Songs, poetry, Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah, an Iranian prison, and Trump.

I once heard an interview on NPR with Maziar Bahari, a Persian-Canadian guy who got thrown in jail in Iran and stayed there for quite a while, being abused in the ways that Persian-North-Americans get abused in Iranian jails.  It’s not pretty.  Something that struck me: he said that he kept himself sane through the ordeal by singing Leonard Cohen songs in his head.

Every year I post poems for National Poetry Month, and every year I ask myself the same question: do song lyrics count as poetry?  It’s not an easy question to answer.  In order to answer it, you have to define what poetry is, but you also have to define what a song is, and that’s not as easy as you might think, either.  For example: the most famous poem in Old English is Beowulf.  But, scholars widely agree that it was probably sung, not recited.  Phil d’Ange recently talked about the lyricists of the French chanson réaliste with respect to this question:

Aristide Bruant was the archetype of a very Parisian species, “les chansonniers”, late 1800s-early 1900s. The center of these song makers (who could also be singers) was more Montmartre (the famous Chat Noir) or the “guinguettes” along the Marne river than Grenelle. In a way these chansonniers were the descendants of the troubadours, the Greek aedes, a very old tradition. Of course they liked to mix slang and classical, sexual or political hints and word plays. … Chansonniers are not from the same level [as poets]. Gainsbourg once famously said that he was doing “un art mineur”, as opposed to poetry, classical music, theatre, etc … We could say the same thing, chansonniers did “un art mineur”. And they were not always poets: often they played with words, double-meanings, easily sexual or political about their time, there were many sorts of productions coming from them. [They] were practicing a quintessentially Parisian attitude, linked to all the provocation that the Parisian working classes provided to the world, from humour to revolutions. And some poetry too. I tell you, what you see and know is not Paris, Paris needed its working class inside the city, without this the splendid painters and writers who came from every country to work in Paris would not have been able to afford a hotel and a life there . And there would not have been any of the several French revolutions.

So, how are we to think about Beowulf–as the poem as which we read it, or as the … whatever it was as which it was sung?  And must we think of Higelin as a singer, not as a poet, even when he is (as far as I can tell) reciting his insanely wonderful stuff?

So, yeah: this is the question into which a lot of my mental energy goes during April, the US National Poetry Month.  An bigoted asshole opposed to American values rules the White House; the UK is poking a hole in the only organization that has kept Western Europe at peace for a generation since…well, has Western Europe ever been at peace for this long before?; the Front National got 1/3 of the vote in the 2017 French presidential election, and I’m putting my mental energy into definitional questions about music and poetry.  Enough!  

A walk through the St. Germain-des-Prés neighborhood of Paris the other day brought me to the San Francisco Book Company, a delightful little anglophone used book store on the rue M. le Prince.  In the window, I saw the collection of books whose photograph you see above: Leonard Cohen: Collected Poems.  Leonard Cohen is (was–he recently died) the much-beloved singer/songwriter whose songs kept that poor Persian-Canadian guy sane through the tortures of an Iranian prison.  Is his stuff the lyrics of a song if he releases them on an album, but the words of a poem if he doesn’t?  If he publishes them in a book now, and then records them later, do they start as a poem, but then later turn into a song?  I elect to solve my problem this way: if they’re words–shit, if they are, or could be, sounds produced by the human vocal apparatus–I’m going to enjoy them for National Poetry Month, and honi soit qui mal y pense.  (Or, as we linguists like to say: honi schwa qui mal y pense, but that’s a joke for another time.)

So, for today’s little bit of National Poetry Month, here’s one of Leonard Cohen’s best-loved songs pieces: Hallelujah.  Seulement voilà, I’m going to give you my favorite version of it–in Yiddish.  It is most definitely not an exact translation, but I think that it captures the feeling of the original pretty nicely.  The English translation of the Yiddish words are given in the subtitles to the video, and below that I’ll post the Yiddish version in Yiddish writing and transcribed in what’s known as the YIVO Yiddish orthography in the Latin alphabet–just know that kh is the sound of the in paître (oh, how I love an excuse to use that verb–I wish to hell I could conjugate it) and you’ve mostly got it.  Enjoy, and may Leonard Cohen give us the strength to survive Trump that he gave Maziar Bahari to survive torture in an Iranian prison.

