A Shout-Out for Poetry From People Who Hate Poetry

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So I am on the train the other day…

…And I look over and I notice that the M.T.A. or someone has started in again with its (see above) Poetry in Motion campaign. Not that it matters to you, but Poetry in Motion is a probably self-explanatory public-service advertising campaign wherein poems or parts of poems take the place of ordinary ads in train cars.

So, you know, instead of pictures of acne-ravaged teenagers or hair-sprayed local news anchors or cans of beer, you get a poem. O.K.?

Most people probably don’t notice. Myself, I actually like poetry and often read poetry and, honestly, I don’t notice most of the time, either.

The M.T.A. has been doing this since 1992, or something like that. And for some reason, it stopped doing it in 2008. I don’t remember why. And according to a short Google search, the M.T.A. actually started doing Poetry in Motion again early last year.

The point of the story, though, is that the other day I am on the train and one minute I am looking at a not-that-interesting poem and then I turn my head to look in the other direction and I see this:

I know it’s blurry, but you get the idea.

I know it’s blurry, but you get the idea.

Obviously, it’s an ad for the campaign. But what made me drop my jaw — O.K., I didn’t really drop my jaw — was the utterly artless and thoroughly ironic ad copy. If I was any kind of photographer, or had the balls to point my phone for a bit longer at three complete strangers, you would be able to read it better. But it says this:

Many of you felt parting was not such sweet sorrow. So we’re bringing poetry back in a very artful way. Hopefully, you’ll feel transported.

Can you conceive of three sharper, more vicious kicks to the groin of a poetry-loving person?

I don’t know who or what the M.T.A. uses for projects like this. Interns, former motormen, a typewriter scrolled with paper and pitched out of an open window. I am not trying to be a mean guy, or anything.

But that is just stupid.

And it is stupid toward the wrong people to be stupid to. The guy who might genuinely be interested that there will be random poems here and there on a subway car is probably the guy who will realize how idiotic that ad is.


‘Yonder window.’ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First of all, if I really thought that “parting” with Poetry in Motion in 2008 was not “such sweet sorrow,” I wouldn’t be interested in seeing the stupid thing come back.

“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” of course, comes from the first balcony scene in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” You know the scene I mean. Romeo is skulking around in the dark under Juliet’s window, like a pervert, and suddenly she appears. “But, soft!” Romeo says, as if he didn’t know exactly what he was doing. “What light through yonder window breaks?”

Yadda, yadda.

At length, Juliet lays on Romeo a vaguely sadomasochistic line where she imagines him to be a pet bird tied to a string. He warms to the idea immediately. You can imagine his eyes bulging as he blurts, “I would I were thy bird.”

And she answers him:

Sweet, so would I:
Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.*
Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.

By “sweet sorrow,” Juliet means that she knows she will see Romeo again, and so leaving him isn’t really cause for concern. It’s sweet because she’ll be thinking of him. (Never mind that they both will soon be [spoiler!] dead.)

Not for nothing but in “West Side Story,” the sentiment is the same. Though, Maria (Juliet) is on a fire escape, not a balcony, and instead of holding forth with treacly patter from a distance, Tony (Romeo) announces with ungentlemanly (if you ask me) boldness, “I’m coming up.” After basically covering the same ground as in Shakespeare, it is clear that Tony has to go.

TONY: You see?
MARIA (touching his face): I see you
TONY: See only me

It’s the same idea. The boy says, I have to go. The girl says, that’s bad. But they both know it’s not. And what’s more, they’re both excited that it’s not. With “sweet sorrow,” with “I see you,” she is telling him that she will miss him. If she had, like the M.T.A. ad, said it was not sweet sorrow, that would be like she had said, Ciao, Romeo, baby; and just so you know, I will be mooning my face off to the very next spaghetti-sucking, tights-wearing goombah to stumble past my window. You don’t have to be an English major (pantywaist) to realize it, either.

From here, it’s hardly worth the time to go on.

