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Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Song of King Gesar

The Song of King Gesar
And on this bridge of longing, as we sing of him,
Gesar himself, the ever-youthful Lion King descends
Surrounded by flags and pennants snapping in the wind
To forge the weapons that cut the life force of fear and doubt,
To subdue and destroy the demonic hordes

(trans Douglas J. Penick)

Before Canongate sent me this book I knew nothing about the Epic of King Gesar. Had I been born in Tibet and not Scotland the story would’ve been very different. There he’s as well-known as King Arthur is in the UK or Odysseus is to the Greeks. Surprisingly, considering the fact it’s been around since at least the 12th century (although there are arguments suggesting it started to take shape much earlier – see History and the Tibetan Epic Gesar), it took a long time for an English translation to appear despite the fact that “Western researchers had discovered King Gesar in the 18th century and the study of the epic, named Gesarology, blossomed in the 1960s.”[1] Probably the world’s greatest expert on the subject is Jampel Gyatso who has been studying King Gesar since 1981. In August 2013, W020131115410498856121after working on the project with others for nearly thirty years, he finally published a forty-volume abridged version of the epic. The newly-published edition comprises nearly 600,000 lines in Tibetan poetry, equal to 20 million words in Han characters. But that’s nothing:

From more than 150 ballad singers, Chinese researchers have collected more than 120 volumes of the epic, reaching more than 20 million words in 1 million lines. It you add the Greek epics—the Iliad and Odyssey, and the Indian epics—the Ramayana and Mahabharata, their total length is much shorter than that of King Gesar.[2]

Over the years, four million copies of King Gesar in Tibetan have been published in various versions of which some two hundred exist. When you consider the fact there are only some five million Tibetans it puts the book’s importance into perspective. In Scotland I wonder, for example, if 80% of the population these days even own a Bible let alone any book of Scottish mythology.

Although people have started writing it down the fact is it existed for a long time only in oral form which it still does to this day and is still very much a work in progress. Basically it’s a chantefable, a chant-fable, recorded partly in prose and partly in poetry, although it existed before the western term was popularised but I’ll come back to that. Ballad singers throughout the east keep the work alive and “China boasts about 100 Gesar ballad singers, mostly from ethnic Tibetan or Mongolian groups in outlying areas with poor access to traffic or modern communications.”[3]

A CNN report on one of the oldest Gesar singers

"There are 20 Tibetan opera troupes propagating the ancient epic in different forms," said Zhang Yong, a leading official of the Culture, Sports, Radio and Television Bureau of the Guoluo Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Zhang said, in a village called De'erwen in Gande County, Guoluo, all villagers, young or old, can sing the ballad. There are more than 30 villagers who can sing more than two versions of the epic. The village thus was named "De'erwen Gesar Culture Epic Village."

There are more than one hundred folk artists engaged in Gesar epic, and 24 folk Tibetan opera troupes in Guoluo. With the perseveration and creation of the folk artists, the story of Tibetan hero King Gesar has been widely propagated.[4]

A recent article in Shanghai Daily regarding the ballad singer Dawa Zhagba makes interesting reading.

According to Wikipedia the core of the epic in all versions can be summarised very, very briefly as follows:

King Ge-sar has a miraculous birth, a despised and neglected childhood, and then becomes ruler and wins his (first) wife ’Brug-mo through a series of marvellous feats. In subsequent episodes he defends his people against various external aggressors, human and superhuman. Instead of dying a normal death he departs into a hidden realm from which he may return at some time in the future to save his people from their enemies

The main episodes of the epic are outlined here.

When this book arrived from Canongate I got the wrong end of the stick completely. I assumed it was an English translation because it says on the back:


the superhuman lifewhich it is not. Alexandra David-Néel translated the epic into French in 1931: this was subsequently translated into English as The Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling in 1933 and on checking Amazon I found several other English translations; Douglas J. Penick, for example, has recently completed a three-volume version. There’s nothing on the dust jacket of The Song of Gesar to suggest this is actually a part of Canongate’s long-running Myth Series in which ancient myths from various cultures are reimagined and rewritten by contemporary authors which is, in fact, what it is. As far as I was aware there are eighteen of these so I did wonder why on the book’s spine there was a ‘XV’ but I let that pass; they’re planning a hundred in total. It would’ve probably helped, too, if I had known who Alai was, but I didn’t and just dived into the book without checking anything as I tend to do if I can get away with it assuming that the less I know beforehand the better.

Most of the books in the Myths Series are short—that was part of the deal—but when you’re starting off with a text that fills some 120 volumes concessions have to be made. That Alai managed to compress the epic into a single volume is Chinese Covercommendable in itself although to be fair what we have here is an abridged version of Alai’s book. Alai wrote his original in Chinese and was agreeable to the work being shortened further following the translation process. But at what cost?

I should probably state here and now that I’m not a big fan of mythology. I struggled to get through Ragnarok: The End of the Gods when I read it back in 2011 despite the fact it was well-written and was far more interested in the little biographical snippets that I found myself in the lives of the gods in question. At least there, thanks to Marvel Comics, I was familiar with some of the Norse gods but with The Song of Gesar it was all new. Well, it was unfamiliar. The stories weren’t new—there are only so many stories—and the characters in these stories reminded me constantly of other characters from Norse, Roman, Greek or even British mythology. “All epics share certain characteristics. There are nine generally accepted characteristics of the epic form, which include such things as humanity's interactions with deities, long lists and long speeches.”[5] Let’s take one example to illustrate: the evil uncle trope.

Evil uncles crop up all the time in mythology: Horus fought his evil uncle Set to avenge the death of his father; Osiris; Krishna had an evil uncle, Kamsa, who was destined to die at Krishna's hands; Jason had to locate the Golden Fleece and win back the throne from his evil uncle Pelias; Romulus and Remus were snatched from their mother by an evil uncle who threw them into the River Tiber to drown; Perceval had to retake the Grail Castle from his evil uncle, the King of Castle Mortal—hell, the basic plot of The Lion King is that there is a young prince who has an evil uncle that wants to take power—and there are plenty of examples from history like Richard III so it’s not surprising that the young man who will eventually become Gesar, Joru, would find himself at odds with his uncle Khronthung.

The story begins by looking back to help the reader appreciate why the gods agreed to send Gesar. When the deities ascended to live in Heaven the demons stayed in the world to make trouble. From time to time the gods would send one of their own down to try to help but for some unexplained reason they often made matters worse. So the deities stopped meddling and the demons seemed also to disappear only they didn’t really. Some believed that the demons instead “transformed themselves, perhaps into a beautiful girl or into a tree trunk that gave off the sweet smell of rot.” Finally, however, “they found the perfect hiding-place: the human heart.”

Concerned, the deities eventually sent a monk, Master Lotus, to assess the situation and report back but when he tries he’s told by the Bodhisattva, “There is no need for you to describe what you heard and saw in Gling. We see everything clearly from here, not only that which has already happened but that which is to come.” Oddly enough the monk doesn’t ask, “Why the hell did you bother sending me to them?” but he does ask why they don’t do more to alleviate the suffering of the humans. He receives no good answer. Rather he’s told that he has now accumulated sufficient karmic merits and has been “freed from samsara, the wheel of reincarnation. You will become a deity and take your place in the heavenly court,” and I imagine once that took place he would need ask no more questions; everything would become clear to him. Pity the readers are left out in the cold.

What the deities eventually do is to send one of their own. A young deity called Thosba Gawa volunteers. There is a catch however:

‘[Y]ou must consider it carefully. If you go, you will no longer be a deity. You will be a mortal who suffers misery and hardship from the moment you are born. Are you afraid?’

‘No, I am not.’

‘You may lose your divine qualities and sink into evil ways, as mortals do. Then you will never be able to return to the celestial world.’

The young man’s mother and older sister wept.

‘And you will lose all memories of your life here.’

