SunWinks! March 8, 2015: Rhymes with “Economy”

[This column first appeared in slightly different form on Gather in 2012]

SunWinksLogoDear SunWinks! Symbiotes:

Metonymy!  (gesundheit…)

Pardon my Greek… The word “metonymy” itself may look as arcane and hairy as, say, onomatopoeia, but like onomatopoeia, you can find metonymy almost anywhere you look! Metonymy (meh-TAWN-i-mee) is the rhetorical figure in which an object is referred to by substituting something—usually smaller and more concrete—that is related to, symbolic of, or a constituent of that object.

An individual instance of metonymy is called a metonym. The type of metonym which consists of a constituent or component part of the object referred to is called a synecdoche (sin-ECK-duh-key). We use metonyms every day without even thinking about it. Here are a few familiar examples. You can think of dozens more. Continue reading


SunWinks! March 1, 2015: Abstract Poetry: The Medium is the Message.

Dear SunWinkers!

This is a lightly reworked reissue of my September, 2012 column for on the topic of Abstract and Cubist Poetry. I also urge you to read our recent SunWinks! columns on Edith Sitwell and Intrinsic Rhythm and Cubism as these three columns all encourage you to sharpen your sense of the sound, rhythm, and structure of your writing by putting aside considerations of meaning.

* * *

SunWinksLogoWell, we’re all done with modern poetry. I’ve exhausted every conceivable topic, every possible technique. There’s nothing left to talk about. Just go back through my previous columns and you’ll know everything there is to know about writing modern poetry.

Did I have you going for a second?

The fact is, there is no end to the invention, the creativity, and the variety of modern poetry and approaches to modern poetry. Think of how many stylistic genres and individual styles there are in modern painting, to name just one medium. Think for just a moment about the unique visions of Monet, Mondrian, Matisse, Miro, Grandma Moses, and M.C. Escher.

As I’ve said, and tried to demonstrate, poetry is much more than sentiment, short lines, and end rhymes. The techniques that can be used to communicate the very special, intimate truth that lives in the poetic imagination are as rich and variegated as the colors in the artist’s palette, or the harmonic colors in the music composer’s palette. I’m inviting you to go wild. Let loose. Be creative. Pull out all the stops. Put all the leftovers into the stew. Throw the paint onto the wall. Play the piano without the music—with your fists, even. Continue reading

SunWinks! February 22, 2015: Waxing Prosaic

SunWinksLogoDear SunWinkers:

In recent weeks, we’ve been backing and filling on topics in the area of the sound and sonority of the language, including a couple ideas, neologism and tumbling verse, which we hope encouraged you to think about sonority and rhythm in new ways. Another way of sharpening your acuity on such considerations is to deprive yourself of the benefit of line breaks. When you do that, you end up with a

Prose Poem

Seemingly a contradiction in terms, the phrase may refer to

  1. a passage, usually short, of non-discursive* prose, the poetic quality of which is self-evident, or to
  2. a long work, which, although printed as prose, because of the prominence of the rhythms, the rich connotations of the language, the scope and significance of the whole, can properly be called a poem.**

Babette Deutsch, Poetry Handbook: A Dictionary of Terms [NY, NY: HarperResource 2002 reprint].

*i.e. not didactic, not arguing a point from logic and reason, as an essay

**Examples of type #2 include James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and E.A. Poe’s “Eleanora.” We are going to ignore definition #2 for obvious reasons and focus on definition #1. Continue reading

SunWinks! February 15, 2015: Take a Tumble

SunWinksLogoDearest hardy, intrepid SunWinkers:

I frequently badger you to read your poetry aloud, and today’s column is no exception. Writing poetry without hearing what it sounds like is like studying a piano etude without touching the keyboard. For about a year, I’ve been making the rounds of poetry open mikes here in Vancouver USA and trying to be a good citizen of the poetry community. Reading your poems to an audience is so valuable, I just can’t recommend it highly enough!

