A Litany of Images

by Olivia Zhu

I wrote a few months ago on May Swenson’s “Untitled,” a love poem filled with the rain of many, many beautiful images. “You have found my root you are the rain,” she says. Today, I found myself caught in a rainstorm, took shelter under a tree, but it came with such a different kind of a feeling that even though my mind went back to Swenson, it seems more fitting to go somewhere new.

Billy Collins’ “Litany” is another poem that’s similar in its saturated nature, where almost every line includes a new metaphor. However, Collins, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, takes a different tack in producing his list of comparisons for his lover. Unlike Jacques Crickillon, whose lines are cited briefly in the epigraph of “Litany,” Collins does not take himself so seriously, and a slightly mocking tone is present throughout his work—a tone that makes it a bit hard to take him seriously while reading the poem, to be perfectly honest. A video of him reading invites friendly laughter from the audience as well:

Even the title of the poem is irreverent: litany can refer to either types of religious prayers involving petitions or to a long and tedious listing of items. Either seems to fit, as Collins may very well be petitioning his lover with his plaintive and sometimes appeasing comparisons or demonstrating to the reader that a recitation of several metaphors in a row is an overused and ineffective poetic technique.

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The Prescriptivist’s Progress

by Ryan Ruby

PilgrimsprogressbookThis month, two minor controversies revived the specter of the “language wars” and reintroduced the literary internet to the distinction between prescriptivism and descriptivism. One began when Han Kang's novel The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize and readers took to their search engines en masse to look up the word “Kafkaesque,” which had been used by the book's publishers and reviewers to describe it. Remarking upon the trend, Merriam-Webster noted sourly: “some argue that ‘Kafkaesque' is so overused that it's begun to lose its meaning.” A few weeks before, Slate's Laura Miller had lodged a similar complaint about the abuse of the word “allegory.” “An entire literary tradition is being forgotten,” she warned, “because writers use the term allegory to mean, like, whatever they want.”

When it comes to semantics, prescriptivists insist that precise rules ought to govern linguistic usage. Without such rules there would be no criteria by which to judge whether a word was being used correctly or incorrectly, and thus no way to fix its meaning. Descriptivists, by contrast, argue that a quick glance at the history of any natural language will show that, whether we like it or not, words are vague and usage changes over time. The meaning of a word is whatever a community of language users understands it to mean at any given moment. In both of the above cases, Merriam-Webster and Miller were flying the flag of prescriptivism, protesting the kind of semantic drift that results from the indiscriminate, over-frequent usages of a word, a drift that has no doubt been exacerbated thanks to the internet itself, which has increased the recorded usages of words and accelerated their circulation.

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Lament of the Expunged Metaphor

You bastard! You butcher! You murdering swine!
I had it all: beauty, aptness, concision.
I fit snugly into that trimetric line.
And what's my reward? –A brutal excision.

Don't tell me they told you to “kill all your darlings.”
Bill Faulkner's not going to take this rap.
That's a defense used by Eichmanns and Gôrings:
“I just followed orders.” Don't give me that crap!

I could have been something—a catchphrase, a clichéd
Expression. Folk would have asked, “Who said it?”
You should have stuck by me. We would have made
Such a statement—and you'd have the credit.

I knew it was coming. I saw how you treated
That cute little simile in the first stanza.
It was she got you started; now, she's deleted.
The dreaded black line came through like a panzer.

And you smiled as you did it! I saw you smirking
As you penned her replacement. That's when I lost hope.
You'll axe us, no matter how well we're working,
The moment you're smitten with a pretty new trope.

Oh you're clever—like Bluebeard!—and so discrete.
The world never sees any trace of your crimes.
No bruises. No blood. Just a clean printed sheet
Of meticulous meter and neat little rhymes.

But not even your cunning will suffice
To save you from what I hope and trust is
To be your fate, the terrible price
Assessed by the gods of poetic justice–

One day, leafing through a rival's verse,
You'll see me, set in a beautiful line
Like a mounted gem. And then you'll curse
Your cruel folly, and cry, “But . . . . you're mine!”

And too late you'll discover my charms.
And you'll want me back. And I'll say, “Never!
Your darling lies in another's arms,
A thing of beauty lost forever.”

by Emrys Westacott