Seems odd that when the gods themselves have failed they would assign a human as their champion but I’m not a god so what do I know? The deities make a search and decide upon Metog Lhartse the daughter of the Dragon King to bear the child and Senglon, a member of the Mu clan, to be the father. Rather than an archangel it’s Master Lotus who passes on the news to the girl:

‘Virtuous and blessed woman,’ Master Lotus said, ‘Heaven would like to borrow your noble body that you may give birth to a hero who will save Glingkar. No matter what hardship you may encounter in the future, you must hold fast and believe your son will be the king of Glingkar. He may be a stern deity to the demons, but to the black-haired Tibetans, he will be their brave and wise king.’

That Gesar is indeed a messiah figure is well-documented by David-Néel who, in her commentary on the text, refers several times to conversations with Tibetans and other Asians, who predicted to her the “second coming” of the great King Gesar who would drive out the European colonists once and for all. Come to think of it, it’s not that different from Arthurian legend which promises that Arthur will arise when England needs him the most.

From the start it’s very clear, however, that the child is far from an ordinary mortal:

[S]he felt no pain when her son was born, and her heart filled with joy. More wondrous: the baby was the height and weight of a three-year-old. Although it was winter, thunder rolled in the sky, sending down a shower of blossoms. Clouds of many colours surrounded the birthing tent.


Only Khrothung, head of the Tagrong tribe, kept apart from the festivities.

Apparently Khrothung is normally a comic character in the epic but I didn’t find him particularly so. Perhaps because the whole thing is so caricatured it was hard to take anyone seriously (or, indeed, comically) which is part of the problem I have with texts like this. Also practical little matters like how a woman could possibly survive giving birth to a child of that size.

Despite the fact they realise their son is bound to do great things after calling him Gesar (and the similarity to Ceasar is noteworthy—see this blog entry) they give him the childhood name Joru because, even his mother has to admit: “He is ugly.”

Within three days Khrothung reappeared, smiling, bringing with him cheese and honey. ‘My newborn nephew is already as big as a three-year-old. He will surely grow even faster when he eats the food I offer.’ His words were sweet as honey, but the food was laced with poison powerful enough to kill a yak. Taking the baby in his arms, Khrothung began to feed his nephew.

Joru looked up at him with clear eyes and smiled, then held up his hands to show wisps of dark smoke rising from between his fingers. The powers given to him by Heaven had expelled the poison from his body. In his confusion, Khrothung licked a fragment of fresh cheese stuck to his fingertip. In an instant, he felt as if lightning bolts were lashing him, that his intestines were being tied in knots, and he knew he had been poisoned.

Khrothung stumbled to the river, where he pressed his tongue to the ice for a long time. When at last he could speak, he uttered incantation to summon his friend Mgonpo Redag, a warlock, half human, half demon, who could snatch a living soul and take control of the body. Soon a great raven appeared, whose wings cast a wide shadow on the ground. It tossed the poison’s antidote to Khrothung, who stumbled to his feet as the raven flew off.

In the time it had taken for his uncle to run to the river, Joru had begun to talk.

Then Joru leaves his physical body; his celestial body flies towards Mgonpo Redag and the boy’s first fight takes place. He defeats the demon with ease, then traps his uncle in a cave but in a moment of self-doubt his powers wain and Khrothung manages to escape. And so the story continues:

The epic does not recount any battle scene until after Gesar has proclaimed himself king by virtue of winning a horse-race. From this point on, most of the epic, and almost every canto, involves battle scenes that are cantered on the main story-line. Demons are killed, evils are exterminated, and wise kings are sworn in to rule the states that are subjugated to the Kingdom of Gling. The treasures of the defeated states are distributed among the commoners or taken back to the Kingdom of Gling. Having fought many wars, and with the universe restored to peace, Gesar has fulfilled his mission to Middle Earth. He has saved his mother, his wife, and others from the land of the dead, and he returns to his heavenly world.[6]


Traditional Thanka of King Gesar

I managed to get about halfway through the book and then gave up. Obviously a book like this has an audience but I’m not sure the general reading public will get very excited over this and even scholars may find themselves disappointed because the epic has been so reduced. Also the songs are presented as prose—this epic is still performed regularly—and I do wonder whether this was the wisest decision. The prosimetric epic medium—a tale in prose with occasional lines of verse—is traditional among the Tibetans:

Usually, the proportion of verse is larger than that of prose. The verses are not a repetition of the prose: they provide their own separate content. The prose sounds very emotive and fluctuates in tone and rhythm. The versification usually follows closely either the widespread glu style or the free style of folk singing; in both styles each verse consists of seven or eight syllables, with occasional exceptions, in a form that is relatively free.[7]

In his review of the Chinese version, Dadui Yao, writes that Alai’s novel “lacks poetry” although he readily admits “[i]t’s not difficult for us to understand why writing King Gesar has tied Alai’s heart in knots for several years.” He adds:

Fiction is instinctual to literature, however, and to limit this instinct signifies nothing less than curtailing the work’s artistry. If he insisted on remaining faithful to this traditional telling, he would inevitably be inhibited by it. But if Alai, a member of this ethnic group, retold the story in less than an ideal manner that fictionalized, distorted or added or cut too much content, then he would be rebuked by readers intimately familiar with the epic.

On the other hand, Alai is like other sgrung (Tibetan for “roaming bard”) who want to recite the story well; where he differs is that he must transmute the epic into a novel. To replace the story, traditionally recited in song, with a novel’s narrative requires transforming oral expression into a written one. Visited by the spirits in his dreams, the sgrung would enter into something akin to a “possessed” state in which his singing, tone of speech, vocabulary, facial expressions, movements and emotions would differ from those of a typical person. In other words, the gap between this performing art and the art of the pure written word is a wide one, so mastering a successful transformation from one to the other is a major challenge.[8]

The more I read about this text the more I realised how much it suffers from lack of annotation. And this was the problem I had with Ragnarok. I appreciated Jeanette Winterson’s Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles a little more but of all the retellings I’ve read recently the ones I probably enjoyed the most were The Dreams of Max and Ronnie and The Meat Tree which were reimaginings of stories from the Mabinogion published by Seren Press. The reason for this is because the authors moved far enough from the original stories for their works to stand on their own. In all of the Canongate versions I’ve read—I’m sure this isn’t all the case—there’s been a definite feeling of a retelling rather than an updating. Shakespeare in modern dress is still as hard to understand as Shakespeare in period costume whereas films like My Own Private Idaho and Scotland, PA make the text accessible to a modern audience even if much is lost in translation; that’s the challenge, isn’t it? In The Meat Tree, for example, Lewis relocates the storyline to outer space. That’s about as unmythological as you can get. The Song of King Gesar is most definitely set in Tibet a good eight hundred years ago.

This is not to suggest that Alai didn’t put a lot of work into this project. In his own words:

The essence of a re-telling is to render a myth concrete. To re-tell the Epic of King Gesar, I mainly did work in three areas: Firstly, I went into the Tibetan hinterlands to conduct research. King Gesar reflects the state of the Tibetan people from the time of primitive tribal alliances to the birth of a state, that is, the period of history that begins with King Gesar and encompasses the unique nature of Tibetan culture. Although I am a Tibetan writer and in the past I mastered some of this information, it wasn’t nearly enough, so I had to leave my desk for the areas where Tibetans reside.

The second task was to study the epic in depth. For more than a century [the story of] King Gesar has been orally transmitted. But to use contemporary techniques to convey it, there are very many research results, and quite mixed ones, so you have to put a lot of effort into studying and putting them in order.

Thirdly, historical data must be verified. The nation grew from a small one to a big one, and expanded, involving a number of wars. After the passage of such a long time, things must be re-checked.[9]

He was first approached by Canongate in 2003 with a view to tackling the project however the author was in the middle of writing Hollow Mountains, a three-volume realistic work on six Tibetan villagers' fate against the fast-changing rural landscape, at the time but in 2009 the Chinese version appeared and was generally well received. The biggest problem he was faced with was what to leave in and what he could afford to lose. His solution to the problem came in the shape of ballad singer Jigme (Jigmed in Canongate’s version):

"A writer should not be content with books and second-hand information, he must visit the field to find solid details," Alai says.

