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."

1 comment:

Michelle said...

Thanks. I feel smarter already.

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