Ghost Town Poetry open mike, February 12, 2015

You get to hear it aloud, hear yourself read it, see what the audience responds to and what falls flat and what flies over their heads. It builds confidence in public speaking and in yourself as an artist. I’ve grown immensely from doing this. Here’s a sample, from January’s Ghost Town Poetry open mike:

This week, we bounce from Metaphors 201 back to considerations of rhythm and sound. Today’s topic is Tumbling Verse a.k.a. Skeltonic Verse. It’s lots of fun and it’s a great way to experiment with rhythm, pace, diction, sonority, and phonetics. Continue reading

SunWinks! February 10, 2015: At The Risk of Sounding Conceited…

SunWinksLogoDear SunWinkers!

As I go through my Gather columns and fill in topics I have not yet addressed here on WordPress with the ultimate goal of producing SunWinks! The Book, we next find the poetic device known as the Metaphysical Conceit.

*sound of jaws dropping to the floor*

Once upon a time, I was reading one of my favorite sourcebooks, which cited Theodore Roethke in a discussion of figurative language:

I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we make.)

from “I Knew A Woman” © Estate of Theodore Roethke

and went on to say, rather too briefly, “this is what is known as a metaphysical conceit.” [Engle and Carrier, eds.:Reading Modern Poetry; Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman & Co., revised edition 1968. From the Introduction by Lawrence Kramer.] Continue reading

SunWinks! February 1, 2015: Who Are You Calling an Oxymoron?

SunWinksLogoDear SunWinkers:

If you’ve been following our column, you’ve gotten a pretty good survey of the basic essentials in the modern poet’s tool belt. You’ve learned how to use a hammer, a screwdriver, a chalk line, a carpenter’s square, and a level. A poet uses metaphor, simile, imagery, line breaks, sonority, and rhythm every time one sits down to write a poem.

Among the quirkier, funnier, more arcane devices—the hole saw, stud finder, miter board, and drill press of the wordsmith’s workbench—is today’s topic, the Oxymoron. word oxymoron is from the Greek words meaning sharp…dull. So the origin of the word itself is an oxymoron! An oxymoron might also be called a contradiction in terms, or a two-word paradox. We’ve all heard them:

civil war
pretty ugly
safety risk
lengthy brief

We could go on forever. It’s just one more way to make your writing a little more colorful. I wrote a couple poems in response to Gather prompts which were full of oxymora, and the result, I thought, was lively and effective. But like hyperbole, neologism, and other circus stunts, oxymoron is the sort of device you want to use sparingly in your writing overall, lest it become stale and clownish. The exception to this rule would be humorous verse, for which circus stunts are the order of the day.

Here are a couple terrific articles on oxymorons with lots of great examples:

100 Awfully Good Examples of Oxymorons

Both are by grammar maven Richard Nordquist. The second one is an excellent discussion until it gets to the list of “100 Examples,” many of which I feel are not particularly strong.

This is what I believe is the crucial point: An oxymoron is an apparent contradiction. “Civil war” is a perfectly sensible term for an internal conflict. It’s only when you consider “civil” in an out-of-context alternate meaning that the phrase becomes an oxymoron. “Pretty ugly” is another good example. “Pretty ugly” makes perfect sense in the sense of “fairly ugly.” It is only when you make a pun out of “pretty” meaning “attractive” that the phrase becomes an oxymoron in the narrowest and best sense.

Additional examples of this quintessential kind of oxymoron:

devout atheist
even odds
exact estimate
definite maybe
crash landing
awfully good
freezer burn
ill health
guest host
jumbo shrimp
negative growth
old news
random order

and so on. On the other hand, phrases like

icy hot
sad smile
alone together
deliberate speed
lead balloon
loud whisper
one-man band

do not rise to the level of oxymoron. They make perfect sense even as they are superficially contradictory. “Bittersweet” describes something that combines bitter and sweet taste sensations; similarly, “icy hot.” “Deliberate speed” and “loud whisper” mean exactly what they sound like they mean. If you had a “lead balloon,” you’d have an awfully hard time getting it to float upwards, and that’s exactly the point, no more, no less—there’s no double meaning involved.

