Saturday, July 31, 2010

Little Orphan Typo

The very first poem I remember hearing and the first poem that I memorized was "Little Orphan Annie" by James Whitcomb Riley. My Mother used to recite this poem when I was a child. Of all of the poems I've ever read this one has had the mostest impact on my writing. In case you think you just found a typo, Riley was known as the Hosier Poet and wrote many of his poems in dialect. Including the word "mostest" in this poem. But there is a typo.

When it was written in 1885, "Little Orphan Annie" was titled, "The Elf Child". By the time Riley sent it to the publishers the title was "Little Orphan Allie". "Annie" was a typo. The typesetter misread Riley's handwriting. So "Little Orphan Allie" became "Little Orphan Annie". Riley only discovered the error after the book was published, so it was too late to change it back. So, the typo stayed in.

"Little Orphan Allie" was a real person. Her name was Mary Alice Smith. They called her "Allie". Her mother had died, her father was fighting in the Civil War and her grandmother became too ill to care for her. At the same time, James' father wanted to find someone to help his wife in raising their children.

So in the fall of 1861, when James was 12, Mary Alice came to live at the Riley home. The family would provide her room and board and Mary Alice would do chores around the house. She was 11 years old. Mary Alice stayed less than a year with the Riley family. But while she was there she had the habit of telling fantastic stories, which James liked. During the evening hours she used to entertain the children with stories of goblins and ghosts. By the time she left, she had become a permanent fixture in his mind. They never saw each other again.*

Here's the way that I read "Little Orphan Annie".

* In later life Riley searched for Mary Alice for years. He placed ads in newspapers all over the country looking for her. Then, when he was 96, the daughter of Mary Alice saw his advertisement and putting two and two together contacted Riley to say that "Little Orphan Allie" had been found. The two childhood friends then corresponded by mail and arranged to meet. Sadly he died before the reunion could take place.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Sir Critic, good-day!

At the age of seventeen I found "The Owl Critic" by James T. Fields. I'd never heard of him, so I looked him up and found another poem "Ballad of the Tempest" which I came to dearly love. "Ballad of the Tempest" was the inspiration of my whole series of seafaring poems. Here is a link to Ballad of the Tempest

At the age of seventeen, American publisher and author James T. Fields, went to Boston to clerk in a book store. In later years he wrote for the newspapers, and became a partner in the publishing firm known as Ticknor & Fields, and later as Fields, Osgood & Company. He was the publisher and close personal friend of many of the preeminent American writers of his day. In social settings he was known for his geniality and charm, but as a publisher he had a rare combination of keen business sense and astute literary taste. From 1862-70 he edited the Atlantic Monthly. In 1871 Fields retired from business and devoted himself to lecturing and to writing.

Here is an all time favorite . . .

The Owl Critic
"WHO stuffed that white owl?" No one spoke in the shop:
The barber was busy, and he couldn't stop;
The customers, waiting their turns, were all reading
The "Daily," the "Herald," the "Post," little heeding
The young man who blurted out such a blunt question;
Not one raised a head, or even made a suggestion;
And the barber kept on shaving.

"Don't you see, Mister Brown,"
Cried the youth, with a frown,
"How wrong the whole thing is,
How preposterous each wing is,
How flattened the head is, how jammed down the neck is--
In short, the whole owl, what an ignorant wreck 't is!
I make no apology;
I've learned owl-eology.
I've passed days and nights in a hundred collections,
And cannot be blinded to any deflections
Arising from unskilful fingers that fail
To stuff a bird right, from his beak to his tail.
Mister Brown! Mister Brown!
Do take that bird down,
Or you'll soon be the laughing-stock all over town!"
And the barber kept on shaving.

