Playing with words
October 4, 2020
I'm English and I write poetry. I'm a words man. Since the pandemic came upon us and lockdown became a way of life, I've come to regard playing with words as not just an idiosyncrasy, but as a way of staying sane.
One advantage of wordplay is that the words, the raw materials, are already there in one’s head waiting to be explored, arranged and communicated. As an octogenarian I'm not much of a social media person, but lately I’ve been using emails and FB to encourage my fellow human beings to solve riddles, create limericks, puns, and definitions for made-up words. And, of course, to stay sane.
My favourite wordplay form is the riddle. Over 20 years ago I read and enjoyed "The Exeter Book Riddles" –Anglo-Saxon riddles translated into modern English - and was inspired to write my own. In the classic riddle form, the subject talks about itself without revealing its identity or name. Most are short. Many use rhyme, which makes them easier to remember. Others use metaphor, repetition, or homonym. The subjects are familiar, part of our general human experience.
A company in Oregon published 2 packs of my riddles and have sold over 30,00 of them. I’ve established an unexpected and somewhat esoteric niche - that of successful riddler.
I tell riddles wherever I go. I live in rural California, and I'm known locally as The Riddle Guy. I approach people in supermarkets, outdoor restaurants, libraries etc. and say: "May I tell you a riddle?” These days I’m wearing a mask and social-distancing but it still works. That is, most people smile nervously, say yes, and we’re away!
Short ones are best in live riddle scenarios:
“Why walk or run when you can hop it?/ I keep the future in my pocket.” (kangaroo)
OR “If you look at me I remain as I am/ If you hold me I return to what I was.” (ice or snow) OR “When you’re down I’m up/When you’re up I’m down/Until our dance is over/ I go round and round” (skipping or jump-rope)
OR ”I bring you music/I cover cold creatures/To read me you must step on me.” (scales)
Part of the charm of live riddling is thinking up ways to give hints. For “kangaroo” I hold my belly and hop. I shiver and wrap my arms around my neck for “ice or snow”. I jump up and down or twirl my hands round and round for “skipping or jump rope”. For “scales” I pantomime stepping onto something, looking down, wincing, and saying "I better cut down on the doughnuts!"
When the riddlee solves a riddle there's laughter and sometimes a minor round of applause. And, often, a request for another riddle.
Online riddling is pretty straightforward. I email riddles to friends or post them on FB.
There are thousands of riddles on the net. Collect a few that you like, learn them by heart so you can do them live, email them to friends, tweet or post them. And… try writing your own! It’s fun; it’s good for the brain; kids love them, AND riddling is a great way to stop thinking for a while about…
Social media’s great for limericks. Most of us are familiar with the form. As a reminder I occasionally post my own:
There was a young man named Dwayne
who wanted to eat a small train.
He began with the engine
but got indigestion
so he ate an old tractor in Spain
There's a fellow I know named Crenshaw
who likes to pretend he's a seesaw
Took his kids to the sea
and someone told me
she saw a seesaw on the seashore.
Try writing your own limericks. The form’s straightforward, and the more you write the easier they get. I sometimes write limericks for special occasions like birthdays or weddings, or just to tease friends:
There's a fellow I know named Thompson
who got into bed with his boots on.
The neighbors all laughed
and his wife said “You're daft!”
but I think it's because he's a Scotsman.
On FB I provide a first line, one that establishes the familiar rhythm and whose last word has rhyming potential:
There was an old lady called Cathy
There was a young man from Kentucky
There once was a maiden from York
Sometimes I ask people to write just one line each; sometimes I suggest the writing of a complete limerick. Either way works.
Some sleepless nights I parade polysyllabic words in my head, probing them for pun potential. “Follicle… No… Microphone…… No… Abundance… Yes!…Abundance…a waltz for bakers…”
Here are some of my favourites:
"Doves singing in treetops… Haiku.”
“Top floor of a house in the capital of Italy… Aromatic.”
“An explosive device within a male bovine… Abominable”
“ The pulse of he who almost became president… Algorithm.”
