Here is the home of the Endearments, a group of poems that are made out of the sweet words people call the people and other creatures they love. This blog documents the process by which I make them. In it, I consider the procedure, the words, love and the lack of it, and whatever else the Endearments suggest. Preliminary findings indicated that these things might include vowels, flowers, disgust, awkward situations, various foods, cats, and the ocean. They have included vowels, punctuation, the scientific method, and disgust. And, more recently, cats.
For more on the procedures and constraints used to make the poems, go to process. To find some of the poems online, go to poems. For other projects and concerns, visit todointhenewyear.net. For ramblings on the finer points, read on.
A question I once answered decisively and preemptively has arisen again: the question of apostrophes. Should I allow them in words that make up anagrams of the endearments?
My first answer was a firm no. The apostrophe introduces wiggle room, uncertainty, hidden things. This is why it’s disallowed in Scrabble.
Despite my disdain for the Scrabble dictionary, which I find excessively permissive and full of unuseful and questionable words, I do like the broader Scrabble rules. The prohibition against proper names, for instance, I’ve taken into this project without question—although perhaps it should be questioned too. If an endearment is a name for someone, both obscuring and defining them, maybe if it is rearranged or peered into one might sometimes see an actual name within it. But I like the Scrabble rules because they are a discrete, finished set, convenient and very clear.
At any rate, my darling has caused me to rethink the apostrophes. There are two delicious words in it that could be very useful and expressive: “I’m” and “m’lady”. When I first saw “m’lady” I was delighted, in fact.* Then the rule: no apostrophes. Then I thought, well, what if? And that is about when “I’m” showed up. I would not have seen it otherwise.
It helps in cases like this to consider analogous situations. I certainly use sentence-level punctuation in the endearments. But word-level and sentence-level, as any good hyphenator knows, are very different things. Thinking of the hyphen, though, if I encountered a hyphenated word in an anagram, would I use it? Yes. So word-level punctuation is not in itself the problem.
The sticky wicket is that apostrophes indicate elision. They don’t just join up two words; they join them, obscure parts of them, and make a new word. What about those elided letters? was the insistent question in my brain. They count.
But what if the elided letters are part of the word that is the original endearment? In both of the words in our test case, the elided letter is in fact one of those that make up my darling: “milady”, “I am.” This strengthens the case for allowing such elision. But is it cheating to let a repeated letter—which I explicitly and definitely disallow—hide in the word?
If I look at it from the other side, it wouldn’t feel right to obscure such a letter within the eliding word and not use it in the rest of the anagram. The anagram must include all the letters. It’s more fitting that a word containing an apostrophe, and the implication of repeated letters, be included.
So perhaps it is okay for some letters to hide in the folds of the other letters, or on the other side of the little loophole the black dot of the apostrophe makes. In skirts. In lace. Such things are not uncharacteristic for an endearment.
*One reason: El and em rarely get to be so close to one another, outside of the alphabet. Elm, alm, helm, hemline. Much less making their discrete sounds, rather than becoming part of a consonant cluster.
M. asked recently whether the endearments are beaux présents. This is a good question.
A beau présent is an Oulipian constraint created by Georges Perec. It is composed in honor (or in insult) of someone, and it’s made using only the letters of that person’s name.
The beau présent employs as many repetitions of the letters in the original name as the writer desires. In one example I’ve seen, the fs and double ls scrolling down the page in line after line look so luxurious.
The endearments, by contrast, are made with only the letters in the original word, and each new word used in the poem must have its source in a discrete anagram of the original word.
Each of these requires a certain kind of thinking and results in a different kind of poem. But the poems are similar in the way that their sounds persist and suggest, but do not directly say, the original word. And similar in that they both liberate the sounds from the original word and allow them to play as they will.
I’d say the endearment is cousin to the beau présent. The younger cousin who lives in the tiny town by the river and hardly ever makes it across the sea to the big city where the other cousin lives, the one with the money and the documented history. But who has a good time there and doesn’t miss the city much, never having had occasion to love it more than the little town.