„הללויה‟ פֿון לענאָרד כּהן אויף ייִדיש

(איבערגעזעצט פֿון דניאל קאַהן; מיט דער הילף פֿון דזשאַש וואַלעצקי, מענדי כּהנא און מיישקע אַלפּערט)

געווען אַ ניגון ווי אַ סוד
וואָס דוד האָט געשפּילט פֿאַר גאָט
נאָר דיר וואָלט׳ס נישט געווען אַזאַ ישועה
מע זינגט אַזוי: אַ פֿאַ, אַ סאָל
אַ מי שברך הייבט אַ קול
דער דולער מלך וועבט אַ הללויה

דײַן אמונה איז געוואָרן שוואַך
בת שבֿע באָדט זיך אויפֿן דאַך
איר חן און די לבֿנה דײַן רפֿואה
זי נעמט דײַן גוף, זי נעמט דײַן קאָפּ
זי שנײַדט פֿון דײַנע האָר אַ צאָפּ
און ציט פֿון מויל אַראָפּ אַ הללויה

אָ טײַערע איך קען דײַן סטיל
איך בין געשלאָפֿן אויף דײַן דיל
כ׳האָב קיינמאָל נישט געלעבט מיט אַזאַ צנועה
און איך זע דײַן שלאָס, איך זע דײַן פֿאָן
אַ האַרץ איז נישט קיין מלכס טראָן
ס׳איז אַ קאַלטע און אַ קאַליע הללויה

אוי ווי אַמאָל, טאָ זאָג מיר אויס
וואָס טוט זיך דאָרטן אין דײַן שויס
טאָ וואָס זשע דאַרפֿסט זיך שעמען ווי אַ בתולה
און געדענק ווי כ׳האָב אין דיר גערוט
ווי די שכינה גלוט אין אונדזער בלוט
און יעדער אָטעם טוט אַ הללויה

זאָל זײַן מײַן גאָט איז גאָר נישטאָ
און ליבע זאָל זײַן כּל מום רע
אַ פּוסטער טרוים צעבראָכן און מכולה
נישט קיין געוויין אין מיטן נאַכט
נישט קיין בעל־תּשובֿה אויפֿגעוואַכט
נאָר אַן עלנטע קול־קורא הללויה

אַן אַפּיקורס רופֿסטו מיך
מיט שם־הוויה לעסטער איך
איז מילא, איך דערוואַרט נישט קיין גאולה
נאָר ס׳ברענט זיך הייס אין יעדן אות
פֿון אַלף־בית גאָר ביזן סוף
די הייליקע און קאַליע הללויה

און דאָס איז אַלץ, ס׳איז נישט קיין סך
איך מאַך דערווײַלע וואָס איך מאַך
איך קום דאָ ווי אַ מענטש, נישט קיין שילוּיע
כאָטש אַלץ פֿאַרלוירן סײַ ווי סײַ
וועל איך פֿאַרלויבן אדני
און שרײַבן ווי לחיים הללויה

Read more: http://yiddish.forward.com/articles/200434/leonard-cohens-hallelujah-in-yiddish/#ixzz5DCVVG7pV