"I've studied owls,
And other night fowls,
And I tell you
What I know to be true:
An owl cannot roost
With his limbs so unloosed;
No owl in this world
Ever had his claws curled,
Ever had his legs slanted,
Ever had his bill canted,
Ever had his neck screwed
Into that attitude.
He can't do it, because
'T is against all bird-laws.
Anatomy teaches,
Ornithology preaches
An owl has a toe
That can't turn out so!
I've made the white owl my study for years,
And to see such a job almost moves me to tears!
Mister Brown, I'm amazed
You should be so gone crazed
As to put up a bird
In that posture absurd!
To look at that owl really brings on a dizziness;
The man who stuffed him don't half know his business!"
And the barber kept on shaving.

"Examine those eyes.
I'm filled with surprise
Taxidermists should pass
Off on you such poor glass;
So unnatural they seem
They'd make Audubon scream,
And John Burroughs laugh
To encounter such chaff.
Do take that bird down;
Have him stuffed again, Brown!"
And the barber kept on shaving.

"With some sawdust and bark
I could stuff in the dark
An owl better than that.
I could make an old hat
Look more like an owl
Than that horrid fowl,
Stuck up there so stiff like a side of coarse leather.
In fact, about him there's not one natural feather."

Just then, with a wink and a sly normal lurch,
The owl, very gravely, got down from his perch,
Walked round, and regarded his fault-finding critic
(Who thought he was stuffed) with a glance analytic,
And then fairly hooted, as if he should say:
"Your learning's at fault this time, any way;
Don't waste it again on a live bird, I pray.
I'm an owl; you're another. Sir Critic, good-day!"
And the barber kept on shaving.

The Naughty Professor

I know Morris Bishop for his humorous works, specifically "The Naughty Preposition".  I memorized it the day that I first read it.  
A Professor of Romance Literature at Cornell University, Bishop was also University Historian. His reputation for wit and scholarship, and a flair for limericks and mystique was well known to his colleagues and students. They say that he was prejudiced against elves, but who can blame him?

Bishop was a serious academic who wrote biographies of Pascal, Champlain, La Rochefoucauld, and others. He published a history book, The Middle Ages, in 1968 which even today remains in print. 

He had a love of light and humorous verse, but Bishop did not approach his writing lightly. He was a noted linguist who once said: “The words of a living language are like creatures: they are alive. Each word has a physical character, an expectation of life and death, a hope for posterity.” Bishop also found humor in the peculiarities in the English language.  Here is his poem "The Naughty Preposition", published in The New Yorker in 1947.

The Naughty Preposition

I lately lost a preposition;
It hid, I thought, beneath my chair
And angrily I cried, "Perdition!
Up from out of in under there."

Correctness is my vade mecum,
And straggling phrases I abhor,
And yet I wondered, "What should he come
Up from out of in under for?"

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Ball in the Bubble

I have a friend who paints beautiful pictures of Pink Flamingos in ball gowns, tuxes and tutus. They are wonderfully amusing.  
One day I was out in the back yard with a giant bubble wand. There were bubbles popping all over the yard and I began grinning from ear to ear.  All of a sudden I got the idea for this poem. I stood there in the yard with bubbles floating all around while I conjured "The Ball in the Bubble", an inspiration from a piece of art.  I got one bubble over two houses and into the highest tree in the next yard over and then I ran inside to write this down.

The Ball in the Bubble
by Zane Carriker

Once I thought to myself that I'd seen it all,
Till I took a look into a crystal oddball.
Was I daring or dreaming or looking for trouble,
When I blew through the ring that read "Crystal Ball Bubble".

From out of the bubble the images came,
As it shimmered and floated and fluttered like flame.
I've seen some strange things, I'll tell you that,
But, never a flamingo in tails and top hat.

They flew in by the dozens to a crystalline hall.
Flamingos all flocking to a great crystal ball.
To a dazzling ballroom, gaudy with glitz,
Where flamboyant flamingos go to put on the Ritz.

One flaming flamingo, pretty as you please,
Prances pink pirouettes on stark stalky knees.
One flashing flyer, across the dance floor he sails,
Turning the tango in tuxedo and tails.

