.

Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary?  When I first read it,
I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.

—David Bowie

A dictionary is an indispensable
Companion on the journey through the many words
Forgot or never learned.  It’s reprehensible
How soon they fly away, like migratory birds

Determined to alight on perches farther south,
Beyond the narrow compass of our comprehension.
New lexemes often come our way, by word of mouth
Or by some other mode that captures our attention,

Especially from an antiquated written line.
It doesn’t matter whether one is from Wisconsin,
Tasmania or Cornwall—eager to define,
We turn to Noah Webster or to Samuel Johnson.

While bees dance meanings staged on waxen hexagons,
We humans navigate by means of lexicons.

.

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C.B. Anderson was the longtime gardener for the PBS television series, The Victory Garden.  Hundreds of his poems have appeared in scores of print and electronic journals out of North America, Great Britain, Ireland, Austria, Australia and India.  His collection, Mortal Soup and the Blue Yonder was published in 2013 by White Violet Press


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39 Responses

  1. sathya narayana Mydavolu

    This poem is not a metrical verse…Still I guess it’s meaningful.

    DICTIONARY

    An eager beginner’s trusted cicerone
    in the gossamer of abecedarian warrens;
    an ever-flowing brook beside a book-worm
    slaking his never-ending thirst for a fresh idiom;
    a writer’s permanent bed-side companion
    on and on, blooming in him
    novel thought-jasmines;
    and a poet’s handy spice-box of imagery
    for use ready in his verse-cuisine!

    Yes, it is the Dictionary; our warehouse of vocabulary!
    A word anew when mastered, opens wide the gates
    to the splendid new world of ken and acumen.

    Let us master the word, its usage and spirit
    right and perfect and offer to our fellow men
    our best message, sweet, yet candid and straight!

    O dear English, the million-word-rich treasure…
    you are the language making this world, one world,
    the golden cord connecting the humanity, bead by bead.

    When we find you; we conquer this planet for sure!

    Reply
  2. sathya narayana Mydavolu

    …Through the many words….
    Is ‘the’ correct there?!

    Reply
    • Julian D. Woodruff

      Dear contributor Mydavolu,
      And you speak of mastering the word?

      Reply
      • sathya narayana Mydavolu

        Yeah. I guess so. We Indians and other Asians inherited British English. We are not much used to American slang and odd usages. In this poem, the very first two lines sound prosaic and when we go through the entire poem we find nothing poetic, no beauty, no taste and the meter is cumbersome. Fortunately C.B has got a good following.

  3. Julian D. Woodruff

    Delightful, CB
    Not only metrical, but quite evenly so; which, with the choice of hexa meter, gives the poem a relaxed, discursive character. The last couplet is masterful.
    Sad, too, the words usurped so often from our use:
    Equality, gay, liberal, pride, hate–j’accuse!

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      You are right, Julian. Notice how jarring “gay” seems in Emeron’s outstanding poem, “The Rhodora”.

      Reply
  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    It’s hard using dactyls to make a rhyme. This poem has some beauties: hexagons, lexicons; farther south, word of mouth.

    Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        There aren’t any, Julian, at least not as far as the metrical structure of the lines go. One might possibly isolate a word or two and come up with a dactyl, but that changes nothing.

    • C.B. Anderson

      We can dismiss the very first comment as nonsensical, Joseph. Of course the poem is metrical, iambic hexameter in fact, as Julian pointed out above. Yes, “hexagons” as a stand-alone word is a dactyl, but in an iambic line the last syllable is promoted to a stressed syllable because it is preceded by an unstressed syllable (-a-), and so with the farther south/word of mouth rhyme. This is the power of contextual expectation.

      Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      We can dismiss the very first comment as nonsensical, Joseph. Of course the poem is metrical, iambic hexameter in fact, as Julian pointed out above. Yes, “hexagons” as a stand-alone word is a dactyl, but in an iambic line the last syllable is promoted to a stressed syllable because it is preceded by an unstressed syllable (-a-), and so with the farther south/word of mouth rhyme. This is the power of contextual expectation.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Okay, okay. It’s just that I cannot read a word like hexagon or lexicon as anything but a dactyl, even in contextual expectation.

      • C.B. Anderson

        The idea of “promotion” comes to me from Lewis Turco. What else am I to say unless I concede that I ended a line with half an iamb plus a dactyl? Perhaps that is the better analysis; iamb/pyrrhic would be another way to put it. How do we decide these things? I think the choice is arbitrary, and I think I’ve made my arbitrary choice rather clear. I’d like to hear from a third party, if only for the sake of “harmony,” another dactyl.