To wit, I ask, Are they “bringing back poetry in an artful way”? The one reference to verse in the ad is completely fumbled. Which is to say it is the opposite of being artful. Which is to say it’s a little nauseating. I ask the M.T.A., Couldn’t you have dug a little deeper in your poetry drawer?

And third, speaking of a lack of art, every time I am on the subway, I literally feel transported. Not only do I feel that way, but that is actually what ends up happening. Is that how you want to conclude an advertisement that is supposed to be a celebration of poetry?

As my high school English teacher used to say, Ye, gods.

* I don’t think she really means “cherish.” I think she means what Rupert Brooke means, you know, when he wrote, “Even then, When two mouths, thirsty each for each, find slaking.” Slaking! (Wink.)



Word of the Week: Termagant

“The Remorse of Orestes," by William Adolphe Bouguereau.

“The Remorse of Orestes,” by William Adolphe Bouguereau.

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly), assize (law court), puissant (powerful), legerdemain (trickery) and apercu (insight) and homunculus (dwarf) and how about… termagant?

So, long story short, I was explaining the other day my first encounter with today’s word, termagant, a noun that Webster’s Fourth defines as “a quarrelsome, scolding woman; a shrew.”

And I totally cobbed up my explanation. Termagant (TERR-muh-gant), so they say, comes from the Middle English termagaunt, which is an “imaginary Muslim deity portrayed as a violent and overbearing character in medieval mystery plays.”

When I made my explanation, I had remembered the word from culture-clashing anecdotes in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s excellent “Christianity.” And so I incorrectly said termagant was an imaginary Christian deity, which is a gross violation of the, you know, whatever.

Xanthippe pours water over Socrates.

The mischievous Xanthippe about to douse Socrates. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was some time later when I realized my mistake, and upon reflection I remembered, for no good reason, another misogynistic word I had recently encountered, Xanthippe.

That is the name of Socrates’ wife, who according to classical tradition was “shrewish and scolding.” I happened at that moment to look up Xanthippe on the Google, and I realized two things: One, there are a lot of fun words in this phylum of morphemes, and two, and perhaps this is not surprising, some of these words have unfair origins.

Take Socrates’ wife — take her, please! — as an example. There is reason to think that she was, as Socrates himself is quoted as saying, “the hardest to get along with of all the women there are.” But Socrates apparently knew what he was getting into; he is said to have chosen Xanthippe because of her peculiar amiability, not in spite of it. He is supposed to have said, though not exactly with magnanimity, “None of your soft-mouthed, docile animals for me.”

Sadly, or perhaps typically, the nuances of Socrates’ endorsement have been lost to later generations. Thus handed the ball, generations of men, including bright lights like Shakespeare, were more than happy to run with it.

And it is in the spirit of my forebears that I here propose to present something of a boxscore for words like termagant and Xanthippe. Though, to maintain the putatively noble pursuits of this franchise, I will not dwell on the obvious examples (e.g. hag, bitch and she-devil), the overly technical (e.g. calumniator, vituperator and backbiter) and the unimaginative (e.g. witch, ogress and scold). Also scarcely worth comment are hellcat, bag, battle-axe, biddy, sorceress, vixen, hussy, nag, she-wolf, tigress and wench.

Where does that leave us?

“Death of Jezebel,” by Gustave Dore.

“Death of Jezebel,” by Gustave Dore.

For starters, Xanthippe is not even the most famous woman to have her name be co-opted into an epithet. The biblical Jezebel, for instance, was an ambitious and intelligent Phoenician princess who married Ahab, king of the strategic northern Israeli state of Judah.

On the face of it, Jezebel really ought to be an admirable figure. She was a graceful and beautiful woman, proven as a competent administrator, possessed of a thoroughly independent mind, and recognized, if behind the scenes, as the real ruler of the kingdom. Jezebel’s big mistake was to lend state support to the worshippers of a god known as Baal, who were fierce early rivals of the Jews. And it is the unflattering portrayal by Jewish scribes that survives today.