In his novel, Jigme also journeys across the plateau, doggedly searching for such sacred sites and dreaming of King Gesar's growth from a gifted child to a mighty king.

"The ballad singer dreams of parts of King Gesar's life and comes out to reality. That works like a pair of scissors cutting out the most interesting parts from the colossal epic," Alai says.[10]

In her review of the Chinese version Liu Jun says:

King Gesar looks like a fossil: The meaty parts—glamorous descriptions of battles, attire and witty banter—had to be sacrificed. But Alai does a good job introducing the world's longest (and still growing) epic to the reader.[11]

This is an interesting comment since in his earlier interview with Liu Jun Alai said, "I won't build a 'dinosaur skeleton', or cut my own toes to fit smaller shoes," which is exactly what he’s had to do to make the book manageable and as the goal was to introduce westerners to the Tibetan epic he’s done as good a job as he could. For those whose interests are kindled there’s definitely a growing amount of information available. Researching this article is as far as this particular reader wants to go though.

howard_and_sylvia_resizedAlai wrote his book in Chinese as I’ve said although apparently his native language is rGyalrong. The English translation is the work of Howard Goldblatt and his wife Sylvia Li-chun Lin. Howard is Research Professor at the University of Notre Dame, where he directs the Centre for Asian Studies; Sylvia teaches modern and contemporary Chinese literature, film and culture also at the University of Notre Dame. Both are experienced translators and this is not their only collaboration. As Goldblatt is the translator of Mo Yan, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, there’s a fair bit about him online—one of the most informative is here although it says nothing about Gesar or Alai—but he’s clearly both experienced and highly regarded. There’s not so much about his wife but this article is helpful.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.


AlaiAlai, born in 1959 in Sichuan Province, is a Chinese poet and novelist of Rgyalrong Tibetan descendent. He was also editor of Science Fiction World. Alai's notable novel Red Poppies, published in 1998, which follows a family of Tibetan chieftains, the Maichi, during the decade or so before the liberation of Tibet by the People's Liberation Army in 1951. It was the first major literary novel by a Tibetan about Tibet. Red Poppies was rejected by numerous Chinese publishers for a number of years due to its sensitive political content. It finally made its way to China's prestigious People's Literature Publishing House, where an editor championed its publication. The novel was an immediate bestseller in China and was awarded the nation's highest literary award, the Mao Dun Prize. In America, it was selected as one of the 100 best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times Book Review and was a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize.



Transcription of a television interview from 2008: part one , part two

Geoffrey Samuel, ‘The Gesar Epic of East Tibet’, Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, pp.358-367

Xu Bin, 'The Application and Cultural Understanding of the Epic Gesar Images in Rites', China Tibetology Magazine

Wang Guoming trans. Li Xianting, ‘The Tuzu Gesar Epic: Performance and Singers’, Oral Tradition, 25/2 (2010), pp.381-390

Kurtis Schaeffer etc eds., ‘The Epic of King Gesar’, Sources of Tibetan Tradition, pp.309-318

Gregory Forgues, ‘Materials for the Study of Gesar Practices’

Zhambei Gyaltsho, Bab Sgrung: Tibetan Epic Singers’, Oral Tradition, 16/1 (2001), pp.280-293


[1] Liu Jun, ‘Long Live the King’, China Daily 30 March 2009

[2] Ibid

[3] 'Young Ballad Singers Keep World's Longest Epic Alive',, 27 July 2002

[4] Xinhua, 'Gesar folk artists promote world's longest epic', China Tibet Online, 13 April 2009

[5] Robin Kornman, Lama Chonam, The Epic of Gesar of Ling: Gesar's Magical Birth, Early Years, and Coronation as King, p.xvi

[6] Yang Enhong, ‘On the Study of the Narrative Structure of Tibetan Epic: A Record of King Gesar, Oral Tradition, 16/2 (2001), pp.297, 298

[7] Ibid, p.299

[8] David Yao, ‘Modern-day Karma of a Re-told Epic’ (translated by Bruce Humes)

[9] Alai quoted in Tian Guo, ‘King Gesar: Tibetan Culture’s Calling Card’, China Publishing Today (translated by Bruce Humes)

[10] Liu Jun, ‘The king and I’, China Daily, 7 September 2009

[11] Liu Jun, ‘A novel of epic proportions’, China Daily, 28 October 2011

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Poetic energy

Brain light bulb

Poetry is energy, it is an energy-storing and an energy-releasing device. – Miroslav Holub, Poetry Ireland Review, Autumn-Winter 1990

What’s the point to a poem? I’m somewhat in agreement with William Carlos Williams who stated that “a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.”[1] Words are what drive a poem. He said they were capable of “explosions of linguistic energy.”[2] When asked to define ‘poetry’ this is what he had to say:

I would say that poetry is language charged with emotion. It’s words, rhythmically organised… A poem is a complete little universe. It exists separately. Any poem that has worth expresses the whole life of the poet. It gives a view of what the poet is.


In prose an English word means what it says. In poetry, you’re listening to two things … you’re listening to the sense, the common sense of what it says. But it says more. That is the difficulty. – William Carlos Williams from Paterson Volume V quoted in The William Carlos Williams Reader, pp.99,100

If a poem is indeed a machine then most (if not all) poems are remarkably inefficient machines as much is lost in the process. As a metaphor I prefer to think of a poem as a by-product of a process—in this case I am the machine—and what ends up on the page could be discarded; it’s served its purpose as far as I’m concerned. I call it by-product and not an end product or waste product because I recognise that others can make use of what I write; the writing of the poem was enough for me. But I’m not completely opposed to the metaphor of a poem as a machine. Let’s run with that. So, what is a machine?

A machine is a tool that consists of one or more parts, and uses energy to achieve a particular goal. Machines are usually powered by mechanical, chemical, thermal, or electrical means, and are frequently motorized. Historically, a powered tool also required moving parts to classify as a machine; however, the advent of electronics technology has led to the development of powered tools without moving parts that are considered machines. – Wikipedia

Okay, we’re talking physics here not metaphysics but a poem meets the basic conditions. It’s made up of many parts (letters, words, punctuation marks) that form a unified whole which isn’t consumed in the process of its operation; it would be a lousy spanner that needed to be replaced every time you wanted to loosen or tighten a nut. Energy, however, isn’t quite as easy to define. Simplistically put: Energy is the capacity of a physical system to perform work. That said:

It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge what energy is. We do not have a picture that energy comes in little blobs of a definite amount. – Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics (1964) Volume I, 4-1

Work, however, is a precisely defined concept in physics. Again, in simple terms, it is: force x distance through which the force is applied. Energy is transferred from one body to another by one body performing work on the other – i.e. pushing against it through a certain distance. (Think of a bicycle pump and how you push it in against resistance for a certain distance.)

There’s a physical distance between you and I right now (and a temporal distance too but let’s not complicate things). I’m working by rattling away on my keyboard The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poeticsand you’re working by moving your eyes back and forth. So we’re all happy that work has taken place and work requires energy. Since energy cannot be destroyed (First Law of Thermodynamics) is it reasonable to assume that some of the energy used in a poem’s creation goes into the poem? And, if so, what kind of energy are we talking about? Wikipedia lists eleven kinds of energy but it has nothing to say about poetic energy. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics doesn’t have an entry for ‘Poetic Energy’ either. And yet a lot of people use the expression assuming that everyone knows what they’re on about. Most notably George Eliot—not TS, who occasionally (not unreasonably) gets credited with the remark:

Here undoubtedly lies the chief poetic energy: – in the force of imagination that pierces or exalts the solid fact, instead of floating among cloud-pictures. – George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, p315

Many others use the expression. A selection:

The very structure of the language he uses suffers the impact of an entirely unfettered poetic energy in this truly unique book. – Enrique Molina talking about Oliverio Girondo’s last book of poems, In the masmédula

Robert Louis Stevenson ... discovered sources of "primitive" poetic energy in his own psyche, most notably through the nightmare that yielded Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. – Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914, p.232