  5. BRIAN YAPKO

    This is an absolutely delightful poem! I especially like your rhyme of Samuel Johnson with Wisconsin. Made me grin.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Yes, Brian, I liked that one too; sometimes things just fall into your lap. You will notice that I had to to restrict my choices (Wisconsin, Tasmania, Cornwall) to political subdivisions of anglophone countries to maintain parallel thought structure.

      Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Is this just a false memory, D.P., or did I actually read somewhere that Abe Lincoln grew up with just three books: a dictionary, the works of Shakespeare, and the Bible? Hail to autodidacts everywhere!

      Reply
  6. Paul Freeman

    Thank you for celebrating the dictionary, CBA. I enjoyed your rule-stretching sonnet enormously. As mentioned by others above, some of the rhymes are inspired.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      For the last one I must give credit to the Dutch entomologist De Vries.

      Reply
  7. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    C.B. I love it – the message, the rhyme, the bird simile, and the mention of Cornwall (one of my favorite places on earth). It reminds me of a little ditty I wrote… very meek and humble in the face of your fine display, obviously. But, nevertheless, I think you’ll see where I’m coming from.

    Words Matter

    Hold on to your lexicon,
    So when all truth is trampled on
    By those who torture every word,
    And twist the gist until absurd
    Meanings slip from lying lips,
    And tongues drip with malicious scripts –
    You’ll have the truth to draw upon
    From your trusty lexicon.

    Thank you for your passion! Btw, “from Wisconsin/Samuel Johnson” is a stroke of end-rhyme genius.

    Reply
  8. Yael

    I was on the fence about this one until I got to the last 2 lines:
    “While bees dance meanings staged on waxen hexagons,
    We humans navigate by means of lexicons.”
    Stroke of genius, I love it!

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Again, Yael, De Vries is the true genius in this instance. I could never have figured out how the dance of honey bees informs other worker bees where the good nectar is. It’s sheer good fortune that our lexicon includes both “lexicon” and “hexagon.”

      Reply
  9. sally cook

    Dear CB,

    Enjoyed your poem and all its clever turns very much !
    I have an early edition of Johnson which I treasure, even though it is almost impossible to read.

    I take it out from time to time and stroke its leather covers.

    It is comforting to know some one of my ancients cared for words, even though few seem to of late. But you do, and in this barbarous age, that means a lot.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Does your edition include the entry on “oats,” where he writes: a grain that in England is fed to horses, and in Ireland is fed to people (or something like that)? Anyway, I am happy that you enjoyed my effort. If I can please you from time to time, I won’t worry about too much else.

      Reply
    • Julian D. Woodruff

      Dear Ms Cook,
      Your funny remark on your Dictionary immediately cranked over the engine lodged upstairs, with this result:
      His Dictionary is for Johnson lovers
      Something almost impossible to read.
      Instead, they take it out and stroke its covers
      (Its being, too, impossible to feed).

      Reply
  10. Dwayne Barrick

    C.B.,

    You make it seem so easy when we know it’s not. Kudos!

    As to promotion/demotion, sometimes scansion is like a Rorschach test. We hear what our ear brings to a poem’s meter. My ear did not hesitate through reading your sonnet. No pot holes on the road!

    Whimsical but serious subject.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Thanks, Dwayne. I’ve heard it said of musicians: What she did was hard, but she made it look easy; the other guy did something hard, but he made it look hard. Everything is hard, but accepting your approbation, as it happens, was fairly easy, and who ever said that whimsy is not serious?

      Reply
  11. Margaret Coats

    Let me first make it clear that I like the poem, especially the flow of thought and the intriguing word choices. However, I first read the first line as iambic pentameter ending in a triple rhyme (a dactyl, as discussion has gone). Line 3 corresponds. With the hexameters in lines 2 and 4, I thought I was looking at an imaginative metrical or rhyme scheme. Thought so all the more when lines 6, 8, 10, and 12 turned out to be hexameters ending in double (feminine) rhyme. And then the couplet is iambic pentameter with triple rhymes again. By this point, I realized that hexameter was your intent.

    As I frequently use secondary accents as stresses, this is not a problem to me. In fact, I find the music of a poem to be less varied and potentially boring if a poet never uses secondary accent stresses. That’s something that can happen when the poem is made up of nothing but short words. I do find “indispensable” and “reprehensible” more problematic than “hexagon” and “lexicon.” The “ble” syllable really does not comprise a secondary accent, whereas the “gon” and “con” do. Or, acknowledging Joseph’s judgment above, I’ll say that they can–if they are not pronounced with a schwa, but with a broad “a” or an “o” as in “moss”. This is in fact the usual pronunciation for “hexagon” in geometry class.