Flamingo and flamingo, round they go one and all,
Dancing the flamenco at the flamingo ball.
Just pink flamingos, no cranes or egrets,
Jingling and jangling brass cast castanets.

All dancing round on pearly pink wings,
With boas and bangles and earrings and things.
All fine feathered friends in the finest of threads,
With coats on their tails and top hats on their heads.

That's what I saw in that odd bubble ball.
At least that's what my memory seems to think I recall.
I've seen some strange things, I'll tell you that,
But, never a flamingo in tails and top hat.

The Willard of Words

I found a copy of "An Almanac of Words at Play" in a second hand book store in Tokyo. I snatched it up as soon as I saw the name of the author.

 "An Almanac of Words at Play" was written by Willard Espy, he's been called a wordmonger, a light versifier and creator of linguistic whimsies. Whatever you call him he was one of the great influences of my poetic beginnings.  His Almanacs remain some of the funniest and most interesting collections of wordplay, word information, and light verse I've ever seen.

Espy wrote the poetry column in Writer's Digest. I remember how happy I was every month when the magazine came in the mail. I loved Espy's style and the challenges he put before me as a writer.  

I kept "An Almanac of Words at Play" on my desk at the Japanese company where I worked thirteen hours a day, six days a week. I could pick it up anytime and take a break from (You got it . . .) "working in a Japanese company thirteen hours a day, six days a week". All of our meetings were in Japanese, the customers spoke Japanese, I was doing the sales pitch in Japanese! I'm not Japanese. There were 20 people in the room, they're all Japanese and I have no one to talk to for thirteen hours a day, six days a week. And THERE was Espy taking away the pain with an Almanac of Jokes, poems, puns, puzzles, palindromes, and pangrams. A daily dose of wordplay.

I'll commit two of his poems here from memory since I can't find them on-line and the book is in a box.

Poor Paralyze Can't Lift a Finger
by Willard Espy

An eyeless beggar at my door inquired what realize are for,
And swore he would not let me by till I had twelve times answered why.
Why summarize are decked with leaf? Why winterize are bare?
Why legalize prepare a brief? Why tranquilize don't care?

Why Malthus dreaded fertilize? Why sterilize won't sprout?
Why there's no pa for bastardize? Why vocalize speak out?
Why idolize don't answer prayer? Why catalyze are dumb?
Why fossilize give stony stare and vulcanize chew gum?

I Wish I was a Corsican
by Willard Espy

I Wish I was a Corsican, a horsey, coursey Corsican.
and do the things a Corsican. Or even those his horsican can.
His horsican.
His horsican.

When weary grows the Corsican of wedded intercoursican,
Arrange a quick divorcican and trot off on his horsican.
His horsican.
His horsican.

With oaths and curses coarsican take courtesans by forcican.
And if his throat grows hoarsican, tap out his oaths in morsican.
In morsican.
In morsican.

The Corsican, the Corsican take any course that Corsican.
Of Corsican of Corsican, of course, of course, of Corsican.
I wish I was a Corsican.

If you like palindromes and pangrams check out "The Quantum Poetizer" at it has screens the help build palindromes and pangrams.

When I left Japan, I gave the book to a friend thinking that I'd just pop into a bookstore and pick one up. No chance. It took seven years - checking bookstores from Seattle to Sarasota and finally the invention of for me to get a replacement copy.

Marvelously Chiseled Gems

Best remembered as the inventor of the cinquain, Adelaide Crapsey is a poet whose compressed lyrics "are a remarkable testament of a spirit 'flashing unquenched defiance to the stars,'" as quoted in Boston Transcript.

A great deal of Crapsey's poetry revolves around the subjects of death and dying most probably influenced by her knowledge of her own terminal illness. She had been diagnosed with tuberculosis of the brain lining in 1911.

Her poetry book "Verse" was published in 1915, shortly after her death was the only collection of her own verse which she edited during her lifetime. It contained only sixty-three poems. Her entire body of poetic work contsists of less than one hundred poems.

