Old Words, New Words

My friend and fellow Compassion and Choices NCA co-chair Stewart Florsheim recently had his fine book of poetry, A Short Fall from Grace, featured in Pedestal Magazine, in a thorough and insightful review by Alice Osborn. Early on, Ms. Osborn declared Stewart a “master of the ekphrastic poem…” which sent at least two of us rushing off to our dictionaries. Alas, nothing there. Not in the Random House, the Oxford American, not even the OED three-volumes-with-magnifying glass. My friend Merla, a dictionary person if there ever was one, e-mailed that she had found ecphrastic, as in “clearing away obstructions,” and since his poetry quite often does just that we declared Stewart a master of the ecphrastic poem and were ready to let it go.

The poet himself, however, having been copied on these e-exchanges, finally weighed in rather gently with the definition: poetry in response to art. He then provided a Web link to the Puddinghouse Magazine site, featuring articles and references and gracious knows what-all on ekphrastic poetry. A chapbook edited by Jennifer Bosveld, Elastic Ekphrastic is an anthology of these gems. I have been feeling, since then, a little like the only person in the literary world previously unfamiliar with ekphrastia. Except for Merla, thank goodness, as she is highly literate.

The word popped up again during a conversation a few days ago, and it took my friend Jim (who is decidedly new school as opposed to old-school Merla and me) exactly eight seconds to whip out his iPhone and find ekphrastic in Wikipedia. Well, of course.

This brings up some interesting questions: Will Wikipedia render the OED obsolete? Is the old-fashioned dictionary, the kind you could put on a shelf, on the way out? Or should I invest in a new OED (ours, I admit, is a 1971 edition, and half the English language has been invented since then) at 275 pounds sterling for the new compact edition with magnifying glass? With at least one word person defending Sarah Palin’s “nucular” (the way no one ever defended Eisenhower) as correct because it is a regional thing, are we on our way to establishing our own definitions and pronunciations without regard to dictionaries anyway? Considering all this instant information and opinion, are we being dumbed down or smartened up by the shifting winds of wordage?

At least I have been smartened into ekphrastic poetry. My spellcheck still doesn’t believe that ekphrastic is a word, but the ghost of my college Greek professor Miss Mabel K. Whiteside is undoubtedly at peace.

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