Yiddish by Daniel Kahn from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” with help from Michael Alpert, Mendy Cahan and Josh Waletzky
Geven a nign vi a sod,
Vos Dovid hot geshpilt far Got.
Nor dir volt’s nisht geven aza yeshue.
Me zingt azoy: a fa, a sol,
A misheberekh heybt a kol,
Der duler meylekh vebt a haleluye…
Dayn emune iz gevorn shvakh,
Basheva bodt zikh afn dakh,
Ir kheyn un di levone dayn refue
Zi nemt dayn guf, zi nemt dayn kop,
Zi shnaydt fun dayne hor a tsop
Un tsit fun moyl arop a haleluye…
O tayere, ikh ken dayn stil,
Ikh bin geshlofn af dayn dil,
Kh’hob keynmol nisht gelebt mit aza tsnue
Ikh ze dayn shlos,
ikh ze dayn fon,
A harts iz nisht keyn meylekhs tron,
S’iz a kalte un a kalye haleluye…
Oy vi amol, to zog mir oys
Vos tut zikh dortn in dayn shoys?
To vos zhe darfst zikh shemen vi a bsule?
Nor gedenk vi kh’hob in dir gerut,
Vi di shkhine glut in undzer blut,
Un yeder otem tut a haleluye…
Zol zayn mayn got iz gor nishto
Un libe zol zayn kol-mumro,
A puster troym tsebrokhn un mekhule,
Nisht keyn geveyn in mitn nakht,
Nisht keyn bal-tshuve oyfgevakht,
Nor an elnte kol-koyre haleluye…
An apikoyres rufstu mikh,
Mit shem-havaye lester ikh,
Iz meyle, ikh dervart nisht keyn geule.
Nor s’brent zikh heys in yedn os
Fun alef beys gor bizn sof
Di heylike un kalye haleluye…
Un dos iz alts, s’iz nisht keyn sakh.
Ikh makh dervayle vos ikh makh.
Ikh kum do vi a mentsh,
nisht keyn shiluye.
Khotsh alts farloyrn say vi say
Vel ikh farloybn “Adoynay”
Un shrayen vi l’khayem “haleluye.”

Read more: http://yiddish.forward.com/articles/200434/leonard-cohens-hallelujah-in-yiddish/#ixzz5DCVgGrrG

My last assclown

Since we have a thin-skinned assclown, a man-baby who rages in response to tweets, in the White House, I propose Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” for today’s National Poetry Month treat.

The chestnuts are blooming in the Place Cambronne.  At this time of year, I stop there on my way home from work (on my way to work, I study vocabulary, and don’t notice them), and rejoice in the knowledge that they will survive even the zombie apocalypse.  Of course, blooming chestnut trees means National Poetry Month; since we have a thin-skinned assclown–a man-baby who rages in response to tweets and threatens the press when he doesn’t like their reporting–a bigot who accuses judges of not being impartial on the basis of their parents’ national origin–an immoral villain who equates white supremacists and neo-Nazis with the people who stand up to them–with his fingers on the most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world, I propose a timely bit of Robert Browning.  Follow this link if you’d like to hear a pretty good recording thereof.  The poem is pretty disturbing in and of itself, and all the more so with Trump in the presidency.  I gave commands;  then all smiles stopped together. There she stands  as if alive….Notice Neptune, though…thought a rarity, which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!  (Rough translation: I had her killed.  Hey, look at this great thing that I have!)

The poem was published in 1842, and some of the language bears explication.  I’ll give you the modern and/or non-poetic equivalents of some of the verbs:

  • will’t: “will it”  Will’t please you sit and look at her?
  • durst: “dared”  And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, //
    How such a glance came there;
  • ’twas: “it was”  Sir, ’twas not // Her husband’s presence only, called that spot // Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek;
  • whate’er: “whatever”  she liked whate’er // She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
  •  whene’ever: “whenever”  Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, // Whene’er I passed her;

…and the English notes explain some of the words that I used in writing this post.

My Last Duchess

Robert Browning

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—
E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Want a French translation of this poem?  See the Wikipédia page here.

English notes

assclown: “someone who, wrongly, thinks his actions are clever, funny, or worthwhile.”  ““someone who seeks an audience’s enjoyment while being slow to understand how it views him.”  A specific kind of asshole, defined as “A person counts as an asshole, when and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.”  Sources: John Kelly on the Strong Language blog, and Aaron James, in his book Assholes: a theory of Donald Trump.

Fra: “used as a title equivalent to brother preceding the name of an Italian monk or friar” (Merriam-Webster).  My best guess is that it’s used here to suggest that the Duke things that the painter was overly familiar (brother) with his wife, and/or that his wife was overly familiar with the painter.

familiar: a word with at least two parts of speech (adjective, of course, but also noun).  In the poem, it’s used with the meaning of informal, friendly; it can also mean something well-known (the familiar works of Shakespeare).