When Ahab died, the Baal star was no longer ascendant. After Jezebel’s son Jehoram captured the throne, he resolved to undo her spiritual patronage. The scene is set in Chapter 9 of Second Kings; Jezebel put “on eye makeup, arranged her hair and looked out of a window,” possibly hoping to resume some of her former offices in the new regime. Jehoram, in a petulant act stripped from the pages of the Greek tragedies, not only has no interest in Jezebel as a possible queen, consort or counselor, he gets his court toadies to chuck her out a window — which reminds me of a potential future Word of the Week, defenestration.

Speaking of the Greeks, let us tumble from near-fiction to actual fiction. Mythology provides a rich biome of malevolent female entities, many of whom are summoned as sexual foils in paragraphs to this day.

The most famous, perhaps, are the sirens, “any of several sea nymphs, represented as part bird and part woman, who lure sailors to their death on rocky coasts by seductive singing.” These ladies are mostly harmless, so long as you don’t listen to them. They play a surprisingly brief role in “The Odyssey,” mostly to demonstrate that Odysseus was a vain and oversexualized pain in the ass.

“Aeneas and His Companions Fighting the Harpies," by Francois Perrier.

“Aeneas and His Companions Fighting the Harpies,” by Francois Perrier.

There are harpies, which in the classical sense are “loathsome, voracious monsters with the head and trunk of a woman and the tail, wings, and talons of a bird.” As terrible as that sounds, typically what harpies do is just snitch food from the picnics of heroes like Aeneas; though, sometimes they employ enough theatrics to ruin the whole party.

Far more serious are the Furies — Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone. These are beastly dames whose heavenly franchise is to “pursue and punish doers of unavenged crimes.” That sounds like a noble function, but they turn out to be busybody sticklers for often contradictory principles. One of my favorite paintings is of the Furies (top of the post) giving the business to Orestes, who had killed his mother (Clytemnestra) to avenge her murder of his father (Agamemnon) — a tangle of blood crimes that the Furies were not interested in sorting out.

At the peak of the mythical pyramid of female nastiness are the Gorgons, from the Greek gorgos, which means “dreadful.” These scraggly skirts had snakes for hair — which is pretty much standard equipment for supernaturally malevolent women in classical times — and were so ugly that they would turn to stone any fool dumb enough to look their way. Traditionally, there were three: Stheno, Euryale and the most notorious, Medusa, who was famously outsmarted by Perseus and turned to stone by a glimpse of herself in a mirror.

Apparently, this is a Spitfire LF Mk IX, MH434.

Apparently, this is a Spitfire LF Mk IX, MH434.

If the classics bring you down, there remains a rich trove of words from the succeeding centuries. Consider harridan, “a nasty, bad-tempered woman, esp. an old one,” probably from the French haridelle, which means “worn-out horse”; shrew, “a woman with a violent, scolding, or nagging temperament; a scold,” probably from the Middle English shrewe, which means “villain”; fishwife, named for the rough-hewn female operatives of medieval fish markets and defined as “a woman regarded as coarse and shrewishly abusive”; and spitfire, “a person, esp. a woman or girl, who is easily aroused to violent outbursts of anger,” which eventually lent its name to a World War II fighter plane.

In the same way I got my story wrong about termagant, and the balance of history got it wrong about poor Xanthippe, many of these slurs originate as compliments.

To wit, a crone, “an ugly, withered old woman; a hag,” was a stock female character in medieval storytelling. Often, she had supernatural powers; sometimes, she was cruel or vindictive. But always she was a wise old woman.

Virago, “a woman regarded as noisy, scolding, or domineering” is also defined by Webster’s as “a large, strong, courageous woman.” The idea is rooted in the Greek notion of virtue; any woman who was able to match a man in some way was said to have it. You do not have to be a student of humanity to see how such exemplars were eventually recast as pushy broads.