“A personal ornament available at Wimbledon… Racketeering.”
Puns may not work so well on social media because sound is often part of their effect, but I still post and send them, hoping to prompt the familiar reactions – the eye-rolling, the quasi-disgusted groan- even if I’m not there witness them.
Definitions for made-up words:
Recently I posted “Bongle” on FB and invited definitions. Here’s a sample of the responses:
A very heavy necklace that makes noise
Thoughts banging into each other in people's brains
A single castanet
A very rude mistake
A bungling bongo drummer
A battered bangle
A pendulous appendage whose sole purpose is to bang into things.
You can do this in reverse: provide a definition, and ask for a word. I posted: ”A woman whose ears waggle when she talks” and a friend responded with: "Lobelia.”
There are, of course, many more wordplay forms to be enjoyed and that you are familiar with. Spoogle “Goonerisms” for example. Take a break from Bonald and Doris. Do some wordplay and say stane.
Emmanuel Williams’ books include ”Pundit”, “There was an old lady from Bristol”, “Ridds for Kids”, “What happens on page 27?”, and 2 riddle packs. All available on Amazon.
A Natural Boyhood
Born in London in 1938 - not long after the Second World War broke out we – my father, mother and I – moved to a small country town about 25 miles away. Close enough for me to see the city burning at night, bombed by the German bombers I heard roaring through the dark sky above me.
When I was seven years old the war ended. Life breathed a huge sigh of relief. Beneath the wave of victory there was a deep healing going on. Most weekends my dad took me into the woods and fields around our town. He gave me a little jewel of a book called "The Observer's book of birds." We watched birds, saw changes wrought by seasons and learnt to recognize and identify cloud forms. Friends and I built tree camps, watched birds nesting, and fished for trout in a radiant stream called the River Chess. We dug a huge hole halfway down our back garden, made a roof with thick timbers and old tarps, built an entrance tunnel, a fireplace and a chimney. We told stories and dirty jokes down there and held farting competitions. Later my dad took me out in a rowboat to fish in the English Channel. Sometimes we rowed so far out we could no longer see land. Nothing but sky and waves, the rocking of the boat, the quietness between us, the occasional lively tug of a fish taking the bait beneath the waves.
Fishing stayed with me, all through my teens. I remember going to school one day in my final year, and learning that I'd missed part of a French exam the previous day - I'd gone carp fishing in a distant lake. I had to stay at school for another semester to retake the exam.
Now I'm a retired teacher; an octogenarian living in the California Sierra mountains, not far from Kings Canyon National Park. My entire adult life I've spent teaching children and young people - from nine years old through college. I love the natural world, and I love children, and am saddened, and worried, by the growing gap between the two.
As [one of] the last children in the woods, to misquote the title of Richard Louv's book, I became familiar with the different ways birds flew - some leap like a thrown stone skipping across water; some slide, some glide, some hurtle, and one – the kestrel – even hovers. I recognized the song of a blackbird, a woodpecker, a robin. I remember speeding down a steep road called Holloway Lane, parking my bike at the bottom, and exploring the rippling River Chess, finding caddis grubs and sticklebacks, glimpsing the blue electric blur of a kingfisher. Once I found a coot’s nest full of eggs… I held one in my palm, and it cracked open and the baby coot crawled out. A shiver of wonder jumped through me.
My dad, God bless him, followed an ancient human dynamic. He taught me bird-watching and fishing skills, how to row and how to drop an anchor. He taught me to love poetry, took me to concerts in London, and art galleries; I think of this now as a vertical transaction. He passed things down to me. Sharing his love of the natural world is the gift I am still most grateful for.
What difference has it made to my life that my father, in the scarred, rubble – piled, healing country of post-war England spent so much time with me and my brother Ian fishing, rambling, and birdwatching in some of the most beautiful countryside in the world? I remember our standing together on a rain-soaked platform waiting for the train bring us home after a day’s fishing on the muddy banks of river… He scanned us, uttered his is characteristic stuttering laugh, and said "You look like a coupla shit piles!"