There is perhaps yet a third distinction. Phrases like

silent scream
friendly fire
resident alien
sole choice
open secret
minor miracle
living dead
magic realism
loyal opposition

are ironic, internally contradictory, paradoxical in a meaningful way. This sort of figure makes for lively writing, but doesn’t feature the pun, the wordplay, that distinguishes a genuine oxymoron. It’s just a straightforward paradox. But don’t get me wrong, it is still good writing. are fine distinctions, and you’re certainly free to argue with me about my choices. Regarding “silent scream” or “resident alien,” for example, do “scream” and “alien” merely combine two different connotations or shades of meaning of each of those words? Or are they out-and-out puns, involving amusingly incongruous alternate definitions, like “jumbo shrimp”?

The Prompt

Write a poem that includes at least one oxymoron.

Alternate Prompt

Make a list of oxymorons. Include some of your favorites and try to make up some original ones as well.

Prose: Write a short fictional or factual news item that includes at least one oxymoron. Or, here’s an idea: write a short news item and write a headline for it that employs an oxymoron, a favorite device of headline writers.


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SunWinks! January 25, 2015: Sound Decisions

SunWinksLogoBeloved SunWinkers:

He’s not one of those important figures like Miley Cyrus or Kim Kardashian, so I only just ran across the news that Mark Strand died November 29 at the age of 80. He’s been my poetry God for more than 40 years. I still have his chapbook Reasons For Moving, requested from and inscribed by my grandmother for my 20th birthday. The peripatetic Professor Strand was a Pulitzer winner and Poet Laureate, and exerted a singular and major influence on the American poetry of the latter half of the 20th century. His spare, surreal, restrained, hauntingly empty voice is distinctive and inimitable. I’m going to go have a good cry now. BRB

This week, the subject is the music of poetry, the sonority of language, the sound of the words. As Edward Hirsch says, “The sound of the words is the first primitive pleasure in poetry.” I dare say this is a singularly important aspect of not just modern but all poetry which is often neglected by beginners and casual poets. Continue reading

SunWinks! January 5, 2015: Giving It 110%

SunWinksLogoDearest SunWinkers:

Sometimes as a writer you have to reach back for something extra. So, as a selfless public service for the betterment of all mankind, our topic this week is hyperbole. Hyperbole is, very simply, exaggeration. It’s an essential tool in the comedian or comic writer’s belt, but it can make any genre of writing more lively. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times: don’t exaggerate!” is a hyperbole. So is “If I had a nickel for every time you exaggerate, I could retire.” The thing exaggerated might be a quantity or size or some such, but it can also be the absurdity or the banality of something:

“I am two with nature.” Woody Allen

“I went to the Board of Health and asked for two thousand cockroaches. I promised my landlord I would leave my apartment the way I found it.” Anon.

“The scarecrow scared the crows so badly that they brought back the corn they had stolen two years before.” Fred Allen

“You might be a redneck if you’ve ever paid for a six-pack of beer with pennies.” Jeff Foxworthy

“I woke up the next day on a bench in a bus station. My shoes were gone. So was my wallet. So were my kidneys. I’m just kidding. That’s an urban legend. I still had my shoes.” DW, “The Depressed Detective and the Case of Boston Baked Beans”

Woody Allen

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.” Woody Allen

When you make something exaggeratedly large, that’s called overstatement. But don’t forget understatement (or meiosis). Making something exaggeratedly small or inconsequential can be equally, if not more, effective.

“I’m not shooting for a successful relationship at this point. I am just looking for something that will prevent me from throwing myself in front of a bus. I’m keeping my expectations very, very low. Basically, I’m looking for a mammal.” Janeane Garofalo.

“As I told the tribunal at Nuremberg, I did not know that Hitler was a Nazi. The truth is that for years I thought he worked for the phone company.” Woody Allen

Continue reading