And so we are nudged to the Internet:

She seems defeated and completely under the thumb of her termagant mother Helen Ryan, an expert at barbed put-downs and connoisseur of funerals ‘Twelve I’ve been to this year. Twelve and it’s only August’.

via Old Moneys dowdy plot is offset by a resplendent Maureen Lipman | Metro News.

Bach is largely underplaying, but the character is such an unmitigated termagant, you half expect smoke to emit from her flared nostrils and the baying of wolves to accompany her entrances.

via We Love Soaps: TELENOVELA WATCH: UniMás Premieres Three Shows, And A Trio Of Villains In The Spotlight.

Carson lives with his recently divorced mother, Sheryl Allison Janney, a venomous, pill-popping, alcoholic termagant who informs her son that the only reason she didn’t abort him was her foolish hope that having a child would save her marriage. His father, Neal Dermot Mulroney, is a fatuous wimp who has neglected to tell his pregnant sweetheart, April Christina Hendricks, a local pharmacist, of Carson’s existence.

via ‘Struck by Lightning,’ Written and Starring Chris Colfer – NYTimes.com.

The real treat of this production is Carly Bawden’s Eliza, initially a sooty-faced termagant, all duckling mouth and strumpety hips, who becomes the swan of Higgins’s creation and ends it his equal.

via My Fair Lady: What a lady! Star Quality? By George, Elizas got it. And wouldnt a West End run be loverly | Mail Online.

Word of the Week: Sacerdotal

Film poster for The Age of Innocence (film) - ...

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (formation of megaliths) and how about… sacerdotal?

Why sacerdotal? Mostly because it gives me a chance to digress into small talk about Edith Wharton’s spectacular “The Age of Innocence.” It is a great example of Ms. Wharton’s nimble and lively style.

First things first, however.

Sacerdotal is defined by Webster’s Fourth as “of priests or the office of priest; priestly” and “characterized by belief in the divine authority of the priesthood.”

Which reminds me of one of my favorite types of jokes: Do you know what the Spanish word for sacerdotal is? Sacerdotal.

Anyway. The word comes up in Wharton in Part VII of Book I, Page 73 in the Scribner paperback edition of 1998, when the book’s protagonist, Newland Archer, is endeavoring to persuade the patriarch of New York society, Henry van der Luyden, to intercede on behalf of a woman who, whether Mr. Archer knows it or not, is (not really a spoiler!) his love interest.

Mr. Archer first consults with the patriarch’s wife, and after hearing him out, she says “I should like Henry to hear what you have told me.” She calls for a footman and says, “If Mr. van der Lyden has finished reading the newspaper, please ask him to be kind enough to come.”

She said “reading the newspaper” in the tone in which a Minister’s wife might have said: “Presiding at a Cabinet meeting” — not from any arrogance of mind, but because the habit of a life-time, and the attitude of her friends and relations, had led her to consider Mr. van der Luyden’s least gesture as having an almost sacerdotal importance.

(Some day, should this tone be adopted on my behalf when I am reading a newspaper, I will consider myself a success.)

Anyway, awesome, right?

Thence to the Web!

But a genius like Shakespeare might still imbue his works with repeated words or situations that would call to mind their sacerdotal origins. via Shakespeare’s Common Prayers – Washington Post.

These are sentiments to nauseate a republican, but I, for one, find them stirring in their almost sacerdotal sense of purpose. via Book Review: Counting Ones Blessings – WSJ.com.

For LeMoine to ignore them at the intersection of his sacerdotal and social media practice is profoundly disturbing to the equilibrium for which Pope Benedict argued. via Church Uses Facebook for Sacramental Scrutiny at its Peril | Politics | Religion Dispatches.

‘…A Wave of the Wand…’


The writer and polymath Patrick Fermor once contributed to an anthology on reading that was published in 1992, and his essay is mostly an autobiographical sketch that he annotated with influential books. It contained nothing surprising to anyone who has read his stuff even a little.

Toward the end, though, he smirkingly plans for the library he would want in exile on a desert island.

