lifespan.

In the meantime, we can each discover our own Higher Power (I read that there must be 7.4 billion of them about now), purposes and life-meanings. Let’s just don’t try to impose them on others.

Bob Litton, March 1967, reading An American Tragedy in Wesley-PCF office

Bob Litton at Southern Methodist University in 1967.

[1] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, ed. Sir Richard Livingstone, (Oxford University Press:1943), Book I, ¶70.

Finis

NOTE TO READERS: For some reason I don’t know, WordPress.com (WP) does not allow non-WP bloggers to register “Likes” on my or other WP bloggers’ posts. However, anyone can enter a comment in the “Comment” box and it will be published, after I have “moderated” it. I am inviting non-WP bloggers to comment, even if it just to say “Like” or “Don’t Like”. And, although I prefer positive comments, disagreeing or critical remarks are fine, too, especially if they might help me improve my writing; but no snarking, please: that’s rude!
— BL

Another Twist of the Kaleidoscope[1]

Greek Amphora

An ancient Grecian amphora: Image Source > Bing Images

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I am in a strange position right now. On the one hand, I have three topics in my noggin, each deserving extended composition. On the other hand, they all require more research than I have devoted to them thus far, if they are to be “done up” right. Yet it has been eleven days since I published my last post, and my ego is supposing that some regular — but non-“Following” — readers are getting a bit antsy after returning often to my blog site and finding nothing fresh. So, my only recourse is to compose a potpourri of short opinions/insights. (Well, actually there are a couple of other options, but I don’t want to go down that “rabbit trail” right now.)

I

About twenty years ago, in Dallas, I bought a set of classical Greek language texts published by Cambridge University Press. I purchased them because I had been reading translations of the early Greek tragedies and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and wanted to read them in the original language. I had noted some editors’ comments that the playwright Euripides, the historian Thucydides, and the philosopher Plato, were superb stylists. I had been a good student of Spanish, French, Chinese, and Old English (Anglo-Saxon), so I did not anticipate much difficulty with Greek, although I figured that the Greeks’ odd-ball alphabet would annoy me for a while. By Zeus, was I wrong! All the diacritical marks, the dizzily varying declensions and conjugations, and the swamping mass of vocabulary to learn frustrated me. I got as far as Section VII (out of XIX), laid my books aside, and went on to other interests. Twice over the next two decades I started the Greek again — at Section I. (I got that one down pat, by the way!)

A couple of months ago, I dove back into the translation of Thucydides and was freshly astonished by the parallels with current events. If you read the Greek statesman Pericles’ oration at the memorial service for the first Athenian warriors killed during the Peloponnesian War, you too, I believe, will be struck by the similarity of Pericles’ claims for Athens’ “exceptionalism” to American politicians’ claims for our homeland’s superior qualities. Thucydides also lays out in bold yet unbiased descriptions the virtues and faults not only of Athens but of Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Corcyra and other city-states as well. He also analyzes the characters in their actions and their motives. The people as a whole are scrutinized with equal clarity. The acts of heroism and of treachery are rendered vividly.

I possess the first two (of four) volumes of Harvard University Press’ Thucydides, with Greek printed on the left-hand pages and English on the right. However, I have delved into the first volume only as far as the first 70 pages. The version I read all the way through, years ago, and am perusing for the second time is the 1874 translation by Richard Crawley, heavily abridged by Sir Richard Livingstone for the Oxford University Press in 1943, during the hottest period of World War II. It is only 388 pages long (not counting two maps and an index) with the pages measuring 9×15 cm. Still, condensed though it is, Livingstone’s offering provides a full sense of the flavor and drama of that conflict — the “world war” of its time. Especially perspicacious is Thucydides’ analysis of the class warfare between the aristocrats and the democrats, which led into the general war. I have excerpted the sentences below from his commentary:

Revolution brought on the cities of Greece many calamities, such as exist and always will exist till human nature changes, varying in intensity and character with changing circumstances. In peace and prosperity states and individuals are governed by higher ideals because they are not involved in necessities beyond their control, but war deprives them of their very existence and is a rough teacher that brings most men’s dispositions down to the level of their circumstances. So civil war broke out in the cities; and the later revolutionaries, with previous examples before their eyes, devised new ideas which went far beyond earlier ones, so elaborate were their enterprises, so novel their revenges. Words changed their ordinary meanings and were construed in new senses. Reckless daring passed for the courage of a loyal partisan, far-sighted hesitation was the excuse of a coward, moderation was the pretext of the unmanly, the power to see all sides of a question was complete inability to act….