Ian became a shepherd, a painter and a sculptor. Some nomadic gene in me impelled me to be a classroom teacher all over the world – in England, France, Java, and California. Much of it in the cities. But birds and wildflowers, the silent progress of clouds and the rustle of trees in the wind – all this has stayed with me. Up here, on my steep mountain walks, I'm drawn to admire the skills of woodpeckers as they sprint up the vertical columns of pine trees. Somehow the experience of watching birds or clouds or of touching the texture of an old oak trees bark or the smell of rain in dry soil… all this is enriched by similar experiences over the past seven decades or more. How many of my Springs have been gladdened by daffodils, or the sight of a crow flying overhead with a thin stick in its beak, material destined for a new nest…?
There are many reasons for the gap that I described between children and nature. You are no doubt aware of some of them. The disappearance of open areas to play in. The increasing influence of TV, video games, social media… The fact that many parents now simply don't have the time or the freedom to hang out with their kids as my dad did with me. Also, back then in the late 40s and 50s, parents on the whole trusted their kids. We were free, my friends and I, to go off and spend all day in the woods building tree camps or playing tracking games or digging caves in the sides of dells… Since then, for various reasons, many parents have lost that element of trust.
In my last decade as a teacher I became a member of California Poets In The Schools, and specialized in inspiring children to think and write poetically. Often, weather permitting, I took students outside and asked them to write about trees or clouds or flowers… whatever was out there. Almost invariably they would write poetry that was full of wonder and richness of imagery. This leads me to believe that children have a strong innate bond with the natural world, even if for various reasons they have relatively little contact with it.
What's lost as a result of this generational break from nature? There is a lot of research indicating that exposure to and interaction with the natural world is essential for physical and emotional health. In the book that I mentioned: "Last Child in the Woods" Richard Louv uses the phrase nature-deficit disorder to describe the negative consequences of separation from the natural world. These include diminished use of the senses, a higher incidence of physical and emotional illnesses, and diminished attention spans. Louv’s book was published in 2006. Since then, the use and influence of electronic media in the lives of children has increased dramatically, further reducing their multi-sensory experience of nature.
But I would like to end this blog on a positive note.
One of the poetry ideas I use with kids is this: in some cultures it is believed that everything in life is part of one great circle… that animals and plants and material things like rocks and water, and human beings are all on the same level. So we can ask other lifeforms in this circle to teach us what they know. "Teach me" poems almost always work with kids. Here's one by a third-grade girl:
A Teach me
by Nicole Messina
April 11, 2019
When I was a kid my name was Karl Rosenbaum. Born in 1938, I went to school while the Second World War was still being fought. The kids at school thought I was German. The fact that my mother was an English nurse and my father was working on a radar system that tracked German bombers and destroyed them… The fact that I was born in London and was completely English… None of this mattered.
One day during lunch hour a bunch of kids got hold of me and dragged me into the toilets. I was about seven. They were big kids 10,11 years old. They picked me up and held me upside down, opened the lid and thrust me down into the toilet bowl. Someone flushed the toilet. I couldn't scream because my head was immersed in water and piss. I was going to die. Suddenly I heard a man shouting. It was Mr Nash, one of the teachers. He pulled me upright and held me.
I don't remember how I got home, and couldn't stop shaking and crying. My dad said we’re going to change our name from Rosenbaum to Williams and I remember sitting at the kitchen table wondering who I was going to be. My parents found another school for me to go to. It was much further away, and I had to go there in a bus.
Lately I've been remembering that experience, or phase. There are kids, little kids, younger even than I was back then, who are being punished, made to suffer deeply, because people think that they’re alien and dangerous. This time it's not even 10-year-old boys in a country at war who are being possessed by hatred. It’s adults. And I know a little of how they feel, these kids. And after 50 years of working with and loving young people as a teacher I know with every cell of my being that the way these kids, these little kids, are being made to suffer is profoundly evil.