Naming of parts: the illustrated version

Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.

Picture source: https://goo.gl/b9U0dY

It’s National Poetry Month, and that means Henry Reed’s achingly beautiful and super-funny Naming of parts.  Getting the humor might require having spent some time in the military, which I did; getting the vocabulary certainly does, as it’s full of technical terms for rifle-parts.  I originally found the version that I give here, with its nice links to some of the difficult vocabularyon the Sole Arabia Tree web site.  For this year, I’ve added some additional vocabulary notes here.  Go to the Sole Arabia Tree page for a recording of Henry Reed reading the poem.

Picture source: https://goo.gl/YpZJPA

swivel: “a device joining two parts so that one or both can pivot freely”(Merriam-Webster) . The poem mentions several kinds of swivels on the British-Army-issue rifle of World War II: the upper sling swivel, the lower sling swivel, and the piling swivel.

sling: “a device (as a rope or chain) by which something is lifted or carried” (Merriam-Webster).  See the picture of a rifle above.

easily: the adverbial form of easy.  It never appears in the poem–I add it here for the benefit of the non-native speakers whose English is good enough to be puzzled by these lines in the poem:

You can do it quite easy

If you have any strength in your thumb.

Yes, that sounds weird, and you should say You can do it quite easily if you have any strength in your thumb.  Does Reed use it here to imply something about the level of education of the drill instructor?  Is it a dialectal variant in the United Kingdom?  Was it current at the time that he wrote the poem, published in 1942?  I have no clue.  I do, however, find quite striking the parallel that Lieutenant Colonel Edward Ledford (US Army) draws between the drill instructor’s deadpan “which in your case you have not got,” sometimes interpreted as prefiguring how slaughtered these kids were going to be later, part because of shortages of equipment, and notorious my-kids-won’t-go-to-war-but-let’s-send-yours Donald Rumsfeld’s dismissal of the concerns of actual American soldiers at the beginning of Bush’s Iraq War:

The scene is in Kuwait. The setting is a less and less endearing and more and more trite town-hall meeting. Soldiers are gathered around. They will move north into Iraq the next day. The soldiers, we soon discover, apparently aren’t feeling real dulce-et-decorum-est-pro-patri-mori.

Playing the role of leader, Donald Rumsfeld places himself among them. He opens the floor to questions and comments. Specialist Thomas Wilson raises his hand. He is called upon.

Wilson: A lot of us are getting ready to move north relatively soon. Our vehicles are not armored. We’re digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that’s already been shot up.. picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles to take into combat.

Rumsfeld [in a scientific, theoretical, detached tone]: As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time. [brightening, as if realizing something] If you think about it, you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up.

A female Soldier asks a next question, but the audience cannot hear it

Rumsfeld: It is something you prefer not to have to use, obviously, in a perfect world. It’s been used as little as possible.

Lieutenant Colonel Ledford continues his critique of Rumsfeld’s dismissive (and later seen to be deadly, both for us and for Iraqi civilians) words by rewriting them in the style of Naming of parts:

As you know, you go
to war

with the Army you have.

They’re not the Army
you might want

or wish to have
at a later time.

If you think
about it,
you can have
all the armor
in the world
on a tank
and a tank
can be blown

It is something
you prefer not to have to use,
a perfect world.

It’s been used

as little as possible.

For the rest of Lieutenant Colonel Ledford’s thoughts on the poem, see this web page.


To Alan Michell

Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine gloria


To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.

No bourgeois aestheticism here

Searching for blue…

I was once practicing a crucial presentation with my French colleagues.  I wondered out loud about how to present something–about how to present myself, actually.  One of my co-workers said something that has stuck with me ever since: Be yourself.  That way, you won’t have anything to regret.  He’s right: failing because you were not yourself, when you would have succeeded if you had been yourself, is one of those things that you would carry around for a long, long time–and regret sucks.  On the other hand, failing because you were yourself, when you might have succeeded if you had presented yourself as someone else, is an excellent indication that you should be doing something else, and that’s always a good thing to know.