The cause of all these evils was love of power due to ambition and greed, which led to rivalries from which party spirit sprung. The leaders of both sides used specious phrases, championing a moderate aristocracy or political equality for the masses. They professed to study public interests but made them their prize, and in the struggle to get the better of each other by any means committed terrible excesses and to still greater extremes in revenge. Neither justice nor the needs of the state restrained them, their only limit was the caprice of the hour, and they were prepared to satisfy a momentary rivalry by the unjust condemnation of the opponent or by a forcible seizure of power….[2]

Appear familiar? Of course, history does not repeat itself in a symmetrically balanced manner; there are some differences from that situation in ancient Greece and today’s world; but I believe there are more analogous than non-analogous elements, both in our Congress and in the world entire. In fact, I am so enamored of Thucydides’ work that I believe our senators and representatives should be required to take a month-long course with this book as their text before they assume office, or perhaps even before they run for office, and attain a passing grade.

II

 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought for a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
                                                                                                — I Corinthians 6:19-20

If there are any anti-spiritual types out there in Cyberland, I beg your pardon, but I feel a calling to preach a bit here. Oh, don’t worry overmuch; it’s not a fire and brimstone message; really more of an extended pet peeve with an ounce of theology sprinkled on to give it some authority. Although I matured in the Methodist Church and even considered a few times becoming a minister, I argued myself out of it by pointing at the Apostles’ Creed and grunting at the several elements I could not honestly adhere to. But that is all fodder for some later blog post; not now.

The above passage from Paul of Tarsus, however, resonates with me for two reasons. Firstly, it brings forward the image of my favorite pastor during those young years, Clark Calvert: he was my mentor, even a sort of father figure for me, and he used that verse to counsel me. Secondly, I appreciate the image conjured by the verse itself: my body as the eternal residence of the Holy Spirit. To be perfectly frank with you, dear reader, the Holy Spirit is the only Person of the Trinity I feel that I can comprehend and be comfortable with. God the Father is too abstract and paradoxical, especially when I consider the old conundrum about Evil; and Jesus of the New Testament — “The Son” — has too many faces and does and says self-contradictory things, like some protagonist in a Jacobean tragedy. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, is definitely comprehensible to me; he has a definite, singular role to play: to act as our guide, comforter, and advocate. And I believe He/She/It has done all that for me many times. Naturally, I don’t always respond positively to the nudges, but I recognize my responsibility when I recalcitrantly plunge ahead at the suggestion of my impulses.

But let’s return to the image of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit. Lately, like within the past couple of years, I have become inordinately conscious of my appearance and, even worse, of the appearance of others. Of course I realize that, aging as I have, I would become more aware of the changes in my body, particularly in my face; giving up three molars during the past twelve months certainly highlighted those changes! I really do not take good enough care of myself, and I cannot fathom why. Is it just laziness or perhaps a self-contempt expressing itself physically?

But it is my view of others that really bothers me. I judge people constantly, especially young people, who, to my way of thinking, have an almost moral obligation to keep themselves in shape and definitely to avoid tarnishing their features with rings in their noses and lips, and with tattoos all over their bodies. What are they going to do, I wonder, when they get older and suddenly realize how tacky they look. One can erase only so much. Enough people are ill-favored, even downright ugly, and I look on them with pity, thinking that Nature has been too unkind to them; but, ironically, many of them found mates, while I remained single.

Then there is the obesity epidemic which is affecting all generations. I am overweight myself but am gradually losing some of it; I can now get into half a dozen pants that wouldn’t fit six months ago. However, I can’t see myself as readily as I can others; and the external scene is downright shocking. Especially ridiculous is the sight of the many fat nurses — people whose jobs are to help other people get well and stay healthy. And now, in our small town at least, we have a number of peace officers and criminal justice students who look like balloons. Those people are supposed to be able to chase malefactors, aren’t they? Our modern mode of working is the central villain here: most of our jobs involve a lot of sitting; when I went into the county tax office recently to renew my license tag I was at once both shocked and amused at the sight of a dozen female clerks who looked like walruses on a beach.

I feel guilty judging others as the above remarks evidence. I can’t change the world to fit my aesthetic and moral values; yet the impulse to judge is almost constant. Sometimes I wish I were blind.

— BL

Postscript:  Parenthetically speaking, Paul of Tarsus was not commenting on the Corinthians’ appearance. He was chastising them…actually even condemning some… for the immoral physical actions, such as fornication, that they were guilty of. I think Paul was a bit harsh with the Corinthians, when you consider what he confessed to the Romans:
I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.
                                                                                                                    — Romans 7:15

Finis

[1] If you are interested in my first “kaleidoscope” post, look in the archives for “Off My Head”, July 29, 2015.

[2] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, ed. Sir Richard Livingstone, (Oxford University Press:1943), Book III, ¶83.