During her prolonged illness, her work centered mainly on her confrontation with death. The subject of death took on more than usual significance, even preoccupation to a poet who living with a terminal disease.

"To her genuine poetic ability Miss Crapsey added a considerable technical knowledge of metrics. In the verse form which she invented and called the cinquain she has done some of her best work—clear cut ideas sharply focused, single impressions etched in a few significant lines," wrote a reviewer for the Independent. A critic for the Boston Transcript called the poems "marvelously chiseled gems."

Crapsey's first passion was the meter of a poem. Crapsey was most interested in the technical problems, not the poetic sentiments behind her poems and she regarded some of her verses as "mere by-products" of her metrical studies. She wrote "A Study in English Metrics in an attempt "to classify poets by comparing the percentage of one—or two—syllable words with the percentage of polysyllabic words in their poems. She hoped to develop a theory of the relation between natural accent and poetic accent in English verse." as explained by Susan Sutton Smith in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

Here is one of my favorite of Crapsey's poems . . .

The Properly Scholarly Attitude

The poet pursues his beautiful theme;
The preacher his golden beatitude;
And I run after a vanishing dream—
The glittering, will-o’-the-wispish gleam
Of the properly scholarly attitude—
The highly desirable, the very advisable,
The hardly acquirable, properly scholarly attitude.

I envy the savage without any clothes,
Who lives in a tropical latitude;
It’s little of general culture he knows.
But then he escapes the worrisome woes
Of the properly scholarly attitude—
The unceasingly sighed over, wept over, cried over,
The futilely died over, properly scholarly attitude.

I work and I work till I nearly am dead,
And could say what the watchman said—that I could!
But still, with a sigh and a shake of the head,
“You don’t understand,” it is ruthlessly said,
“The properly scholarly attitude—
The aye to be sought for, wrought for and fought for,
The ne’er to be caught for, properly scholarly attitude—”

I really am sometimes tempted to say
That it’s merely a glittering platitude;
That people have just fallen into the way,
When lacking a subject, to tell of the sway
Of the properly scholarly attitude—
The easily preachable, spread-eagle speechable,
In practice unreachable, properly scholarly attitude.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Singular Cinquain

I often write more words than ever show up in a finished poem. I write lots of extra so that I can carve away at them until I have only the ones that I need left. So when I discovered the "Cinquain" form I was almost afraid to try it. Some of my poems go on for pages, but with the cinquain you have to squeese your whole idea into 22 syllables.

What is a cinquain. A cinquain is a five-line poem that describes a person, place, or thing. Cinquains use an incremental syllable count in the first four lines,

two in the first,
four in the second,
six in the third, and
eight in the fourth, before returning to
two syllables on the last line.

The American poet Adelaide Crapsey was inspired by Japanese haiku to invent the cinquain in the early 1900's as a way to to express her brief thoughts and statements. Her first book titled "Verses" was published in 1915 shortly after her death from tuberculosis.

Here are two of Adelaide Crapsey's poems . . .


I know
Not these my hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
Like these.

November Night

With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp'd, break from the trees
And fall.

Crapsey always named her cinquains, in essence giving her a sixth line in which to convey her message.  Cinquains typically do not rhyme.

Here is an interesting page: A cheat sheet for writing a cinquain.

Here are some of my cinquains

Earth and Heaven Touch

Pale light of dawn
Red sky on the white Nile
Where earth and heaven touch the face
Of God

Here I sum up Hamlet's soliloquy in a cinquain.
Hamlet's Dilemma

To be
Or not to be
Is that still the question
Being noble expose the lie
Or live

Charcoal Fired Oaken Staves

Old wine barrels
Clever cooper craftsmen
Forged the bands and steamed the staves
With pride


Getting smaller
The skirt, the Mart, the Mall
The "Bigger Better Believers"

Here is my first cinquain made using the link above . . .

Chorus in the Treetops

Bird Song
In harmony
Chirping songs to heaven
My joy in spring and summertime
Song Bird