The power inherent in the words surfaces as the presence of an energy field, of psychic energy, or perhaps better said, psycho-poetic energy. – Dennis Patrick Slattery, ‘Psychic Energy's Portal to Presence in Myth, Poetry and Culture’ in Eranos Reborn: The Modernities of East and West; Perspectives on Violence, p.466

[T]he poetic rhythms grow and soar with energy. An expanding set of alliterations and assonances and inner rhythms are a product of the poetic energy. – Elaine B Safer, ‘William Gass, the Short Story and Metafiction’ in Nor Shall Diamond Die: American Studies in Honour of Javier Coy p.473

[Ted] Hughes defines energy as ‘any form of vehement activity’, through which one invokes ‘the bigger energy, the elemental power circuit of the universe’. – Keith Sager, The Achievement of Ted Hughes, p.73

Reader may further observe poetic energy as cyclic, the continuum a panorama of valleys and plateaus with peaks of inspiration every few years. – Allen Ginsberg, preface to ‘Kaddish’, Collected Poems, p.26

Okay, what then is poetic energy and where does it come from? Plato was the first to come up with the notion of a poetic energy:

[In Ion] he speaks of enthusiasmos (a kind of divinely inspired 'enthusiasm' or 'energy' equivalent to the Latin inspiratio) in terms of magnetic power as it passes from one iron ring to another. In just such a way, he suggests, poetic energy is communicated from the divinity to the poet and so on through the performer (here the rhapsode) to the audience. – Rob Pope, Creativity: Theory, History, Practice, p. 92

Of course in these secular times few credit divinities with anything much so let’s pass on to more recent thoughts on the subject:

It is poetic activity that creates a poem. But what is a poem? It is the manifestation of poetic energy, etc. – Cleanth Brooks to Robert Penn ‘Red’ Warren in A Literary Correspondence, p.301

The energy latent within language which often energises the aesthetic imperative. – Murray Cox, Alice Theilgaard, Shakespeare as Prompter: The Amending Imagination and the Therapeutic Process, p. 80

Professor Woodberry defined ‘poetic energy’ as “shared and controlled emotion.” – William Aspenwall Bradley, ‘Inspiration and Poetic Energy’, The New York Times, 26 March 1910

As a result, Tennyson's poetic energy would come not from the vitality of the poet's personality expressed through his characters, but from his technical skill in manipulating language. – Andrew Elfenbein, Byron and the Victorians, p.174 [Compare that to what Wallace Stevens says below]

People-who-love-reading-poems often do so because of the sheer energy of connections between a poem and the section it is in, the book it is in, the epoch it is in. When the energy is unleashed, one wants to scribble in the margins, following the flight of ideas/emotions/images. – Aaron Moe, ‘People Who Claim They Don’t “Get” Poetry’, 28 December 2011

…a communicable energy rooted in the experience of human corporeality, an energy that resonates with the body and between bodies, giving poetry both its feeling of reality and its capacity to move. – Joseph Campana, 'On Not Defending Poetry: Spenser, Suffering, and the Energy of Affect' in PMLA, Vol. 120, No. 1, Jan., 2005, p.34

Such an energy is the profound intellectual control of material, as distinct from profound emotional sensitiveness to the material. – John Drinkwater, The Lyric, p.12

More than a century ago, Francis B. Gummere, in a close study of the early beginnings of poetry, pointed out that rhythm was the initial source of poetic energy and was fundamental to the making of poetry. – Cecile Chu-chin Sun, The Poetics of Repetition in English and Chinese Lyric Poetry, p.31

Long vowel sounds will decrease the energy at that point in the poem and make the mood more serious.

Higher vowel sounds will increase the energy and lighten the mood. – Examples of Assonance Poems,

…poems crammed full of repetition and alliteration. The result is poetry bursting with dynamic energy. – 'Gerald Manley Hopkins', BBC

Energy in poetry … is compelled to manifest itself through form, not simply or necessarily metrical structure but a continuous inevitability of movement… – Edwin Morgan, ‘Dunbar and the Language of Poetry’ in Essays in Criticism Volume II, Issue 2, p.138

A line of poetry on a page exists in space, but I think of it as a kind of timing, a measured flow of poetic energy, a dynamic. – Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, 'Two Lines',

…the facts and the descriptive writing jostle with each other and the poem’s energy derives from the collision. – Neil Powell, Carpenters of light: Some Contemporary English Poets, p.128

Lots of opinions then. Energy, whatever its source, is clearly a part of the process just as electricity powers so many machines these days but generally energy is not the intended end product (unless you’re a turbine) and I personally find poems that focus on energy lacking. I agree wholeheartedly with what’s said here:

Poetry which concentrates upon energy—its generation, control and unleashing—generally leaves readers with an exhilarating sense of kinesis, as skiing or flying does, but without a firm conception of content. It lives most fully in the act of reading, and recedes during the process of critical reflection when more tangible problems of 'meaning' come naturally to the fore. – DF McKay, 'Aspects of Energy in the Poetry of Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath' in Critical Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 1, pages 53–67, March 1974

ep“Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree,” wrote Ezra Pound. You see he doesn’t discount energy—he says “charged with meaning”—but energy is not the poem’s end, simply a means to an end:

In some writers, and these the very greatest … poetic energy and poetic art are seen in something like equipoise. It is of poetry as an art, however, that we have mainly to speak here; and all we have to say upon poetry as an energy is that the critic who, like Aristotle, takes this wide view of poetry—the critic who, like him, recognizes the importance of poetry in its relations to man’s other expression of spiritual force, claims, a place in point of true critical sagacity above that of a critic who, like Plato, fails to recognize that importance. – Theodore Watts-Dunton, ‘Poetry as an Energy and as an Art’, Encyclopaedia Britannica 10th edition (1902)

I have to say I’ve read that last paragraph several times—Christ, they could be wordy back in 1902—but my general feeling is that he’s saying that those who view “poetry as an energy” have fallen short in their estimation of what poetry can and should be.

This article was prompted by a couple of comments made concerning my review of Stephen Nelson’s poetry collection Lunar Poems for New Religions. My article took a very literal reading of the main poem ‘Look Up!’ which the poet himself thought was not really the way to read the poem. Stephen said:

I'm of the opinion that you don't have to understand a poem to be moved by it, indeed the way it moves you is more important than understanding. I find easily understood poems a bit boring sometimes. Unusual or complex language and structure are just more enjoyable. I particularly like the flow of spontaneous writing, where meaning is perhaps subordinate to energy.

and his comment was supported by my friend Marion McCready who said, “I'm in complete agreement with Stephen over the energy and language of a poem being much more important to me than meaning.” My response (in part):

I wonder sometimes why I’m a poet because there’s a whole level of poetry that seems to be screened off from me. Words are all about meaning and those meanings, once processed, prompt feelings. What is this “energy and language” of which you speak? Yes, of course, there’re dynamics in writing—short punchy sentences, long meandering sentences—and choice of word makes such a difference … but I cannot understand what anyone gets from a poem if not meaning and feeling. I read Wilfred Owen and he makes me think and feel. I read Philip Larkin and he makes me think and feel. I read Ginsberg and he makes me want to scream.

When I first read—correction, tried to read—‘Look Up!’ I wanted to scream too. Having heard Stephen read it … I suppose I can see what you’re on about when you talk about “energy” but it’s so short-lived and I would still argue that what one experiences still comes under the general heading of ‘feeling’. I’ve the same problem when people talking about spirituality. I don’t get it. Religion for me was always an intellectual exercise first and foremost. You need to understand Christ’s sacrifice before you feel anything about it. At least I do. I know there will be people who learn that Jesus died for us but don’t understand what that actually means and so go off feeling stuff based on a false premise but false or not their emotion response is still a natural reaction to an intellectual proposition.

