On Genuine Poetry


“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

– T.S. Eliot

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Boustrophedon


In Ancient Greece, the boustrophedon, meaning literally “to turn like oxen”, was the writing of alternate lines in opposite directions, one line from left to right and the next from right to left, like the oxen would do when ploughing a field.

Common styles of boustrophedon writing include:

  • Inversion of every other line, but not the words themselves.

E.g. So again we have learned something,
Greek the about joke cheap a making of instead
civilisation upon which everything around us depends

  • Inversion of every other line, as well as the words themselves, but not each individual letter.

E.g. gnihtemos denrael evah ew niaga oS
daetsni fo gnikam a paehc ekoj tuoba eht keerG
sdneped su dnuora gnihtyreve hcihw nopu noitasilivic

  • Inversion of every other line, the words themselves as well as each individual letter.

Some Etruscan texts have also been written in boustrophedon style, as have some early Hungarian and Polynesian scriptures.

Chinese Box World


‘With the metaphor of the Chinese box Brian McHale in his book Postmodernist Fiction explains a frequent phenomenon in postmodernist literature. The phenomenon whereby a story-line is interrupted by another story, thus creating a discontinuity that may be subtle as in the case of Hamlet’s play-within-the-play, where each story represents a different ‘world’. The purpose of these novels-within-the-novel; still-photographs-within-the-novel; films-within-the novel in modernist literature “serves as a tool for exploring issues of narrative authority, reliability and unreliability, the circulation of knowledge, and so forth.” In postmodernist literature these different interrupting worlds/narratives are so frequent that the original narrative sometimes gets lost. Attention is drawn to the fact that we can never know the complete truth, we are only capable of knowing a truth, and different Chinese boxes will give us different (sometimes conflicting) information about different worlds.’

– McHale, B. 1987. Pöstmödernist Fiction London, United Kingdom: Methuen Inc. p. 113

Idiotic Division of Functions


‘According to the current way of thinking (or not-thinking), it seems that if we are to enjoy anything then we must not have to think about it, and, conversely, if we are to think about anything, then we mustn’t enjoy it. This is a calamitous and idiotic division of functions.'[1]

– Queneau. R. 1947. Exercises in Style New York, United States: New Directions (2012) p. xiv


[1] Excerpt of the preface by Barbara Wright who translated Queneau’s Exercises de Style in 1981.

Handy Mutations


Added dexterity

Our hands are unusually dextrous, allowing us to make beautiful stone tools and write words. That might be partly down to a bit of DNA called HACNS1, which has evolved rapidly since our ancestors split from the ancestors of chimps. We don’t know what HACNS1 does, but it is active in our arms and hands as they develop.

See other: What Makes Humans Human?

“When asked…” Anecdotes


When asked why he had a horseshoe on his door, physicist Niels Bohr answered, “Of course I don’t believe in it, but I understand it brings you luck, whether you believe in it or not.”

When asked in a radio interview if she thought the barriers of the British class system had broken down, Barbara Cartland answered, “Of course they have, or I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to someone like you.”

When asked by a priest, “Do you forgive your enemies,” the dying Spanish general Ramon Blanco y Erenas answered, “No, I don’t have any enemies. I’ve had them all shot.”

Shakespeare Revealed


It is embarrassing to read how little we know about the greatest literary genius that ever drew breath – William Shakespeare, or the Swan of Avon (as P.G. Wodehouse put it).

Shakespeare died in the century of Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Blaise Pascal and Isaac Newton; and yet, we do not know when he was born, we know little about his private affairs, his physical appearance or personal convictions – to name a few.

It is therefore worthwhile to consider those precious nuggets of information we do know about Shakespeare’s life and his legacy:

  1. Quotations: According to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Shakespeare wrote close to a tenth of the most quoted lines ever written or spoken in English.
  2. Translations: The complete works of Shakespeare have been translated into 80 different languages, the most obscure by far must be the constructed language of Klingon out of Star Trek. In fact, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing have both been translated by the Klingon Language Institute as part of the Klingon Shakespeare Restoration Project.
  3. King James Bible: In the King James Bible, the 46th word of Psalm 46 is ‘shake’ and the 46th word from the end of the same Psalm is ‘spear’. It is believed that this was a hidden birthday message to the Bard, as the King James Bible was published in 1611 – the year of Shakespeare’s 46th birthday.
  4. Satellites of Uranus: The moons of Uranus were originally named in 1852 after magical spirits of English literature. However, the International Astronomy Union subsequently developed the convention to name all further moons of Uranus (of which there are 27) after characters in Shakespeare’s plays or Alexander Pope’s The Rape Of The Lock.
  5. Birthday: Nobody knows Shakespeare’s actual birthday. It is celebrated on April 23rd – three days before his baptism which was recorded on April 26th, 1564. Tediously, as Shakespeare was born under the old Julian calendar, April 23rd during Shakespeare’s life would actually be May 3rd according to today’s Gregorian calendar.
  6. Cardenio: We know that at least one play called Cardenio has been completely lost. It was credited to Shakespeare and performed in his lifetime, but – as far as we know – no copy of the text survives today.
  7. His Name: There are more than 80 recorded variations of the spelling of Shakespeare’s name. In the few original signatures that have survived, Shakespeare spelled his name “Willm Shaksp,” “William Shakespe,” “Wm Shakspe,” “William Shakspere,” ”Willm Shakspere,” and “William Shakspeare”. Funnily enough, there is no record of him ever having spelled his name “William Shakespeare”.
  8. Lexicon: Shakespeare has been credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with introducing almost 3,000 words to the English language. Estimations of his vocabulary range from 17,000 to 29,000 words – at least double the number of words used by the average contemporary English speaker.
  9. Starlings: In 1890, Eugene Schiffelin embarked on a project to import each species of bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s works that was not indigenous to the United States. It is therefore safe to say that Schiffelin is responsible for introducing the Starling to the USA.
  10. Verbosity: According to professor Louis Marder, “Shakespeare was so facile in employing words that he was able to use over 7,000 of them – more than occur in the whole King James Version of the Bible – only once and never again.”

TLDR and KISS


The acronym TLDR means Too Long; Didn’t Read. It is an internet phenomenon used to indicate dismay or boredom at a text which has been deemed too long to read all the way through.

Now, while one may decry a meme like TLDR because it seems to be the catchphrase of a couch potato with the attention span of a puppy, there is a good reason why we should view long winded texts with some suspicion.

“Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit…” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2)

Indeed, findings in the field of cognitive psychology indicate that a statement such as TLDR may not just be a blunt cry for simplicity and shallowness, it may in fact have a point.

A study on verbosity ironically called Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity – Oppenheimer., D.M. (2006) finds “a negative relationship between complexity and judged intelligence” in several language experiments.

Therefore, since it has now been proved that the needless use of more complex words where a simpler one would suffice has a negative effect, it seems sensible we should examine the crude yet useful mnemonic KISS meaning Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Remember the writings of the anthropologist Margaret Mead, “if you can’t explain yourself to a twelve-year-old child, stay inside the university or lab until you have a better grasp of your subject matter.”

“I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short.” – Blaise Pascal

“The continuing popularity amongst students of using big words and attractive font styles may be due to the fact that they may not realize these techniques could backfire,” Oppenheimer said. “One thing seems certain: write as simply and plainly as possible and it’s more likely you’ll be thought of as intelligent.”