Patrick Leigh Fermor

“If it were Prospero’s Island,” Fermor writes, “a wave of the wand could float an illicit watertight trunk ashore, enough to fill 10 sand-proof shelves” – it is not, of course, and he pinches himself to get serious. The ground rules are to list 10 books – not 10 shelves – to stock an island hut, not including all of Shakespeare and the Bible, which go in as a matter of course.

I found the list Fermor came up with compelling, partly because I admire him and partly because I had read almost nothing on his list. He seems to be literally thinking about a desert island, though, and populates his list with doorstops to maximize re-readability. Even so, I have reproduced the list here, for your further edification, and I have made it my own project to read them all.

Well, sort of. As Fermor is liberal in his definition of a “book,” I am taking liberties with the word “all.” You will see that, for instance, he lists as one book five titles written by Evelyn Waugh. Fermor’s excuse is that he intends to glue them together, making one big, sloppy book. As he writes, the fantasy crew of the ship taking him to exile is obligingly “indulgent about staples and glue.”

As for Shakespeare, I’ve already digested “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” and “Romeo and Juliet;” that seems like due diligence to me. And I am embarked on a methodical reading of my “New Oxford Annotated Bible” that should be wrapped up by the end of the year.

Fermor’s desert-island library is as follows:

  1. “Poets of the English Language” by W. H. Auden (five volumes).
  2. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon (seven volumes).
  3. “Decline and Fall,” “Vile Bodies,” “Black Mischief,” “Scoop,” and “Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh.
  4. “Antic Hay,” “Crome Yellow,” and “Those Barren Leaves” by Aldus Huxley.
  5. “Old Calabria” by Norman Douglas.
  6. “Unquiet Grave” by Cyril Connolly. *
  7. The Temple Classics Dante (six volumes).
  8. “Kim” by Rudyard Kipling.
  9. “Odyssey” and “Iliad” translated by Robert Fitzgerald or Richard Lattimore.
  10. “Ulysses” by James Joyce.
  11. “Remembrance of Things Past” by Marcel Proust.

But that’s 11, you say. (Really, it’s 18.) Never mind. Fermor has it covered: “…a voice shouts, ‘Island in sight.’ All eyes turn to the porthole and with a conjurer’s speed a slim volume flies into my bush shirt pocket: ‘The Unquiet Grave’ is safe!”

So, still 11. But one is being smuggled. And Fermor unintentionally confirms my theory that all elderly Englishman have a unnatural predilection for safari wear.

Not surprisingly, after compiling his list, Fermor expresses buyer’s remorse in a few, concluding paragraphs, though not because he chose no female writers. He closes with a harder-to-decipher roster of authors and titles that, presumably, he will miss. These are, again in order, a kind of valedictory footnote:

The mischievous Saki, whose real name is Hector Hugo Munro; “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens; “Letters of Horace Walpole;” Burckhardt (who I assume is the 17th century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt); Sheridan (who I assume is the Irish short-story writer Sheridan Le Fanu); the Roman lyric poet Horace; “Nightmare Abbey” by Thomas Love Peackock; “Christian and Secular Latin” by F.J.E. Raby; the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins; Browning (who could be Robert Browning, maybe, or his wife, Elizabeth, probably); Pius II’s “Memoirs;” “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy; the Roman historian Plutarch; La Rochefoucauld (who I assume is the French writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld); “Les Fleurs du Mal” by Charles Baudelaire; Geoffrey Chaucer; John Donne; Michel de Montaigne; “The Wings of the Dove” by Henry James; “Tristram Shandy” by Laurence Sterne; “Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour” by Robert Smith Surtees; “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain; Boswell (who I assume is the biographer James Boswell; “Torrents of Spring” by Ernest Hemingway; “Phineas Redux” by Anthony Trollope; “Far From the Madding Crowd” by Thomas Hardy; “Uncle Fred in the Springtime” by P. G. Wodehouse; “Urn Burial” (which I assume is a book by Thomas Browne; and the cartoon character Tintin.

