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.

Reading about it in the morning

What with the Olympics, the conventions and other breaking news these days, there seems an awful lot of TV-watching going on. I don’t do TV very well. For one thing, the Comcast people – whom I actively loathe and despise so I hope your mother doesn’t work there – in their infinite wisdom furnish us with 82 channels, which is 76 more TV channels than I could ever possibly want. There are, of course, one or two I would like to have that are somehow not on the Comcast radar, but in order to get them I would need to add another 40 or 50 more, and my poor old curved-screen TV would collapse of its own weight.

It appears that everybody who is not following the news on TV is checking in on her iPhone or Treo or laptop. I can’t handle that kind of newsgathering either. My assorted home pages and RSS feeds do indeed give me headlines at every turn – and I appreciate that and congratulate you if your mother works for iGoogle – but I am not inclined to zip right over and read the whole story and this is why:

Nothing will ever beat picking up the morning paper, sitting down with a cup of coffee and finding out what’s going on around the globe. Even if it went on 6 or 8 hours ago. The sky will fall if you miss knowing about the invasion of Svenghalistan by 6 hours? Under the old morning paper system the universe unfolds in proper time. You catch the first line of the big head just below and to the right of the New York Times’ “All the News That’s Fit to Print” box as you’re picking up the paper, and the adrenalin kicks in, ever so gently, even before the caffeine. Maybe your candidate won! Or you glance at the smaller typeface just below the slogan and get an instant clue about who’s beating up on whom around the globe. Then you settle down, let everything else wait while the day gets underway, and digest the news and a piece of toast at your own speed. This is good not only for the digestion, but also for the blood pressure (your candidate didn’t win?!) and the furniture that ordinarily gets in the way when you throw things at the TV.

The daily newspaper may be condemned to die, leaving hard news analysis and investigative reporting to the bloggers and the Wikipedes and perhaps some good hearted nonprofits, which many friends of mine believe will work out just fine. I’ve got my doubts (and Newshour still, at least.) But the need to know everything that happens everywhere at the moment of its happening is not high on my priority list.

I want to read about it in the morning. Over coffee.

Writers Blogk

In the virtual world of the blogosphere there are those who suffer guilt over failure to blog. This despite evidence that the world manages to get along just fine without our daily contributions. I hear of this guilt about infrequency and irregularity, though, from my more gifted and committed blogger friends, and certainly stress out about it myself when one of my several readers says, “Umm, you haven’t put anything new there in a month or so.” It is the curse of writers blogk.

Writers blogk is identifiable by several symptoms:

The syntactical blogk: Those of us born into the Chicago Manual of Style and raised by Strunk and White are just emotionally unable to write in incomplete sentences or phrases. We wish we could. We desperately envy those who can dash off a post and send it instantly into cyberspace with confidence. You know them. Their blogs are breezy and witty and wonderful – and frequent. We of the blogked are still sitting at our computers searching for the perfectly-crafted phrase, wondering if our gerunds are proper.

The grammatical/punctuational blogk: In another generation this blogk will be simply quaint, as there will be no texting-impaired people still alive. But for now, we unfortunate blogkeders cannot abandon our commitment to capital letters and words spelled all the way out. Some things are daggers into our literary souls, u no wt i mn? So we sit around doing our own spell-checking until we’ve bored ourselves into a doze.

The sheer envy blogk: Who are all those people posting perfectly spelled and punctuated, well crafted sentences and paragraphs of informative materials day after day and whose freshman composition class were they in? Ohmygoodness, did I just end that sentence in a preposition?

The insecurity blogk: It seemed like a good idea… but no, how could I possibly write about that…….

I’ll try to get back to you soon.

On getting along…

It was a special treat recently to attend several sessions of the 20th annual meeting of the North American Interfaith Network, happily held this year on the campus of my MFA alma mater, the University of San Francisco. Ever alert for a good story – especially a publishable one – I e-mailed my friend and Beliefnet.com editor to see if they’d be interested in a report. (I wrote a piece for Beliefnet’s start-up issue, and am proud to have contributed that and a few other articles for what I think is the best site around for issues of spirituality and ethics.) She replied, with kindness but candor, should anything surprising or newsworthy come up that would be a possibility, but such is seldom the case at these conferences. And I guess she’s right. What warms the heart does not necessarily make the news.
Still, it was hard not to feel a little wistful, as I sat in workshops and gatherings, about the fact that an extraordinary coming-together of so many wildly divergent faith communities, many of which are behind the splitting-apart of the world, is not newsworthy by today’s measure.
In my ice-breaking group, for example, were a woman rabbi, a former Catholic priest whose partner is a Wiccan, an avowed atheist, and an ordained United Methodist minister who works full-time with an interfaith organization (in Wichita, KS!, America’s oldest interfaith group, founded 1885 if you please.) And assorted others, including a Japanese Christian who had married a Korean politician but is now living in the U.S. because, as you might guess, that didn’t sit well with Korean politics. Stories were everywhere. In subsequent gatherings I encountered Muslims, Buddhists, Native Americans, Brahma Kumaris and others, all with wonderfully rich traditions and a yearning for peace.
There were questions – How can humanitarian needs be addressed without compromising political/religious neutrality? Is every declared faith a legitimate faith? – for which no answers were found. But there were exciting tales of answers that had been found and of possibilities for finding more. Tiny steps toward a better world were confirmed.
So OK, one group Om does not a treaty make. And the multi-lingual singing of “Love In Any Language” won’t make ancient animosities between speakers of all those languages disappear.
But has anyone come up with a better idea? That would make news.