Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Stealth Poetics in the News

You may recall that from time to time I write about the literary and cultural undercurrents in our supposedly mind-numbing popular media. You may also recall that some weeks ago I wrote about a lawsuit launched by some inhabitants of Lesbos to enforce their copyright (as it were) of the name 'Lesbian." Well, they lost. And as I reviewed the headlines on this case from start to finish I started to notice something a little unusual:

Lesbos Ladies Launch Lesbian Lawsuit (CNN)

Lesbos Loses Lesbian Lawsuit (365 Gay News)

Lesbos Locals Lose Lesbian Appeal (BBC)

Lesbos Locals Lose Lesbian Lawsuit (Drudge)

News editors do not have very many outlets for their creativity. One of those few outlets is writing headlines. And a good many editors are former English majors, doubtless nostalgic for the days when their lives were devoted to the pursuit of ideas and the study of beautiful language. Now if all they were doing here was playing around with simple linear alliteration (which my own creative writing teacher called "a cheap trick") or making fun of these poor people (another cheap trick), these headlines would not be worthy of notice.

But take a closer look:

Lezbos Lozez Lezbian Lawsuit.

You've got multiple intertwined repetitions here: the l sound, the z sound in Lesbian, the hard s in Lesbos and Lawsuit, and you can either count the bs as a separate repetition or consider the zb combo a sound repetition in its own right. This is cynghanedd (pronounced koonghahneth)--a term that originally covered a range of Medieval Welsh verse techniques but since the nineteenth century has simply meant multiple, interlaced alliteration.

Gerard Manley Hopkins used it a lot ("When dragonflies draw fire, kingfishers catch flame").

Robert Browning occasionally indulged himself in a good cynghanedd as well ("Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me").

Read the other headlines closely. You'll find similar patterns. *

This is sophisticated stuff, folks. And finding it makes me very happy. A) I know that some former English major working at CNN has called his father to say, "And you thought studying poetry wasn't good for anything? In your face!" And B) it really does show how silly this talk is about whether online reading is "real" reading (Because I found all these headlines online, of course). Do you honestly think any of us are going to get subtly stealthily steeped in the spirit of Victorian poetry by reading the New Yorker or any of those other supposedly highbrow rags?

* I don't know why this didn't occur to me myself : "Lanky Librarian Loves Ludicrousness of Lawsuit Launched by Layabouts in Lesbos."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Of Traveling and Cheese

Apologies to all five of N&C's fans for the long silence. The closest thing I have to an excuse is a fair amount of traveling, so the TSA has been on my mind even more than usual. When I'm planning a trip (as opposed to actually traveling) it's easy to forget what a nuisance post 9-11 flying can be. For example, I'm often late to the game on finding out what items are verboten. Last weekend I visited friends in Florida. A few days before I was shopping for a host & hostess gift and foolishly bought some Stilton. It was only after I got home that it occurred to me to check the TSA website: that's right--you can only take cheese on board if it's 3 ounces or less and in a pressurized container.

I'm not sure what the TSA thinks I could possibly do with a wedge of Stilton, although Dairy Management, Inc.'s "Behold the Power of Cheese" campaign did suggest that disastrous things can happen in connection with dairy products.

And I must admit the notion of cheese being much more than just a foodstuff has precedents. Charles de Gaulle blamed cheese for French political fractiousness (Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage?). The formidable Queen Maeve of the Táin Bó Cúailnge was killed with a piece of cheese (it's a long Wikipedia entry--scroll down, you'll find it).* And events within the past month testify to the continuing destructive power of cheese.

Briefly as I child I believed that cheese had some connection with the divine (because of a hymn that began "Who is this that cometh from Edom?")** I was clueless about spelling--I was four, after all. (A pity I was too young for Monty Python--"blessed are the cheesemakers" would have packed much more of a punch in that context).

But even taking all this history into account, banning all cheese in quantities of over 3 ounces is overkill. It's Stilton for God's sake. The worst it could do is stink up my luggage. Sure, it's a little on the smelly side if you've got a cheddar-conditioned palate, but there are much more serious cheeses out there. A few years ago Cranfield University in the UK conducted a study to to determine the world's skankiest cheeses--Stilton didn't even crack the top ten.

The world's premier cheese-eating nation (yes, the one with 246 kinds) bans only one cheese from any kind of transportation: Epoisses de Bourgogne.

I suppose Francophobes would consider this just one more example of how the French aren't doing their part in the War on Terror (now you may mentally insert any riff on the "cheese-eating -surrender-monkeys" theme).

*And yes, I have read the Táin. It really is in there. And yes, the death-by-cheese is the best part.

In spite of the opaque lyrics (Alpha and Omega, the Great I Am...), I knew the guy from Edom/Edam had to be Jesus. It was church. Everything was about Jesus. It was like an obsession with those people.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

If You Build It, They Will Come--Part II

Reports occasionally surface of Mexicans climbing the Border Fence--usually to work illegally in the U.S. (Now you're thinking, duh, state the obvious why don't you?). But sometimes they jump the Border Fence just to get a beer:

Only a dirt parking lot separates the Gay 90s bar from the Naco (Arizona) wall....Janet Warner, one of the bartenders.... notes that sometimes Mexicans jump the new steel wall, come in for a beer, then jump back into Mexico. (National Geographic May 2007).

So skeptics might be forgiven for thinking the Border Fence doesn't work. But don't worry--the Border Fence is a work in progress, and there's every indication that when finished, it will keep people out.

Sort of.

If you're Rafael Garza of Granjero, Texas, the Border Fence will keep you out of your back yard.

And if you're a student at the University of Texas at Brownsville, there's a good chance it will keep you out of class.

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