The footnote refers to 15 specific books, which makes 26 including the “books” from the main list, and 13 authors. How to proceed?


Carefully, I suppose. At least knock on each of 39 (26+13) doors. (Steps?)

The only things from the Big 11 that I was acquainted with beforehand was Gibbon, which I recently read in the abridged Modern Library Classics version; “Put Out More Flags”; Dante, but only “Inferno” and not the Temple Classics version; “Kim,” which is in a two-volume collection of Kipling I own; and the “Iliad” except for whichever chapter it is where he lists all the ships. (I tried reading Proust once, and gave up.) From the footnote, as I call it, I had read some Plutarch; a collection of Le Fanu’s ghost stories, which I found to be occasionally long-winded and predictable; some Chaucer, though not since high school; and, of course, “Huckleberry Finn,” though not since adolescence. Except for the Proust, Plutarch and Chaucer, I will consider those doors knocked. (Though, if I am honest, I will add that I was planning to read most of the Waugh that Fermor listed, anyway.) Call it, Seven down out of 39.

Since my resolution, I have, from the Big 11, read only “The Unquiet Grave,” which is profound in parts and distressing in others. Connolly was sort of the Chris Hitchens of the 1930s (at least I am saying so), though he never really wrote anything other than criticism. He believed he was meant to write a masterpiece of literature, or said so, anyway, and “Grave” might have qualified had Connolly kept his mouth shut. As it is, it is more of a curiosity, some parts of it maddeningly in untranslated French and others in heartachingly introspective asides.

From the footnote, I read:

  • “The Unbearable Bassington” from “The Complete Saki,” which is bright and brilliant. So fun. Saki has the cheek and wit you will wish “Downton Abbey” would display about halfway through the I-haven’t-seen-it-yet Season 3.
  • “Torrents of Spring,” and hated it before realizing that Hemingway wrote it basically in a temper tantrum to break a contract with his publisher. Numerous critics call it a wry take on writing and writers. I was not in on the joke.
  • I just finished Baudelaire. I was nearly inspired to write my own bawdy imitations (e.g. “I gazed upon my one-legged Jewess and smelled the seaport…”), but I lacked the requisite ennui.
  • And before “Flowers,” I became happily acquainted with Phineas Finn. “Redux” is well along in Trollope’s political-drama series, and the namesake protagonist is only a supporting player in the grand scheme. But Trollope likes to explain things, and so I did not feel left out. He has an engrossing style, and I frequently found myself missing whole subway stops because I was so taken in. I craved free time so I could start reading again. The odd thing is that the plot is convoluted and maybe a little dull — you finish a particularly breathtaking chapter, and then nearly exhaust yourself trying to explain it all to a companion. (Not that I cared.)

That makes 12 doors knocked so far, 6 from the Big 11 and 6 from the footnote. I congratulate Fermor on introducing me to Saki and Tollope, and thank him cordially for Connolly and Baudelaire. For the afflication of “Torrents,” I will, for now, glumly blame myself.

And so way leads onto way. And I begin to wonder how my list would take shape. (To be continued.)

Hair Matters

Official congressional portrait of former Cong...

Official congressional portrait of former Congressman and Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“All things considered, he looked good, hes still got a headful of hair, its gone from black to brown, not gray, as everyone predicted,” Sam Jr. told Fox Chicago News. “Its gone from black to brown but he looks good.”

via Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich Washing Pots in Prison, Looking Forward to Teaching Shakespeare.

‘A Jew’s Best Weapon Is His Mouth’

My father took the high road and concentrated on the good fortune of having been born British, especially gifted with the priceless, indestructible power of the English language. It was as though Shakespeare not Monty and the troops had beaten the Nazis. “A Jew’s best weapon is his mouth,” he would say to me, though his own had been on the receiving end of many a knuckle sandwich courtesy of the Blackshirts.

via Matzo ball memories – FT.com.