I thought about that as I read today’s National Poetry Month treat, Shel Silverstein’s Masks.  Obviously the message of the poem–Silverstein’s poetry is definitely full of messages, no bourgeois aestheticism here–is profound; from a formal perspective, it amazes me that he delivers that message with only one word that is longer than a single syllable.  (It’s never.)


Shel Silverstein

She had blue skin.
And so did he.
He kept it hid
And so did she.
They searched for blue
Their whole life through,
Then passed right by—
And never knew.


Death’s second self

Trigger warning: vulgar reference to reproductive anatomy.  Oh, and here’s an analysis of vocabulary in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold.”

Trigger warning: vulgar reference to reproductive anatomy.  Oh, and National Poetry Month continues with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, That time of year thou mayst in me behold.

Thanksgiving Day is a purely American holiday.  OK: it’s a harvest holiday, and practically everybody has a harvest holiday.  But, it’s ours, and we love it.  An American who is not with family and friends on Thanksgiving Day is a lonely American; les Amerloques will travel amazing distances and spend enormous amounts of money just to spend the last Thursday in November with their families, and then head back to wherever they normally are 48 hours later.

I studied literature and linguistics at a college in a little town in rural Virginia.  Nobody was from there, so essentially the entire student body left to go home for the holiday.  Thanksgiving Day is the last Thursday in November (I know I already mentioned that, but it seems weird enough to be worth repeating), and you have to leave a couple days before that to get home–but, when, exactly, can you leave?  The college’s rule was this: classes ended at noon on Tuesday, and then you could do as you wished.

Classes ended at noon, and I had a class at 11.  I was going nowhere, and I was a more-than-obsessive student, so you can bet your ass that I was there at 11.  (You can bet your ass that explained in the English notes below.)  Me–and the professor.  And nobody else.

If I were that professor today, I would just take that student out for a cup of coffee and make them teach me about logarithms, I suppose.  But, I’m a fat old bald guy who will be retired in the blink of an eye (English notes, don’t worry), and my professor was a young guy in need of tenure.  He shrugged his shoulders–and taught me.

No, he didn’t lecture: I sat at a desk, he sat on the desk, and he taught me how to do a “close reading” of a poem.  There must be a technical definition of close reading–my understanding of it is: look up every fucking word.  Do that, and you are likely to be surprised at the connections that you see, the networks of words, the multiple champs lexicaux in the poem–maybe one was obvious to you, but there are probably more than that, and noticing them is part of the pleasure of the whole thing.  (Taking pleasure in analyzing a poem to death might be another one of those reasons that I get divorced so often.)

The latest and greatest thing in literary studies is “distant reading.”  It’s called that precisely to draw the clearest possible contrast with “close reading.”  The idea behind distant reading is that you don’t actually read anything–rather, you use a computer to analyze entire literatures.  As Franco Moretti, the godfather of this stuff, puts it: you can read one book, and then another, and then another, for the rest of your life–at the end, all that you will know is those books.  If you want to understand literature, then you have to look at giant collections of it.  People who do distant reading do what I do with biomedical texts, except they write their papers about things like this:

“The Emotions of London”, written by Ryan Heuser, Franco Moretti, and Erik Steiner, inaugurates a new field of work for the Literary Lab — that of literary and cultural geography. Working on a corpus of 5,000 novels, and covering the two centuries from 1700 to 1900, this pamphlet charts the uneven development of social spaces and fictional structures, bringing to light the long-term connection between emotion and class in narrative representations of London.  Stanford Literary Lab

…rather than stuff like this, as I do:

Prior knowledge of the distributional characteristics of linguistic phenomena can be useful for a variety of language processing tasks. This paper describes the distribution of negation in two types of biomedical texts: scientific journal articles and progress notes. Two types of negation are examined: explicit negation at the syntactic level and affixal negation at the sub-word level. The data show that the distribution of negation is significantly different in the two document types, with explicit negation more frequent in the clinical documents than in the scientific publications and affixal negation more frequent in the journal articles at the type level and token levels.

