I was an early reader, and my mind has always had things to say about words. When I was young, one habit it had was to make an acronym of the words in any sentence running through it, then imagine how to pronounce that acronym. The results were not often pleasing, consonants clunking up against each other. But my brain was nonetheless pleased. I tried to stop it, sometimes; then, for the most part, it faded away on its own.
Some people get a similar mental satisfaction from contemplating shape and form, or number. I like an artful lamp as well as anyone, and I dislike being in poorly designed spaces. I would like to be able to read the formulas I encounter in scientific papers, and toward this I am reading a slim little book called Understanding Mathematics. (For the record, I also dislike the anagrams puzzle in the newspaper–it’s not solely the figuring-out that motivates me, although that is nice; when I take apart a word, I’m exploring, not trying to figure out an end someone else has already concluded.)
But I don’t get the same cerebral hit from regarding the heart-shaped leaves of the houseplants in the break room at work, for instance, or the salt shakers (which are disposable, which drives me crazy), or a column of numbers, that I do from reading the poster on the wall. “What do these people have in common?” it asks. Most of the rest of it is too small to read from a lunch table across the room, but that sentence has plenty of good sounds in it. Thank god, says my brain, thank god you’re here, or the only thing I’d have to read is “Coca Cola,” which the drink machine proclaims vertically and hugely and offensively.
Maybe it was from this inclination to remake words, to hear them and get inside them, that the endearments came.
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.
In the land of science, a problem that comes up is that negative results are (people suspect, anyway) underreported. So, say, if someone shows a correlation between two things, their study might have better chances of getting published, and of getting talked about, than if they did a study and found no correlation. The lack of correlation is valuable information, but it’s maybe less exciting.
I was talking with L at the Fun-A-Day NC show about choosing what to exhibit. If I did a project, said L, I would want to pick the best things and show them, not show every day’s thing. That makes sense, I said. (And, in fact, that is what I did this time.) But there was also something nice about K’s every-day drawings of portraits on coffee receipts, and similarly about A’s comic for each day of the month showing and telling about some thing that happened that day. It’s a matter of what you’re privileging, I guess—quality of the art, or the process of making the art. The process aspect is being made into lots of books lately. My year of x. A month in y. And I am tempted by it also. This is another way of saying, I’m going to report all of my results.
There are ways in which this project is scientific: I have crafted a set of rules that will let me test some things. There are ways in which it is not: The end results, although some generalities will become evident over time, aren’t testing a new hypothesis. They prove:
—that words are made of letters, which make other words;
—that words are really interesting;
—that vowels, in particular, do interesting things in combination with one another.
But none of these things needed proving—and this is where the project is more like art: even if those ideas are as solidly acknowledged as the theory of evolution, and perhaps because they are, it seems useful and fun to play with what they are talking about. (You could argue that “words are really interesting” is not a proven truth, sure, but if “interesting” is substituted with “complex,” or “intricate,” or similar, it becomes less arguable.) Anyway, the point of each poem is not to test what might be a universal, it is to play with particulars and, because of some certain already-established universals such as the pleasingness of vowels, to enjoy it. —And because of other universals such as the diversity of words and meanings in English, to be surprised by it, from time to time.
It would be more scientific to include the “failures”—the words that do not make any or enough words to make a useful poem—along with the “successes.” It would be more scientific to call them all “results” and not taint these results with ideas of predetermination. I do hope when I begin with a word to find other good words in it. I also hope, though, to know it better—and sometimes knowing it better just means knowing the limits to which it can go. Maybe a list of these non-anagramming words would be relevant. But what belongs on that list and what doesn’t?
Take bobo. E said, I thought about sending you endearments, but all the ones I like have just one or two letters, and I thought, that’s no good. Thankfully, she sent it anyway. It has the feeling, to me, of bumping shoulders with someone, jostling them in that friendly way. And when E calls Tisko (the cat with whom I live) Bobo, I can hear the sweetness she lends the word. To know this word is an endearment is good. Scientifically speaking, to see what happens is good.
And what happens with “bobo” is—well—likely something like a one-line poem. Or maybe two—which leads me to wonder about one of the parameters I hadn’t had the need to set explicitly before. Is O, bobo! complete? Or should a complete one of these poems use at least all the letters of the endearment in the rest of itself? That is, should it contain at least one complete anagram of itself? I haven’t made up my mind.
(About that u effect I mentioned:
E said, leaving the Fun-A-Day art show last night, “‘Sugar plum’ will never be the same for me.” ”
“But,” I said, “but dosen’t it redeem itself at the end?”
“Well,” said E. . . .
I hadn’t thought that the poems might begin to change the original words. That was not my intention. But I don’t think my intentions are relevant, in this instance.)
Any one of these endearments that has the letter u in it, I said to A recently, is gonna be kind of dirty. And this is true. The letter u ends up in lots of words that can cause a sweet little poem to take a piratical turn. Or sinister, maybe, or just gloomy. In the case of sugar plum, for instance, pus, glum, slump.
And then there’s surl, the only semi-made-up word I have allowed myself to use thus far. It came up in the anagram surl gap um, if I am remembering correctly, or maybe it was surl map ug (is ug a word? I can’t remember. But it sure is in the pirate camp).
In my mind, it was a short hop from surly to surl, which seemed like a more accurate way to say surliness. More like stuff, like a substance, than a quality. And this seemed useful. My Webster’s Collegiate does not have an entry for it. I had never had occasion to look up surly before, though, and this was surprising: its root is sir, as in sirly. Oh, that old i/u connection, so weird, so counterintuitive—except when we think of certain words. Which brings us back to dirty—it’s that u quality that makes it work so well as a word, and I think it’s why dirty came to my mind to describe the aspect a u can lend to an endearment. Lucky sugar plum also has an a in it to brighten it up, to open it.
Also: my mother used to call me “sugar plum.”
I use a lot of names that are not names: sweetheart, sugar, peaches, darling. I can’t lay claim to the entire phenomenon, of course, but I like it. In order to explore what these not-names contain, I have been making little poems of them.
Here I will think about the words, the poems, about love and the lack of it, and whatever else the endearments suggest. Preliminary findings indicate that these things may include vowels, flowers, disgust, awkward situations, various foods, cats, and the ocean. The poems will not be visible here—think of them as the shadows behind your computer screen as you read this; or, think of this page as a shadow of the poems.
If you’d like to tell me what you call what you love, I would love to know. I have a little collection going.