    Perhaps what is disquieting to some of us readers is that the problematic words come in the poem’s most important rhyme positions–first and last lines. Still, I can read the poem and enjoy it now that I’ve understood your plan.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Thank you, Margaret, especially for your analysis of feminine end rhymes. I agree with you that suffixes such as “-able” & “-ible” do not readily lend themselves to “promotion,” but the reader has to be flexible when it comes to the scansion of meter. I know that we are not supposed to count syllables and that a pentameter line with a feminine ending will necessarily have eleven syllables, but does it really make sense to have two extra syllables at the end of a line? “-PEN-sa-ble” & “-HEN-si-ble” rhyme on the stressed syllable of each word, and I would rather view the suffixes as pyrrhic feet than create an iambic hexameter line with fourteen syllables. Sometimes, I think, we need to count syllables because they count!

      Reply
    • Julian D. Woodruff

      Margaret,
      I’m afraid I’ve missed your point here. With “… they can be pronounced …” I thought you were referring to -able and -ible (which we accept as similar enough not to interfere with a rhyme on the preceding accented syllable?), but you end the paragraph talking about the pronunciation of hexagon (from which I conclude that you say it might be rhymed with Mexican–something I doubt). Do you have a minute to straighten me out?

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        What she wrote, Julian, is that in geometry class “hexagon” is not pronounced HEX-uh-guhn, but HEX-uh-GON, and thus the last syllable is readily promoted to a stressed one. I don’t know why you would conclude that she might say that it rhymes with “Mexican,” but that’s such a near miss that I would happily use that rhyme in a piece of light verse if I could figure out a connection between Mexicans and hexagons.

  12. David Watt

    C.B., it is fitting that you should be the one to write a sonnet concerning dictionaries. Your love of lesser known, though pertinent words, is evident in the pieces you write. I also admired the concluding couplet. The often overlooked residents of Tasmania should be pleased to gain a mention.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      If you think I’m fond of lesser-known words, get a load of Peter Hartley. I once had a bottle of single malt whiskey from Tasmania. I think it was called Lammerlaw. As I explained above, I needed to find three political subdivisions of Anglophone countries, but also I needed names that would fit the meter.

      Reply
  13. Margaret Coats

    Thanks, C. B., for replying so precisely and correctly to the question Julian addressed to me. I can simply add that anyone who insists on reading “lexicon” as a triple rhyme (aka “dactyl” in this discussion) has found a perfect rhyme for “Mexican.” “Hexagon” does not rhyme perfectly, because its “g” is not a “c,” but “lexicon” and “Mexican” form a perfect rhyming pair if their last two vowels are pronounced as unstressed schwa.

    You are also correct to bring up light verse in this context. Very rarely could anyone make regular use of triple rhyme (accented rhyme sounds followed by two unaccented syllables at the end of a rhyming line), except in a comic poem. Rhyming dictionaries do have special sections to help the comic poet find such triple rhymes. I don’t call triple rhymes “dactyls” unless the entire line is dactylic, and clearly you have no dactylic lines in this poem. To clarify my original comment a little further, I’ll say that when I saw “indispensable” as a rhyme word, I thought you might be writing a comic poem on dictionaries, using triple rhymes. But the only possible triple rhymes are in lines 1 and 3. The couplet rhymes (as you explain with “hexagon”) are easily “promoted” to single or masculine rhymes, and all the others are either single or double. Therefore, before the end of the poem, I understood that your meter is iambic hexameter, and that I would have to be flexible enough to pronounce “indispensable” as IN-dih-SPEN-suh-BUHL. That is a significant promotion for a word whose final syllable can be written “b’l” because there is not even a schwa there–but it achieves the schwa through your choice of meter.

    Now, please, never again suggest that you might call the final foot of any rhyming line “pyrrhic.” I don’t need to tell you that for a line to rhyme at all, there must be a stressed syllable in the final foot. One can have two unstressed syllables following the stressed syllable–but make that poem short as well as funny. It’s a difficult endeavor, even with the aid of the triple rhyme section of a rhyming dictionary.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Yes, Margaret, a “g” is not a “c,” but hard “c” is the surd of hard “g.” In most cases I would regard corresponding voiced/unvoiced consonants in rhymed words as being perfectly fine. For instance, fodder/hotter, seize/peace, with/pith, forge/torch and blubber/supper.

      Reply
  14. James A. Tweedie

    These comments have offered me more free entertainment than I deserve. Sadly, the esoterica is too high in the stratosphere for me to grasp the subtleties. I must content myself with simply enjoying C.B.s poem for its wit, its prosaic flow (of which he is a master), the clever rhymes and–to beat a not-quite dead horse–that final couplet!

    Keep ’em coming! And God bless Tasmania!

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      I think you are being a bit disingenuous by suggesting that there are subtleties you cannot grasp. As for my “prosaic flow,” I simply try to write proper English sentences, to make them rhyme, and to mold them into a semblance of metrical order.

      Reply

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