Marion and Stephen are not alone, however, when it comes to considering energy paramount:

My chief point ... is that I must read our poems in their field of energy—our entire body poetic. Call it imaginative reading, which is also why the field of interpretation is always open. In that field of poetic energy, what matter most is not the language but what is done to it, how it has been worked and what is reaped; how language has been made to serve the poet's imagination. Imaginative reading is another mode of reasoning, of thinking through language—of finding one's own path through language—which isn't the usual mode of reasoning and theorising that we are taught in academe... – Gémino H. Abad, ‘A Sense of Country: Our Body Poetic’ in Philippine Studies: Have We Gone Beyond St. Louis?p.493

I think Charles Whitmore’s comments are particularly relevant here:

It is a commonplace of literary history that no great outburst of poetic energy has been unattended by the lyric. Not only may we fairly say that its vitality is an index of the vitality of the deeper poetic energies, but we may add that it endures when other forms seem dormant or moribund, and that when it is wholly extinguished, true poetry is practically at and end. It would, therefore, seem that an examination of the lyric, and a definition of its peculiar qualities, would be likely to throw light on the nature of poetry itself. – Charles E. Whitmore, ‘A Definition of the Lyric’ in PMLA, Vol 33 No 4, 1918, p.584

philip-larkinI’m not going to get into a deep discussion of what ‘lyric poetry’ means these days if, indeed, it’s an appropriate term other than to identify poetry which isn’t narrative poetry. Unsurprisingly Larkin—who Michael Billington once described as “a fine lyric poet with tragic personal limitations”[3]—has little to say on the subject of energy[4] (apart from to acknowledge the existence of creative energy) although others have certainly seen fit to comment on his poetry’s negative energy[5] but in his book Sisir Kumar Chatterjee twice[6] uses the term “lyrical energy” to try to describe what he believes powers Larkin’s poetry; the term has also been used by other authors with reference to the diverse writings of Christina Rossetti, Cole Porter Shakespeare and Ralph Gustafson. Lyric poetry died away at the start of the twentieth century, came back for a bit, faded again, came back again. “In the early years of the twentieth century rhymed lyric poetry, usually expressing the feelings of the poet, was the dominant poetic form in America,” so says Wikipedia. It then goes on, “The dominance of lyric was challenged by American experimental modernists such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, H.D. and William Carlos Williams, who rejected the English lyric form of the nineteenth century, feeling that it relied too heavily on melodious language, rather than complexity of thought.”

Most poets—and I include myself here—would accept that one of the major ways in which poetry distinguishes itself from prose is in its use of sound. Before Stravinsky music tended to stick to regular rhythms harking back to the early dances, allemandes, sarabandes, gigues, minuets, and it pretty much found a key and stuck to it. And poetry is no different. We’ve moved on from songs and iambic pentameters. Poetic ‘melodies’ are far more complex these days, jarring even, but our ears have learned how to cope and even appreciate these rhythms. Word choice is extremely important. It may have a minimal effect on meaning—as I’ve said before is there any real difference between ‘wait a minute’ and ‘hang on a sec’?—but it affects the tone of the piece and therefore the feeling you get from it. Poetry is not simply an intellectual exercise and poetry that doesn’t illicit feelings in its reader is pretty drab poetry in my book.

We’re in danger of drifting away from our original topic. So let’s look at a poem famous for its energy. Here are the opening lines to Kurt Schwitters’ poem ‘Ursonate’:

Fümms bö wö tää zää Uu,
                   kwii Ee.

dll rrrrr beeeee bö
dll rrrrr beeeee bö fümms bö,
    rrrrr beeeee bö fümms bö wö,
         beeeee bö fümms bö wö tää,
              bö fümms bö wö tää zää,
                   fümms bö wö tää zää Uu:

It goes on like this for over a thousand lines but if you’ve ever heard it performed you couldn’t argue that there’s an energy at work here. Here’s a clip of Schwitters himself reciting most of the above (not sure what the cow’s got to do with anything):

There are nine versions of the poem available here. It’s worth nothing that Schwitters describes the piece in musical terms:

The Sonata consists of four movements, of an overture and a finale, and seventhly, of a cadenza in the fourth movement. The first movement is a rondo with four main themes, designated as such in the text of the Sonata. You yourself will certainly feel the rhythm, slack or strong, high or low, taut or loose. To explain in detail the variations and compositions of the themes would be tiresome in the end and detrimental to the pleasure of reading and listening, and after all I'm not a professor. – The Ursonate (or: Sonate in Urlauten)

There are those who would argue that this piece is nonsensical and they have a case. On one level it is meaningless. If any meaning is to be gleaned from it the bulk of the work will have to be done by the listener. The sounds may remind him of things from his past, dredge up memories and feelings and this is no different to Gershwin’s inclusion of tuned taxi horns in An American in Paris or Respighi’s incorporation of a recording of actual birdsong in The Pines of Rome. I still see meaning and feeling as the intended result here. If the listener is not willing to open up in that way then the exercise will be pointless and (probably) painful. This is supported by what Schwitters himself wrote:

As with any other reading, correct reading requires the use of imagination. The reader himself has to work seriously to become a genuine reader. Thus, it is work rather than questions or mindless criticism which will improve the reader's receptive capacities. The right of criticism is reserved to those who have achieved a full understanding. – The Ursonate (or: Sonate in Urlauten)

‘[A] full understanding’. He doesn’t talk about those who have been energised by the work; rather he talks about those who have understood it.

Okay, let’s move onto a more traditional poem, one in English at least. Here’s the opening stanza to ‘Thank You' by Heather Nagami:

Why, thank you for the compliment!
Yes, I do speak well, don't I? I've studied hard
these 24 years, well, 23 if you don't count
that mindless baby talk. And no, I don't speak
my own language, but thank you for your concern.
I'm sure it is very much your business.
I know it is a shame. But I'll promise you one thing.
I'll learn someday! Yes! I thought that would make you happy.
And, I think you're so right; I will need it when I go back.
Oh, how I long to go back! Where everyone's hair is black,
eyes are brown, and they think I'm just as much a foreigner
as you think I am.

You can read the full poem on her blog along with a comment on the poem by David Landrum a professor at Grand Valley State University who says of the poem:

I teach poems like 'Thank You' by Heather Nagami, an ethnic poem that does not draw on metrics in any way. And while it is good, I think the text doesn't give it enough of a dynamic for it to endure as a work of art for very long. It is admirable but not enduring and many poems are like this. I like to think it is the lack of poetic dynamic, the lack of poetic energy in the poem that does this. And I can't help but think the Whitmanesque tradition provides more poetic language than just the poetry of flat statement. – comment on, May 2006

and this is how she responds:

I do agree with Landrum in that it does not draw on metrics, and the truth is that I also highly value some type of cadence in poems. I get extremely impatient when I read a poem that does not seem to have a sense of music. However, there is something to be said for not making something ugly beautiful. The essentialist way of thinking about culture, the unspoken entitlement involved in the types of statements ‘Thank You’ addresses is ugly. Music and rhythm would make it pretty; it is not pretty, and I'd rather strip the language down to show it as it is than pretty it up for a pleasant, even quaint, reading.

I do not, however, agree that it lacks poetic energy, but I believe I am simply defining poetic energy differently from Mr Landrum. If poetic energy comes simply from music, then yes, it lacks poetic energy. However, if poetic energy is what is produced from emotional content infused into the poem and the feelings, questions, and ideas that are stirred in a reader who connects with the poem, then it is certainly brimming with poetic energy. I also would not consider this "the poetry of flat statement" either, since none of the statements I make in the poem are what the poem is actually saying. – Heather Nagami, ‘I prefer “Poem of Color”’, Life Indefinite, 4 June 2012

200px-Charles_OlsonThe key expression here, for me, is, “I am simply defining poetic energy differently from Mr Landrum.” Part of the problem I’ve found in my researches so far is that, just as with literal energy, there’s no definitive, no clear definition of what poetic energy is which I don’t find strange because no one seems to be able to define a poem any more these days either. Not to everyone’s satisfaction.

One poet who talks at any length about poetic energy was Charles Olson in his manifesto Projective Verse which begins:

First, some simplicities that a man learns, if he works in OPEN, or what can also be called COMPOSITION BY FIELD, as opposed to inherited line, stanza, over-all form, what is the “old” base of the non-projective.

