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.


Lovely love

I have avoided including words in the endearments that give the final endearment away—so, no lovely in my little love. If such a word appears in an anagram, though, that seems fine. No surprise is lost.

Thus a set of nanopoems, from my little love. They might look like they’re an even match for each other. They might—except love wins. Another word from my little love: mettle.

mottle evilly

tilt me lovely

“Often added merely for rhyme’s sake”

Webster’s Collegiate has long been the dictionary of record for the endearments. But today I’ve decided to admit the OED, at least in some cases.


It was my honey that tipped me over into those honeyed waters: I wanted hy to be a word, because that would allow omen : omen hy y. Webster’s had no entry for it, but the dear old OED offers up the obsolete hie | hy. This seems to me legitimate. The OED has already suggested an obsolete endearment, cinnamon, which yielded a poem. (For contrast, see the Scrabble dictionary, which includes words only for the sake of having more of them, and which, as I’ve mentioned before, I will never use, much as I never order from Amazon. It’s a matter of principle.)


† hie | hy, n.

Haste, speed. Chiefly in phr. in hie, in haste, with haste, quickly, soon: often added merely for rhyme’s sake.


O, what I would do for rhyme’s sake, which is far from mere.


I also wanted ny to be a word, which would allow home. The best the OED offers is the proper N.Y., and I am far from abandoning all constraints, and the proper-noun one still feels useful. So, alas, no home for my honey.


Although there is talk in my household of investing in the full twenty-volume OED (plus the three-volume additions series), for now I use the online version. It’s one of the principle benefits of university affiliation, access to all those words.


Webster’s, lest you worry, I will always begin with you.


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.

Nanopoems, nanonews

In nanopoems, precious yields a dinner suggestion—

rice soup

Yum! As well, a pair of nanopoems in the voice, perhaps, of a farmer testifying against Monsanto. A farmer who knows the art of conciseness:

crop I use
corp I sue

Also in the realm of small and sweet, the chapbook of endearments mentioned earlier this year was a finalist in the 2013 Center for Book Arts chapbook contest. Congrats to this year’s winner, Sandra Beasley!

Letters as words

In the first nanopoem mentioned earlier, I wanted the singular: dart-eyed mare. But astute readers will notice that this creates a missing letter: the s makes 13 letters and completes the anagram. I don’t think such a choice would be true to this variety of nanopoem, as I have defined it here. These little byproducts of the endearments are found things. One that had had words excised from it to make it sound better wouldn’t feel sound. In addition, I had already used mare in another anagram: stare eddy mare.

Although they crop up less often in sentences and thus make for fewer satisfactory nanopoems, I’ve become more lenient about using letters as words with recent endearments. (This may partly explain why it took hours to finish anagramming my dearest dear.)

But what is a word, for my purposes? All letters get the definition “a speech counterpart of orthographic [insert letter here],” and, oddly, all letters but j get “a graphic representation of this letter,” but both of these definitions seem too meta to count. Letter as letter: no thank you. I am already subjecting the alphabet to enough strain.

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A well-known pleasure of the anagram is that sometimes it makes sense: from the mixing up emerges a phrase, a bit of syntax, that is pleasing in its own right. Like finding an amethyst in a streambed. (Which I did, as a kid—and then I found out that the rock-finding guy who was visiting us had planted it in the stream in front of me. He thought I should be rewarded for my effort. But it felt like a false reward to me.)

No one plants the especially crystalline anagram. You find them fair and square. My dearest dear, which I’m working on, has offered up a few good ones. Some are pretty:

dart-eyed mares

Some of them express facets of the human condition:

Am tardy. See red.

—which is no fun for anybody, but which happens. One more, kind of Shakespearean, and possibly an answer to the previous one:

Stay mere dread.

Should I call these things micropoems? They are smaller than what others are calling micropoetry right now (they’re many fewer than 140 characters, to use one measure). I wanted to say nano, but are they small enough to cross the blood-brain barrier? Besides, everything is nano of late.

But my present sample, I am realizing, is perhaps skewed—my dearest dear has 13 letters, which is long(ish) for an endearment. This changes things. Most endearments are too short for the descriptor micro.

So nano it is.