NOTE TO READERS: For some reason I don’t know, WordPress.com (WP) does not allow non-WP bloggers to register “Likes” on my or other WP bloggers’ posts. However, anyone can enter a comment in the “Comment” box and it will be published, after I have “moderated” it. I am inviting non-WP bloggers to comment. And, although I prefer positive comments, disagreeing or critical remarks are fine, too, especially if they might help me improve my writing; but no snarking, please: that’s rude!
— BL

More Shop Talk: Some Pet Peeves

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

It has been slightly more than a year (March 2015) since I wrote my last blog post about language and writing. The writing below differs from that earlier one in that it can be described as simply a column of pet peeves, while the older was an essay concerning problems I have with the nature of my native tongue. Of course, reading an essay is usually more fun than reading a list of gripes, but I hope you readers will continue on and gain something at least enlightening if not entertaining from your perusal.

— BL

* * * * * *

Last Tuesday I joined our “lame-duck” mayor at breakfast in the local diner. (For those who don’t know what “lame-duck” means, the term describes an elected official whose term is approaching its end and who will not be returning to office next term.) During our conversation the mayor mentioned how annoyed he is when someone uses the term “Obamacare” instead of “Affordable Care Act” or its abbreviation “ACA”.
“What are they thinking?” he asked. “Do they see it as a medical benefit set up especially for Obama?”
“I understand your point,” I replied. “Another problem with their phrasing is that it can appear like an edict establishing a healthcare program by fiat instead of a legislative act passed by Congress.”

That conversation got me to reflecting—for the umpteenth time—on all the irritating malapropisms, misplaced words, and nonsensical interpolations I hear over and over again.

One of the chief malapropisms that has become so ingrained in our common discourse that even top echelon journalists run afoul of it is the use of “bathroom” where “restroom” is the accurate term. If it is not already obvious to you, “bathroom” literally refers to a room where a bath can be performed, such as in a tub or in a shower stall. A “restroom” is a place, often hardly larger than a closet (thus the British preference for saying “water closet”) where one can relieve oneself of urine and feces.

One misuse of terms which is not quite as objectionable as those is the substitution of “less” for “fewer”. “‘Fewer’ refers only to number and things that are counted: Fewer cars on the road. There were fewer than sixty present. In Formal usage ‘less’ refers only to amount or quantity and things measured: There was a good less tardiness in the second semester. There was even less hay than the summer before.  ‘Fewer’ seems to be declining in use and ‘less’ often takes its place.” Still, I am among those purists who find the substitution of “less” for “fewer” offensive because it reduces the exactitude and therefore clarity. (I should credit late Professor Porter G. Perrin for much of the above paragraph, including the examples, from whose Writer’s Guide and Index to English I borrowed it.)

Similar to those terms’ confusion is the phrase “one or two” and similar constructions. Particularly surprising instances of this fault are in Henry James’ novel Portrait of a Lady. In Chapter 22, Gilbert Osmond, while nervous in the company of his visitor Madame Merle, “…without looking at Madame Merle, pushed one or two chairs back into their places.” And in Chapter 28, I read where Lord Warburton goes to an opera house to find the “heroine”, Isabel Archer, and her friends; there, “(a)fter scanning two or three tiers of boxes, he perceived in one of the largest of these receptacles a lady whom he easily recognized.” When I see such phrasing in an article or a story or a novel, I almost pull my hair out in exasperation and utter aloud, “Can’t you count even to three, you numbskull?!”  I must be upfront here and acknowledge that I cannot stand Henry James; I think he is one of the most overrated authors and insufferable snobs in American literary history. And Portrait of a Lady is a ridiculously absurd novel filled with other types of flaws which I might elucidate some other time.

In the class of misplaced words I particularly note the word “only”. I remind you that English has evolved (or devolved?) into a mostly uninflected language. That is, we do not use multiple case endings on our nouns and adjectives to indicate their functions in a sentence; our pronouns alone retain that characteristic. Consequently, we determine and infer a word’s function by its place in the sentence; that includes the term “only”. I frequently see this word misplaced in a sentence and its intended meaning thus jeopardized. Disgusting! I could write some sentences to further explain the problem with “only”, but I found in the online Free Dictionary by Farlex as good or probably even better an explanation than I might render, so I copied part of it for use here. Hope they don’t mind; if they do, I will withdraw it and struggle through with my own examples:

Usage Note: The adverb only is notorious for its ability to change the meaning of
a sentence depending on its placement. Consider the difference in meaning in
the following examples: Dictators respect only force; they are not moved by words.  Dictators only respect force; they do not worship it. She picked up the phone only when he entered, not before. She only picked up the phone when he entered; she didn’t dial the number. The surest way to prevent readers from misinterpreting only is to place it next to the word or words it modifies.