I’ll leave it to you to decide which is the more interesting.  Or, don’t choose–immerse yourself in both.  Whatever–it’s all fun.

Today, we’ll go closer to the close reading end of the continuum with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73–an appropriate one for a fat old bald guy such as myself, as it speaks of love at the end of life.  (Obviously, it would be even more appropriate if I could ever get a second date–alas.)  The target in our sights: the words Death’s second self, which have always puzzled me.  (For context: I took three semesters of Shakespeare in college, and I mostly wrote my papers about linguistic aspects of the Bard, so things in his work don’t usually perplex me for decades, like Death’ second self has.)  That second self is pretty goddamn opaque to a native speaker of English–today.  It is an old term that has a meaning of its own:

second self: one who associates so closely with a person as to assume that person’s mode of behavior, personality, beliefs, etc.  (Dictionary.com)

Now, you have to realize: linguists approach dictionaries with more than a little bit of suspicion.  Make it an on-line dictionary of unclear provenance, and my antennae really go up: is this a justifiable definition, or did whoever wrote it base it entirely on their interpretation of its appearance in Shakespeare’s sonnet?

I can’t know what was in the definition writer’s head–hell, I can’t even tell you what’s in any of my many ex-wives’ heads (see previous mentions on this blog of how often I get divorced).  Honestly, most of the time I’m not even sure what’s in my head.  But, I can look at some data–that’s what linguists do, right?  (That’s a bit of sarcasm, but I’m wandering way too far off the track of National Poetry Month already.)   Off I go to the Sketch Engine web site, purveyor of fine linguistic corpora and the tools for searching them, where I find the English Historical Books Collectioncontaining 826,000,000 words of text from English books published between 1473 and 1820.  A search for second self shows me that the phrase occurs at a rate of 0.04 times per million words, and gives me examples like this:

  • …one correspondent to him, suitable both to his nature and necessity, one altogether like to him in shape and constitution, disposition and affection, a second self …
  • THERE is the Relation of Trustees to those that trust them: for he who trusteth another doth thereby create a very near and intimate Relation to him; so far forth as he trusteth him, he putteth his case into his hands, and depositeth his Interest in his Disposal, and thereby createth him his Proxy, or his second self.
  • God is the most Pure, Simple, Uncompounded Being; and if God, who has no parts, and cannot be divided into any, begets a Son, he must Communicate his Whole, Undivided Nature to him: For to beget a Son, is to Communicate his own Nature to him; and if he have no parts, he cannot Communicate a part, but must Communicate the Whole; that is, he must Communicate his whole self, and be a second self in his Son.

So: I don’t know how the lexicographer came up with their definition, but it looks pretty consistent with the data that I found.  How common was it, actually?  I did a search for it in Google Books between the years 1500 and 2000.  You’ll see a graph of the output at the end of this post.  Why did I also search for my dog?  Because numbers in isolation mean nothing–in order to know whether a number is large or small, you have to compare it to something else.  (The best movie line ever: 5 inches is a lot of snow, and it’s a TREMENDOUS amount of rain, but it’s not very much dick.)  So, I picked a phrase that isn’t necessarily very frequent (relatively speaking), but isn’t exactly weird, either.

…And with that fabulous line from the incredible film L.I.E.I’ll leave you with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73.  Scroll down past the graph that follows it for the English notes, and I hope that your second self (should you have one) is every bit as nice as you are.

Sonnet 73

William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the deathbed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

That spike centered around 1670 or so?  Could be real, but you would want to verify it–things like that in any kind of graph tend to reflect either some event that it should be very easy to track down, or a problem with the data itself.

English notes

you can bet your ass that…You can believe that it is absolutely true that…”  This is quite vulgar–don’t say it in front of my grandmother.  Some examples:

  • If someone is trying to kill me and/or my loved ones, you can bet your ass that I’ll take him out first.
  • #1 Rule … If it sounds like a good deal and is widely advertised, you can bet your ass that you are not the first person to call, and if its such a marvelous deal how come its still for sale?
  • Oh and you can bet your ass that neither one of them will be in a good mood at 6:00 when I wake them.
  • Sadly, Ted, if you examine his statements, then see that he specializes in benefits & employment law, you can bet your ass that his clients are vicious capitalist pigs, who love his union- & employee-busting ways.

