Ekphrasis and endearments

Two falls ago the Endearments made a trip to Durham, NC, for the SAMLA conference, where I read as part of a panel on ekphrastic work chaired by the excellent Chelsea Rathburn. I talked about visual strategies for composition and presentation of poems, and about some submissions venues for that sort of work. But a more basic question floats to the front of the queue: Can a word be considered a work of art, a subject for ekphrasis?

A recent call for one-word poems, from REAEDR at New Lights Press, has me thinking about this again. It is here and worth having a look at: newlightspress.com/reaedr/

In a sense each of the Endearments is in fact an ekphrastic on a particular word—one that, because of its cultural context and the patterns of its use, signifies more and differently than some other kinds of words. Maybe a term of endearment is a work of commonly owned art—like a ballad, just shorter. And, possibly, more directed—that is, its medium being speech or the written word, its audience appears when it is sent to someone through the air, in sound waves, or via the page. Dearest. Bumble bee. Turtle. Little Cupid-arrows of direct address.

Maybe it’s a stretch to suggest this. And one could argue that the intentionally created one-word poem is more work-of-art than the one-word (or few-words) poem arising out of folk tradition. (The classic example from Aram Saroyan is certainly, famously, more costly. And there are class implications, very different ones, around both the value of art and the value of regional speech.)

But the delight is the same, I think. The delight in first finding a term of endearment that is perfect for a particular someone may extend to give that term life as an endearment proper—not just nickname but legitimate word. Wordwork. Artwork?

Saying yes to the endearment as art may seem more natural for people with synesthesia. When I anagram an endearment, I’m seeing the colors of each letter rearrange in relation to one another: it’s a lengthening, an extending, of the color-field of the word. That’s along with, of course, the sounds of the letters, and not to mention the field of cultural implications that come with their collective meaning. The term has more than enough texture, color, material for ekphrasis. And even when I don’t pay a lot of attention to the colors, each poem made from a term of endearment is a reflection and an extension of the word from which it begins—and with which it ends.



A few of the endearments have inclined themselves toward being sonnets, or sonnetlike (if you like a sonnet with very short lines and lots of internal rhyme). One is my little love, which is just now up online. It’s part of the new issue of Spiral Orb, the journal of permaculture poetics edited by Eric Magrane—a fine and interesting experiment worth spending some time with.

My little love rhymes with another sonnet-endearment: turtle dove. If two endearment-sonnets’ last lines lap over each other in rhyme like this, are they twins? Sonsonnets? Twonets? Twinnets? Sonnet squares? That last phrase makes me think of petits-fours—at any rate, it seems like it should be some kind of dessert….

Dear songs

I anagrammed my dearest dear back in 2012; after nearly three years of incubation, it’s a poem as of today. It’s one of several endearments I’ve made that come from oldtime Appalachian tunes—in this case, unmistakably, from the Tommy Jarrell song “As Time Draws Near.”

Finishing the poem made me want to set down some of the other endearments that have their sources in oldtime music. I didn’t plan on drawing from those tunes for this project, exactly, and of course some endearments show up lots of places. But oldtime informs another series of poems I’ve been working on for years, and I love to play it, and all this probably caused certain endearments to tug on my memory more. A little list:

my dearest dear: As Time Draws Near,” Tommy Jarrell (Clawhammer Banjo Vol. 3, County LP 757, 1978)

my darling: “Your Long Journey,” Doc Watson and Rosa Lee Watson (The Watson Family, Folkways FA 2366, 1963)

turtle dove: My Pretty Crowing Chicken,” Frank Proffitt (High Atmosphere, Rounder 0028, 1974), the last stanza of which is:

My own true love, my sweet turtle dove,
When shall I see you again?
When the moon and the stars enter into yonders green
And the sky shall shed no more rain, rain, rain,
And the sky shall shed no more rain.



This one, out of turtle dove:

trout delve





One thing about computers: They make it easy to come up with a plethora of options, and harder to take the time to think about a single option’s merit. I always begin writing an endearment by hand. Despite this, on typing up the initial draft, I often end up with several nearly identical electronic iterations, which begin to blend together on the screen. I print them out, but it can still be hard to tell what’s what.

cin4Thus the trusty scissors, which I have just employed for cinnamon. The poem has started to shape itself into phrases, but their relation to one another has been eluding me. I printed the poem out and cut it into word- and phrase-sized slips of paper. A few rearrangings, a hand-written recording of the result, and suddenly a new option leapt out. Not a change to make the poem perfect, but one I hadn’t seen on the screen.

Was it the slips of paper? Was it the clean, blank page, with title at the top and final word at the bottom? Was it the writing of a slantwise draft in the margin, which is now the only draft on that page? Or was it just that essential ingredient of the endearments (and of most poems), time?

Speaking of time, cinnamon is from a very other one. I encountered it in a post by Katherine Connor Martin on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, about endearments that have fallen from use. Cinnamon is Chaucer-era, and it seems a fine one to bring back. Next in line: turtle (although I am taking the liberty of using the full phrase turtle dove).

And speaking of computers, and vexation, a project I’ve been working on for a while is just released. Forces of Attention, a series of objects designed to help people mediate their relationships with their computers, debuts with series 1: THE WORLD IS NOT IN HERE. You can get a copy at todointhenewyear.net. If you do, and if you have thoughts about it, I’d like very much to know.

New dictionary

It arrived, and I sat it up in a chair and took its picture. It’s not in bookcloth, like my tenth edition (outdated, but the dictionary of record for almost all of the endearments thus far). It has that shiny paper-over-boards binding. I’ll try not to hold that against it.

The plastic shrink wrap with its silver sticker showing a cloud of new words and saying “defining the 21st century” is definitely not the dictionary’s fault either. The volume keeps its integrity in the face of gloss, whether in binding or in marketing.


I unwrapped it and opened it up—the pages are all still white, and still fitted against each other perfectly, never been thumbed through. This won’t last, but it’s nice.

The page to which I opened is the one with Markov’s principle as one of the headings, and with the little drawing of a desk, which accompanies the entry for marquetry. (Which, incidentally, shares ancestry with marketing.) As with Scrabble, with the endearments, the chances of a q are small. M is not so common either. It’d be nice to have both sometime.

Next big thing, and one more thing

Thanks to Catherine Daly for tagging me for the Next Big Thing! Here at last are my responses to this little questionnaire. (I think I will stop saying “at last”—everything takes time, and the more everything you do, the more time is taken up.)

So: here and now, on the first or the second day of spring, depending how you count, are my responses. The book that has occupied most of this year for me is first. But there’s news of the endearments too! (See parentheses.)

I am tagging Meryl DePasquale, whom I am very happy to have met recently, who is a fine companion in poetic pursuits, and whose next big thing promises to be awesome!


pbof coversWhat is the working title of the book?

A Pocket Book of Forms


Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was planning a train trip. I was imagining pleasant hours in the dining car, imagining I’d want to write, and possibly to play with some poetic form or other. But I knew I wouldn’t lug a giant book along just in case I got the notion to write a rondelet. So I made a small one.

It also came from my love of practical genres: signage, instructions, guides. And of small books, like the one of Edward Lear’s poetry and drawings that I bought on a trip to London in seventh grade.

(From the endearments, a group of poems made via an anagrammatic procedure and for which this very blog provides occasional annotations.)

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