(1) the kinetics of the thing. A poem is energy transferred from where the poet got it (he will have some several causations), by way of the poem itself to, all the way over to, the reader. Okay. Then the poem itself must, at all points, be a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge. So: how is the poet to accomplish same energy, how is he, what is the process by which a poet gets in, at all points energy at least the equivalent of the energy which propelled him in the first place, yet an energy which is peculiar to verse alone and which will be, obviously, also different from the energy which the reader, because he is the third term, will take away?

This is the problem which any poet who departs from closed form is specially confronted by. And it involves a whole series of new recognitions. From the moment he ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION—puts himself in the open—he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself. Thus he has to behave, and be, instant by instant, aware of some several forces just now beginning to be examined. (It is much more, for example, this push, than simply such a one as Pound put, so wisely, to get us started: “the musical phrase,” go by it, boys, rather than by, the metronome.) – Charles Olson, Projective Verse, 1950 (bold mine)

He still doesn’t actually say what this energy is though. He does mention a force later on:

Because breath allows all the speech-force of language back in (speech is the “solid” of verse, is the secret of a poem’s energy), because, now, a poem has, by speech, solidity, everything in it can now be treated as solids, objects, things; and, though insisting upon the absolute difference of the reality of the verse from that other dispersed and distributed thing, yet each of these elements of a poem can be allowed, once the poem is well composed, to keep, as those other objects do, their proper confusions. – Charles Olson, Projective Verse, 1950

Of course he’s still talking metaphorically. Speech is not solid. This is the clearest explanation of what Olson might have meant when he talked about energy I could find online:

High energy is the crux of projective verse—verbalized perceptions that move quickly and efficiently, leading to subsequent perceptions in a way that does not allow a poem’s energy to lag, or to be sidetracked, by poetic and intellectual conceits. In the shaping of these energies, a dynamic form emerges. – Jim Benz, ‘Charles Olson's Essay on Projective Verse’, Suite 101, 5 February 2010

Zukofsky also spoke of “the energies of words”[7] when he was formulating his idea about what would come to be known as Objectivist poetry but I can find nothing that explains what he meant by that expression. Pound famously described an image as “an emotional and intellectual complex in an instant of time”[8] which Peter O’Leary in this interview says is “for all intents and purposes a paraphrase of energy.” In the same interview he also says that his contemporary Ron Johnson “believed at his core, that poetry is imaginative energy in language.” There’s no doubt that a great many poets have their own thoughts on the subject. Pity they don’t agree more.

754_morganlargeI found much of what Edwin Morgan has to say in his essay ‘Dunbar and the Language of Poetry’ interesting although, of course, he still doesn’t define poetic energy:

'Of what we call genius,' wrote Matthew Arnold, 'energy is the most essential part.' [...] If poetry is the manifestation of energy in order, Arnold's statement is still the backbone of the argument; we are dealing with ordered energy, not with energetic orderliness. [...] Energy without order usually gives us the feeling that we are in touch with a poet but not with a poem: the forges clang, the air is thick with the spark and fume of production, but in the end nothing is made, no object presented to us that we can grasp and appraise. [...] Order without energy is exemplified by the poet whose inspiration is fitful and less than a match for his knowledge of what effects poetry can produce. [...] But there is a complication, which Arnold did not consider. Energy may be felt by the poet primarily as order. – Edwin Morgan, ‘Dunbar and the Language of Poetry’ in Essays in Criticism Volume II, Issue 2, p.138

Perhaps ‘energy’ is the wrong word here entirely. I was rather struck by what Wallace Stevens had to say here:

Since we have no difficulty in recognizing poetry and since, at the same time, we say that it is not an attainable acme, not some breath from an altitude, not something that awaits discovery, after which it will not be subject to chance, we may be accounting for it if we say that it is a process of the personality of the poet. One does not have to be a cardinal to make the point. To say that it is a process of the personality of the poet does not mean that it involves the poet as subject. Aristotle said: “The poet should say very little in propria persona.” Without stopping to discuss what might be discussed for so long, not that the principle so stated by Aristotle is cited in relation to the point that poetry is a process of the personality of the poet. This is the element, the force, that keeps poetry a living thing, the modernizing and ever-modern influence. The statement that the process does not involve the poet as subject, to the extent to which that is true, precludes direct egotism. On the other hand, without indirect egotism there can be no poetry. There can be no poetry without the personality of the poet, and that, quite simply, is why the definition of poetry has not been found and why, in short, there is none. – Wallace Stevens, ‘The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet’ in The Necessary Angel, 1965 (bold mine)

We’re used to thinking of a personality in terms of dynamics, a forceful personality, a powerful personality, an energetic personality. I think Stevens might be onto something here and it reminded me of this:

[William Carlos] Williams often described the force or energy of poems as an essence or rare presence. These images occur quite early in his writing. A 1921 editorial in Contact, discussing Burke's article on Laforgue, describes the search for a "milligram of radium," while the essay on Marianne Moore published in A Novelette and Other Prose speaks of the "white light that is the background of all good work." – Lisa M Steinmann, ‘William Carlos Williams and Science’ in Science and Literature, p.143[9]

Personally I don’t see poetic energy as a thing. I see it as a metaphor. This following quote makes perfect sense to me:

Harrington's 'ecology of creativity' ... moves as freely across the human-machine as the human-nature interface. Working from the premise that 'life processes are sustained by functional relationships and interdependencies', he observes that 'the ecological study of human creativity will almost surely need to include a role for the concept of information and information flow that is in some respects analogous to but importantly different from the concept of energy and energy flow in biological ecosystems'. – Rob Pope, Creativity: Theory, History, Practice, p.69

It worries me this elevation of energy. The earlier quote from DF McKay where he talks about an “an exhilarating sense of kinesis” really jumped out at me, as does what Edwin Morgan said about forges clanging, as does what the poet Brad Leithauser has to say in a rather scathing attack on modern poetry—which he sees as having lost touch with most prosodic techniques:

The harmonies of rhyme, along with all the vitalising dissonances of off-rhyme, have been largely silenced. So, too, the heartbeat of meter, and the tugging counterpoint that speech rhymes create against it. [...] The final result, when coupled with a lack of interest in new, compensatory prosodic devices, is a poetry that seeks to build most of its energy by breaking lines at whatever points appear most confusing or disruptive. One sees again and again an attempt, in Richard Wilbur's words, to "throw a monkey / wrench into the poem." The effect sometimes is a kind of energy, but of a transitory and often unpleasant bumptious sort. This is freneticism masquerading as power—a sort of jittery, caffeine high. And given the narrowness of its source, one is not surprised when its stamina collapses and all energy drains from the poem on a second or third reading. – Brad Leithauser, ‘The Confinement of Free Verse’ in Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets and Poetry, pp.165.166

In all I’ve read (and I’ve spent several days reading everything I can find online on the subject) I’m still not convinced that “the energy and language of a poem [are] much more important … than meaning.” I think the poet Thom Gunn might have it about right as he put it in this early poem addressed to his mentor Yvor Winters:

You keep both Rule and Energy in view,
Much power in each, most in the balanced two:
Ferocity existing in the fence
Built by an exercised intelligence.

(from ‘To Yvor Winters, 1955’)

I’d be delighted to hear what you have to think. Anyone care to have a stab at a) defining poetic energy for me or b) trying to convince me why it’s more important than meaning?



[1] See Kinetic Energy in William Carlos Williams's Poetry by Olya Mariam

[2] He said this in a letter to the editors of The Little Review in 1929 (according to this article). A fuller quote can be found here: The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams, pp.44,45

[3] Michael Billington, ‘Life limited by love’ in The Guardian, 13 November 1999

[4] In a letter to Monica Jones he wrote, “I think it is a grave fault in life that so much time is wasted in social matters, because it not only takes up time when you might be doing individual private things, but it prevents you storing up the psychic energy that can then be released to create art or whatever it is.” – Philip Larkin: Letters to Monica, p.35 His brief ‘statement’ on what poetry is is worth reading.