(Examples from the enTenTen13 corpus–19.7 billion words of written English, searched via the Sketch Engine web site.)   How I used it in the post:  I was going nowhere, and I was a more-than-obsessive student, so you can bet your ass that I was there at 11. 

you bet your ass: this is basically a very emphatic (and vulgar–don’t say it in front of my grandmother) way of saying “yes.”

  • Am I using a bunch of recycled selfies? You bet your ass I am (Twitter)
  • Not even gonna lie, I ordered chinese food yesterday night and while I was eating I found a pinkie nail sized piece of plastic in it. Was I grossed out? Yeah. Did I keep eating? YOU BET YOUR ASS (Twitter)
  • Me, depressed? You bet your ass (Twitter)
  • Just got offered a trip to Florida so I can lay by the pool&drink at our family friend’s new house and be bait to get his son and college buddies there to help move furniture… You bet your ass I said yes (Twitter)

in the blink of an eye: very fast, very quickly, immediately.

  • One wrong turn in an Ikea and you can go from bathrooms to bedroom furniture in the blink of an eye, losing the other members of your party just as quickly.
  • Now, with the advent of social media, you can turn to a quarter million people and get their opinion in the blink of an eye–as long as you have sophisticated tools like NetBase’s to automatically analyze all that chatter so quickly.
  • But if they didn’t go along with her every whim, or worse, wanted to stop the relationship, she would go from singing their praises to trash-talking everything about them in the blink of an eye.

How I used it in the post: But, I’m a fat old bald guy who will be retired in the blink of an eye, and my professor was a young guy in need of tenure.  

We Real Cool, with controversy

We jazz June. We die soon.

National Poetry Month continues.  Today: Gwendolyn Brooks’s We real cool, probably known to anyone of my generation who went to high school (lycée) in the United States.

What has always impressed me about this poem: it has you thinking in seconds flat.  (This expression explained in the English notes below.)  You know what it’s about, you know that it’s telling a very short story, you know that it’s not a happy story–and yet: you couldn’t really say what most of this poem actually means.  (I say that as a native speaker of the language in which the poem is written–and one with a literature degree, too.)  The lines

Jazz June.

…have been particularly controversial, allegedly leading it to have been banned by some districts (I haven’t been able to verify that, sorry)–to jazz can be interpreted as to fuck.  

We Real Cool
The Pool Players / Seven at the Golden Shovel
by Gwendolyn Brooks
We real cool. We
Left School. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Scroll down past the video of Gwendolyn Brooks reading We real cool for the English notes.

English notes

in seconds flat: very quickly, very fast.  Some examples, courtesy of Twitter:






How I used it in the post: What has always impressed me about this poem: it has you thinking in seconds flat.

Mehitabel and her Kittens, with a bit of vocabulary

Punished for having been a vers libre poet in his previous life…

I’m pretty sure that Don Marquis’s archy and mehitabel was the only poetry that I ever read as a kid.  La trame: Archy is a cockroach–a cockroach who has been reincarnated as such as punishment for having been a vers libre poet in his previous life.  (As a child, that didn’t seem terribly bizarre to me–I wasn’t clear on what vers libre was, but I was in the process of receiving a pretty good Jewish religious education in a very traditional Ashkenazic community, and in such communities it’s not uncommon to believe in reincarnation.)  Archy now lives in a newspaper office, where at night he types out messages to Don Marquis (“boss”), a columnist for the New York Evening Sun at the time.  Being a cockroach and all, he has to type by jumping onto one key at a time; since capital letters require you to hold down the Shift key simultaneously, he is not physically capable of producing them.  Hence “boss,” rather than “Boss.”  The Mehitabel in this poem from 1927 is his closest friend, a more-than-a-little-disreputable cat.  Scroll down to the bottom of the page for an explanation of the words to hamper, to be shy on, and tom cat.