The Free Dictionary’s entry for “only” has a few more interesting remarks which I recommend aspiring writers peruse.

Finally, under the heading nonsensical interpolations I include “you know”, the latest substitution for “uh” as a pause gap filler. I hear it frequently on one of my favorite NPR talk shows, On Point, with Tom Ashbrook. I believe it would be safe to claim that at least half of the people Ashbrook talks with on that program—special guests and call-in listeners alike—use “you know” in many of their sentences. It is irritating for three reasons: (1) No, Tom might not know it (whatever it is); (2) if he does know it, then why are they saying it? and (3) the constant repetition of “you know” soon begins to grate.

Well, gentle readers, I hope your eyes have not glazed over from reading this blog post about the more horrific writing…and speaking…crimes.

Finis

 

 

 

The Widow’s Pique

© 1968, 2016 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS:  Almost in self-defense, I feel I must provide the exculpatory background for the poem published here today. In 1968, when I composed the first version, I was a fairly young man and still wrestling with some anger toward my parents for not providing me with a “happy home” like some of my friends seemed blessed with. The poem (as I deem it) was a seepage of that anger.
     As I grew older, however, much of that anger dissipated and I began to view my parents in a more charitable light; I began to recall their difficulties and benefices as often as their faults. A growing awareness of my own weaknesses certainly contributed to the forgiveness.
     I showed the poem to my professor in Old English, hoping for at least a bland approval. Then he surprised me by asking me to read it to our Anglo-Saxon seminar class. That was undoubtedly a mistake, since I was the only male in a class of ten students. I don’t think any of the ladies appreciated it; at any rate, none of them applauded after I had finished reading.
∗ Although the “models” for the two characters in this cameo production were my parents, the full scene is not meant to be complete portraits of them: The production is intended to be a broader satire, as is hinted in the title. The widow here is viewed as typical of some women, but not all women. The same is true of the “first man”.
∗ I kept the poem in my files for decades, not sure what to do with it. On the one hand, even I grew to find its “cynicism” a bit overdone and its tone too critical of my parents (for I continued to view them primarily as models here). On the other hand, I retained some feeling of pride in the imagery and rhetorical value of several of the lines and, as always, relished my talent for irony. Oh, how I love irony!
∗ Anyway, I took it out of the files today and worked it over some, particularly in an effort to improve some of the rhythmical parts. I doubt that I was very successful, but I do think it is at least slightly better than the original version. Scansion was never a strength in me.
     So, please, dear readers, try to concentrate on the rhetoric and the irony and don’t become deflected by the cynicism.
BL 

∗The red asterisks above indicate paragraph indentions. For some reason I have not been able to fathom, the editing page will accept some of my indentions but not others. And I have given up trying to correct the malfunctions.

I

Framed where the stair turns, her first man smiles —
sketched in the flesh, painted in absentia,
sepia-and-umber-toned like a Dürer print.
Gray tendrils from ledges of brow
curl down coppery loam toward gold-flecked iris.
Filled with actions and fortunes outside
this mundane scene, one more rainbow’s pot
grandly refracts in his Balboan eyes.
His pollen-drugged thoughts disperse,
cast adrift upon disclaimed, illicit streams.
“Don’t we come out of the soil to leave it —
to seek the sun, bowing upward through
its radiance, hungry for heaven’s nutrient,
disdaining the toilsome tunneling of a root?
The meshes of a root!  Entangling itself
confusedly in the dankness of the earth,
while beyond a shuttered window the sun…laughs…”
But since the window opened to night, not day,
he paused fatally the lunar interim,
an orchid wilting on the widow’s bosom.

II

Now she, broad-faced lily plucked from the pond —
nourished with cold cream here — eyes him warily
as she descends the clef-curve of the stair.
Fearful of the sun’s leer — with its jaundice
that burns into amber — glistening, yes,
like a fly’s neck — she shuts the shutters.  Clack!
Woman’s woes concretized streak her hair,
counted each day with petulant lips
redundantly before a two-faced mirror:
“I must rinse it tomorrow,” she sighs.
On the couch…just so…composed with a pill,
she still rummages for the witch’s brew
or whatever the ad of the living:
auguries, faith-healers, folk medicine ─
anything but gamble and scramble for fool’s gold,
as he did!  Motion is always a circle, it seems.
And this now man who lumps in his bed and wheezes!
Why didn’t someone warn her?  Foolish girl,
to marry again in the giddiness of death’s divorce.
She knows at last: This one, too, won’t blot the sun.
At the edge of lamplight she pinches from her lips
an idea, “After he’s dead, I’ll get a dog.”

Finis

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