[5] "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were to Wordsworth.” – Philip Larkin, Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces, 1955-82, p 47

[6] Sisir Kumar Chaterjee, Philip Larkin: Poetry That Builds Bridges, pp.12,325

[7] See ‘The Energies of Words’ by Peter O’Leary, Poetry Foundation

[8] Literary Essays ed. TS Eliot, 1976, p.4

[9] See also The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, p.362 reproduced in a more readable form as a PDF here.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Carnaby Street’s Great Uninvited – Around the World in 80 Years

Words are all we have – Samuel Beckett
There are too many words in the English language. And yet more and more are being coined every day. Why? You’d honestly think by now there would be a word for everything and yet, perversely, there isn’t and most of the words that we have are nowhere near as precise as I for one would like them to be. Is ‘huge’ the same, for example, as ‘enormous’ or ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’? Or what about ‘whacking great’, ‘whopping’ or ‘humongous’? Let’s face it they’re all pretty much interchangeable but is huge the same as ‘plus big’ or ‘double plus big’? And what’s the ratio of ‘big’ to ‘plus big’ to ‘double plus big’? You see, even with Newspeak it’s still possible to be vague.

Want to wager a few quid on whether ‘huge’ or ‘enormous’ or ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ will even be around in, say, a hundred years’ time? The rise and fall of words is a fascinating subject when you get into it. Why do certain words survive unscathed for thousands of years—words like ‘I’ or ‘thou’ or ‘who’—whereas others are gone within a few decades? Does ‘cool’ still mean ‘groovy’? If I started peppering my posts with ‘cool’ and ‘groovy’ nowadays I’d sound like a right Herbert or whatever the current buzzword is for a square dude. Of course ‘square’ is still with us but now it means what it always did: a regular parallelogram whose internal angles are all 90º and whose sides are all of equal length.

Occasionally words go out of fashion and then make a comeback. The phrase “hey-ho” has apparently been returned to dictionaries recently—thanks to the Internet it seems:
"A lot of internet communication is written speech, or transliterated speech," says Tony Thorne, a language consultant at King's College London. "Social media is all about nudging and poking. It's a more amplified conversation."
Ultimately, finding written ways to express the visual—like shrugging—is a key component of internet communication and social networks, says Mr Thorne. "People introduce these light hearted conversational things which normally you only find in speech," he says.
In that way, he suggests, "hey-ho" could just be the new emoticon. – Laura Schocker, ‘Why has “hey-ho” made a comeback?’, BBC News Magazine, 1 September 2009
Makes perfect sense in the age of ever-contracting communication styles but does that mean that all big words are doomed? And there are some lovely big words kicking around, words like ‘nincompoop’ (possibly a contraction of non compos mentis), which we’ve had since the mid-1600s: can you imagine one kid calling another a nincompoop, a ninny perhaps—a further contraction of the word—but I wonder how many would have a clue about the word’s origins?

maudEvolution is all about the survival of the fittest and the fact is that some words are no longer fit for purpose and have been replaced. Is that such a bad thing? The English language still has more words available to us than any of us use. Does it matter that the days of words like ‘aerodrome’ and ‘charabanc’ are numbered? Just like the Yangtze Finless Porpoise and the Humphead Wrasse are on the World Wildlife Fund’s Endangered Species List so likewise ‘aerodrome’ and ‘charabanc’ are on Collins Dictionary’s endangered words list. As a kid I thought ‘charabanc’ was ‘charabang’ because that’s how my dad pronounced it. It was one of his ambitions—sadly, never fulfilled—to drive one. So it’s a word I’ll take to the grave with me but I wonder how long it’ll survive after that. Should we let it die a natural death or try to preserve it? Does it deserve our protection? What if some pop star called their next album Charabanc? Would that guarantee it respite for another generation?

Like all writers—at least I’d like to think all writers feel the same as I do—I’m passionate about words. I love to discover new ones. As a kid I would literally sit and read the dictionary or Hartrampf’s Vocabulary Builder which was on the endangered books list until 2007 when it reappeared with a fancy new cover. Here’s what a reviewer says in Amazon:
This book was first bought for me when I was twelve. It changed my life. Better than a thesaurus, more comprehensive and easier to use, it expanded my vocabulary and was the foundation for the love of language I have never lost.
I am thrilled to see that it is still available. All budding rappers, poets, school kids and their teachers should possess this book!
I concur. Another writer who I expect would agree with us would be Safia Shah, author of (the wordy bits at least) of Carnaby Street’s Great Uninvited – Around the World in 80 Years; the artwork was contributed by Mark Reeve. More on him later.

Safia_Shah_Journalist_and_WriterSafia Shah—now Safia Thomas—is a British writer, editor and television news producer. She was born in London in 1966 and, for several years, ran a respected traditional delicatessen, A. Gold in London, specializing in entirely British fare. She now lives close to Casablanca in Morocco which explains, perhaps, why her latest book, Carnaby Street’s Great Uninvited – Around the World in 80 Years, is set there despite the rather British-sounding title. The title is misleading. Carnaby Street is a person, a young girl—she looks about seventeen—and the book’s narrator; her fez-wearing younger brother is called Oxford. Odd names in children’s books are not uncommon—Arrietty in The Borrowers, Hermione in the Harry Potter novels (the name’s popularity was at an all-time low in 2010 and now’s at an all-time high) or Horton from the Dr Seuss book which despite the film adaptation has still not Carnabyproved that popular with parents)—but, perhaps because I’m a Scot, I didn’t much care for Carnaby Street as a name. On my first read I actually thought it was the boy—for some reason I expected the boy to be the narrator—and wondered why Safia didn’t call him Barnaby. We don’t learn what their parents’ first names are but we are introduced to a number of their relatives—the great uninvited of the title—such as Florence May Street-Macadam and the rather Harry-Potter-looking Carter Able-Street-Macadam sometimes called ‘Chasm’ “as that’s his initials.” The Streets have a number of pets: Martin the cat who, on page eight, abandons them to train as a milkman; ten unnamed tortoises, one of whom “fell off the roof, in what can only be described as ‘highly suspicious circumstances’” and an aardvark called Alice whose real name apparently is ‘Orycteropus’ which, we’re told, means ‘aardvark’.

Every now and then a word or a phrase is highlighted in the text. Mostly these are unusual words like ‘refrained’, ‘innovation’, ‘depleted’, ‘smarting’ and ‘profusion’. There’s a reason for this:
In your copy of the book, you will find a bookmark with squillions of fantastic endangered words and a pocket magnifier. Use the magnifier to reveal some cunningly hidden, mind-boggling new words. Coloured text on the page is your clue that a definition is hidden nearby. Be warned: some are harder to find than others!
I didn’t use the magnifier which was enclosed. I used my own and I have to say the print was not simply tiny: it was microscopic. Just a few points bigger wouldn’t have hurt. But it’s a good idea and the definitions are quite well-hidden within the illustrations although not as well as Wally (or Waldo if you’re an American). Of course once you’ve found them once I’m not sure what fun there might be had in looking a second time. Also there was no pocket to keep the magnifier in and I’m pretty sure most kids will lose theirs. It would’ve been a much better idea to ditch the bookmark and simply attach the magnifier to the nice turquoise ribbon.