Mehitabel and her kittens

Don Marquis, 1927

well boss
mehitabel the cat
has reappeared in her old
haunts with a
flock of kittens
three of them this time

archy she says to me
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have i done to deserve
all these kittens
i look back on my life
and it seems to me to be
just one damned kitten
after another
i am a dancer archy
and my only prayer
is to be allowed
to give my best to my art
but just as i feel
that i am succeeding
in my life work
along comes another batch
of these damned kittens
it is not archy
that i am shy on mother love
god knows i care for
the sweet little things
curse them
but am i never to be allowed
to live my own life
i have purposely avoided
matrimony in the interests
of the higher life
but i might just
as well have been a domestic
slave for all the freedom
i have gained
i hope none of them
gets run over by
an automobile
my heart would bleed
if anything happened
to them and i found it out
but it isn t fair archy
it isn t fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom
if i was like some of these
green eyed feline vamps i know
i would simply walk out on the
bunch of them and
let them shift for themselves
but i am not that kind
archy i am full of mother love
my kindness has always
been my curse
a tender heart is the cross i bear
self sacrifice always and forever
is my motto damn them
i will make a home
for the sweet innocent
little things
unless of course providence
in his wisdom should remove
them they are living
just now in an abandoned
garbage can just behind
a made over stable in greenwich
village and if it rained
into the can before i could
get back and rescue them
i am afraid the little
dears might drown
it makes me shudder just
to think of it
of course if i were a family cat
they would probably
be drowned anyhow
sometimes i think
the kinder thing would be
for me to carry the
sweet little things
over to the river
and drop them in myself
but a mother s love archy
is so unreasonable
something always prevents me
these terrible
conflicts are always
presenting themselves
to the artist
the eternal struggle
between art and life archy
is something fierce
my what a dramatic life i have lived
one moment up the next
moment down again
but always gay archy always gay
and always the lady too
in spite of hell
well boss it will
be interesting to note
just how mehitabel
works out her present problem
a dark mystery still broods
over the manner
in which the former
family of three kittens
one day she was taking to me
of the kittens
and the next day when i asked
her about them
she said innocently
what kittens
interrogation point
and that was all
i could ever get out
of her on the subject
we had a heavy rain
right after she spoke to me
but probably that garbage can
leaks so the kittens
have not yet
been drowned


English notes

to hamper: “to moderate or limit the effect or full exercise of” (Merriam-Webster).  As a noun, a hamper is a receptacle for dirty clothes.  Why?  Who the fuck knows…

How it was used in the poem:

archy she says to me
the life of a female
artist is continually
hampered what in hell
have i done to deserve
all these kittens

to be shy on: to not have very much of, perhaps to not have enough of, something.  A common usage: to be shy on cash.  Example: I can’t go out for dinner with you–I’m a little shy on cash.  How it was used in the poem:

it is not archy
that i am shy on mother love
god knows i care for
the sweet little things
curse them

tom cat: a male cat.  Also, just tom.  A related expression: to tom-cat around, which is a verb for a guy that means to be having sex with a lot of women.  How it was used in the poem:

it isn t fair
these damned tom cats have all
the fun and freedom

A bonus for the reader who has made it this far: some examples of use of the verb to tomcat around.

  • There are many advice books for women on how to manipulate the male psyche. They suggest how to get him to propose, to be more faithful or simply to be better in bed. But a new book for men takes the opposite approach, counseling the male animal on how to tomcat around shamelessly, while avoiding commitments.  (Braden Kell, writing for the New York Post)
  • Venitucci claims Mechanic, a state-licensed social worker, was equally determined to get him and other men in a group session to tomcat around. “For 10 years, I was faithful. Then I just caved in and had an affair, and [Mechanic] said there was nothing wrong with that,” Venitucci said. (Kathianne Boniello and Brad Hamilton, writing for the New York Post–no link, sorry)
  • Ray, you know I’m right. I don’t really care who he fucks, as long as his tomcating around doesn’t harm our reputation. (M.J. Natali, Adara)