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.


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.

Sugar plum

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.”