On the book’s website—always a good idea in this day and age—the author explains why she’s written the book in the way in which she has:
There are somewhere between 150,000 and a quarter of a million words sloshing around in the English language but we routinely get through our day using as few as 7,000 of them.
In the glorious age of the text and the tweet, some 20 percent of our endangered words may be slipping from usage; a sobering statistic for anyone with a love of language that extends beyond the telephone keypad.
Here at Carnaby’s Great Uninvited, we’re calling upon anyone interested in saving some of these dear, wise, elderly and enfeebled words to help us breathe new life into old. Let’s snatch begrumpled from the brink of obscurity, jazz up jargogle and massage poor sick kedge-belly back to life. We want to open our wink-a-peeps and with your help, champion their cause.
It’s commendable but mostly the words she’s chosen to highlight are still staples, at least as far as us adults are concerned, but she does find room to include ‘jargogler’, ‘tar macadam’, ‘ninnyhammer’, ‘kit and caboodle’, ‘brabbler’ and ‘wasabi’ as well as the odd common idiom such as ‘as useful as a chocolate teapot’. Needless to say the text sounds a little awkward at times, a bit contrived:
AmeliaWe called Great Aunt Amelia ‘Gr- AAH’, which began as her names and somehow ended in the exclamation we made as she introduced us to her pet, Josie Shranks [a snake]. Globetrotting companions for almost half a century, they had little good to say of one another. 
[Graah says,] “I don’t much care for her but she has been with me for a very long time.” 
Graah had seen most of the world and had the baggage to prove it. 
We gave her the best room in the house because she’d come all the way from Matabeleland. And we were unaware that she was just the first of many guests to arrive. 
If only there had been some sort of a sign that so many more relatives were on their way. [A drawing of the cat holding a postcard suggests why.] 
Graah’s arrival caused the tortoises to momentarily consider a change in domicile. But the greatest strain was felt by Alice. Who had no fondness for reptiles. And who would have preferred that relatives and their reptilian pets refrained from coming to live with us. 
Being a python, Josie Shranks made Alice zigzag. That’s what aardvarks do when they see a predator – they zigzag.

Why were ‘exclamation’, ‘globetrotting’, ‘Matabeleland’, ‘momentarily’, ‘reptilian’ and ‘zigzag’ not highlighted? Some strange choices here. I particularly wondered about Matabeleland since at the start of the book she chooses to “define” the film Casablanca. That said there’s more about Matabeleland hidden away on the website. I must say I’m not crazy about the use of sentence fragments. Increasing our children’s vocabularies is indeed a commendable thing but I’d rather see us spend the time on grammar and punctuation. Overall I found the tone of narration affected, put on and as likely to put kids off as much as to encourage them. My wife, on the other hand, said she could easily imagine having read the book to one of her grandchildren and keeping their attention even without stopping to explain every word. That said she thought some of the definitions were a tad too British—Carrie, for those who don’t know her, is an American—and it’s only because she’s lived here for as long as she has that she got some of them.

chefAs far as content goes there’s not really much of a story here. Aunt Sylvia and her family arrive followed by Great Aunt Amelia who “seamlessly replaced our regular cook”, as Carnaby puts it. Like we all have cooks that can get so easily replaced. Reminded me of Enid Blyton’s worldview as Amelia cooks a meal made entirely out of different coloured potatoes (one of which manages to look and taste like chicken), shows a slideshow of her travels, has a knitting competition with Carnaby’s mum before heading off to bed with stories still to tell and we’re left—this is the age of the sequel—wondering which relatives will turn up next. Like I said, not much of a story. We are told at the end, however, that this is to be “the first of a series of books that will centre on Carnaby Street and her madcap relatives.”

Now, before you think I’m not overly impressed with this book, what you have to keep in mind is that this is only a part of a much larger endeavour. In addition to this book there are five ebooks entitled As Clear as Mud: The Brabbler’s Guide to Idioms—two volumes exist at the moment—Awfully Nice: The Quester’s Guide to Oxymorons, A is for Anonymuncle: The Brabbler’s Endangered ABC and I Literally Exploded: The Quester’s Guide to Misused Words. Now this is more like it. And obviously there are more books in the pipeline. This is what’s needed. I still think it’s an uphill and pretty pointless struggle—it’s the common man who decides what words stay or go—but if these books only get into the hands of one or two kids like me—and there have to be kids out there for whom language is a source of endless fascination—then it will have been a worthwhile venture.

Children’s books these days are rarely the product of a single author and one of the great pleasures I had when I first met Carrie was being able to wander round Waterstones looking for new and interesting books for her grandchildren since I don’t have any of my own. I’m not sure this one would’ve jumped out at me. Not based purely on the cover and, as I’ve said, the title doesn’t do much for me either. Had I known what was driving the author then I would’ve been more interested, which is why I agreed to review this book.

I love comics. I’m fifty-four years old and I still love comics. I think they’re horrendously expensive for what they are but I find it very hard to venture into Forbidden Planet and not come out with armfuls. What I love about them is the art. Sometimes the stories are good—the X-Men ‘Days of Future Past’ storyline or frankly any of the Sandman arcs—but many are forgettable. What saves some—Todd McFarlane’s run on Spider-Man is a good example—is the artwork. McFarlane is an okay writer but he’s an astounding artist. It’s rare to get someone who can write and draw and few writers of children’s book can do both well; Maurice Sendak is the only one that jumps to mind but I’m sure I’ll think of others in a few minutes.

Mark ReeveNow back to the illustrator, Mark Reeve. From his agency’s website [a few illustrations are available here too]:
Mark has been a commercial artist for twenty years. 
His first drawing was of a red elephant aged 5 and an intensive study of Marvel and DC Comics ensued, and Art college beckoned. First he attended Great Yarmouth College of Art and, in his own words, ‘achieved the rare distinction of failing the course and obtaining a confidential report so bad no other place would touch him’. Eventually however, he got his degree in Graphics at Kingston Art College and he has since produced a plethora of work, his folio comprising everything from DC comics, book covers, storyboards and film visuals, animation, political cartoons (he was political cartoonist on the Mail On Sunday for three and a half years and was awarded the Gillray Cup by The Political Cartoon Society 2004), sculpting and drawing the heads for Spitting Image and more recently, designing some sixty characters for ITV1′s satirical animated show Headcases (2008).
His comic book art’s not on a par with Bernie Wrightson or Joe Kubert or anything but there are nods. It’s obvious the man knows how to draw. But can he draw for kids? [NB: I do distinguish between comic book art and book illustration; they are far from being the same thing.] He does okay actually. What I especially liked was his careful use of colour. None of the illustrations are entirely in colour and so draw your eye to the important bits—exactly like highlighting in text. And there’s a mix of martinstyle—some are comic-booky (I’m think more Beano and Dandy comics here) whereas others (the father in particular) veer towards caricatures of real people (one of the many things Reeve does for a living—see here). The artwork here isn’t lush like the likes of Anthony BrowneVoices in the Park­ was one of the books I remember buying for one of Carrie’s grandkids—it veers more towards the cartoony style of Quentin Blake and there’s definitely a touch of Ronald Searle in the little girl and a bit of Charles Addams in their cat—it’s the eyes—or maybe Edward Gorey. There’s a lot on most of the pages to keep a kid’s interest over repeated viewings and, as I indicated above, the storytelling is not restricted to the words which is good because it feels more like a collaborative venture that way.

I’m not sure as a boy I would’ve enjoyed this book though. It feels a little girly. There are boys in it doing boys things—the cat is most definitely a Tom—but the knitting and the cooking stuff wasn’t really very exciting and there’s really no story at all surrounding the first set of guests, Alice and her family. Why didn’t Carter and Oxford go off and get into trouble? Then again why didn’t Florence and Carnaby do stuff together? They arrived, there was a wee bit of talk about names and that but the book really didn’t get going until Graah arrives to disrupt their lives, only unlike the Cat in the Hat or the tiger who came to tea, she’s not especially disruptive.

My biggest problem with the book is all to do with age. I’m really not sure what age range it’s aimed at. The language involved would need an older child to get to grips with it but he or she might feel they’re a bit old for a storybook. Then again I personally can’t imagine sitting a reading this to a child at the end of the day. There’s simply not enough meat to the words. So it’s a tough call. All parents know their own kids so they’d be best placed to decide what their children might appreciate. I had a look at some kenreading evaluation tests online and I reckon you’d need to be about eight or nine to cope comfortably with the level of comprehension needed here.

The next book in the series will be Great Aunt Maud – A Leech Jar Named Desire, to be followed by Grandfather Frederick — A Fish Called Brenda and Cousin Angel – Mimi La Minque. More details here.

The recommended retail price of the book is £10.95 but, of course, you’ll be able to pick it up for less than that. Amazon has it for £9.39 as I write this and for a hardbacked book I don’t think that’s too bad an investment.
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