Exercise: Chasing your tail in the word hoard

Write the editors of Imagining Language, from which the passage [they’ve just read] from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is taken:

At the center of the episode is a hen scratching open a letter in a compost heap…. Any proto-narrative aspect of the Wake is subordinated to its manifestly epic ambition, which is the production of a polyglot interlingua, a massive reservoir from which all languages derive and into which they ultimately return.

In other words, well, in other words. Language itself as the mother of all compost heaps. As in all compost heaps, there are lines of affiliation, lines of ascent and descent. This exercise gets you working with that. It’s some hard work first, and then some free play.

1. Research

First you create a research document. Start by going to the Online Etymology Dictionary at www.etymonline.com. Type in the search window a word you like. I’ll use “compost” (what else). I get several entries, but the one with the most interesting material is

compost (n.) late 14c., compote, from Old French composte “mixture of leaves, manure, etc., for fertilizing land” (13c.), also  “condiment,” from Vulgar Latin *composita, noun use of fem. of Latin compositus, past participle of componere “to put together” (see composite). The fertilizer sense is attested in English from 1580s, and the French word in this sense is a 19th century borrowing from English.

I boil this down to the material I think I can use—

Compost. From OF composte, “mix of leaves and manure for fertilizing land.” Also “condiment,” from VL componere, “to put together” (see composite).

That goes in my research document. You do likewise. And do the same with five more words, choosing each new word from the entry you just made. For instance, from my entry on “compost,” I might choose “condiment,” for which etymonline.com gives me this:

condiment (n.) early 15c., from Old French condiment (13c.), from Latin condimentum “spice, seasoning, sauce,” from condire “to preserve, pickle, season,” variant of condere “to put away, store,” from com-  “together” (see com-) + -dere comb. form meaning “to put, place,” from dare “to give” (see date (n.1)).

 Boiled down, that becomes

Condiment. From L, “spice, seasoning, sauce,” from “to preserve, pickle, season,” variant of “to put away, store,” from com– “together” + dare “to give” (see date).

I move from “condiment” to “season,” from “season” to “timber,” from “timber” to “domestic,” and from “domestic” to “despot.” Boiled down I have:

Season (v.). “Improve the flavor of by adding spices,” from OF assaisoner, “to ripen, season,” “on the notion of fruit becoming more palatable as it ripens.” Applied to timber by 1540s. In 16c., also meant “to copulate with.”

Timber. From OE timber “building, structure,” later “building material, trees suitable for building,” and “trees or woods in general.” From PIE *deme-  “to build,” possibly from root *dem- “house, household” (source of Greek domos, Latin domus; see domestic (adj.)).

Domestic (adj.) From MF and L “belonging to the household,” from domus “house,” from PIE *dom-o- “house,” from root *dem- “house, household.” Cognates include Sanskrit “house”; Greek domos “house,” despotes “master, lord”; Latin dominus ”master of a household”; Lithuanian dimstis “enclosed court, property.”

Despot. From OF despot, from ML, from Greek “master of a household, lord, absolute ruler,” from PIE *dems-pota, “house-master,” pota cognate with L for “potent.” “Faintly pejorative in Greek, progressively more so as used in various languages for Roman emperors, Christian rulers of Ottoman provinces, and Louis XVI during the French Revolution.”

2. Mess around

Do whatever pleases you with this research base. Take the most surprising synonym (e.g., that “to season” once meant “to copulate with”) and write a paragraph in which you use the one to mean the other. Write a poem that gets you from the first word in your research document to the last word (how to get from “compost” to “despot”? is there something despotic about compost? something composty about a despot?). Make a paragraph out of nonsense sentences generated by homophonic translation (e.g., for “domestic,” “Be long in thee, how sold, from dumb us, house, from pie …”). Or make a 5×5 panel of words gleaned from your entries, such as

court          timber        pickle         season        manure

potent        emperor     …

Or turn your research into a family tree in which words are arranged as parents and children and cousins and stray animals. Or write a couple of sentences in imitation of Joyce — wringing every possible pun out of every syllable. Or something not thought of here or ever before.

Exercise: Worm in the compost bin

We’ve talked [my students and I] about erasures that read horizontally and erasures that read vertically. The former preserve more of the gist of the source text. The latter create a more fully new thing, though some of the ground tone of the source, somehow, remains.

I’ve also proposed that composting, broadly construed, includes what we usually think of as “inspiration.” Because what is inspiration but suddenly, in a flash, connecting disparate elements of your own experience, and finding them transformed in each other’s company?

This exercise draws those two gists together: reading vertically, composting your own experience. First, find some of your own prose, between 75 and 150 words, and type it up as a column around three inches wide, give or take half an inch. You should sense a resonance in the prose, an electric charge, though it may fall here and there into cliché, overwriting, or banality.

Transcripts of dreams work well. So do journal entries that have a lot of concrete, specific detail. Here’s an example, a transcript of a dream:

A pathway, root-broken pavement, branches
hang down on both sides, willow branches in
new leaf with towering clusters of tiny white
aromatic flowers. I bring a branch to my face.
The scent is beautiful, pervasive, it floods me
and I begin to cry with a peace I suddenly
know has always been with me. I tell a doctor
on an island and he readies a needle over my
heart on a point called penetrating fragrance.

Kinda sentimenty, with that peace bit, but lots of concrete words to work with. Now, print your source text out, and burrow vertically for word sequences that please you, whether or not they make sense to you. (The pleasure they give is the sense they make.) You can select sequences by circling with a pen; I’ll approximate that in my example by greying the unselected text:

A pathway, root-broken pavement, branches
hang down on both sides, willow branches in 
new leaf with towering clusters of tiny white 
aromatic flowers. I bring a branch to my face. 
The scent is beautiful, pervasive, it floods me
and I begin to cry with a peace I suddenly
know has always been with me. I tell a doctor 
on an island and he readies a needle over my 
heart on a point called penetrating fragrance.

It took me several tries to get to that; print out a few copies, and go through as many times.

Once you have some vertically chosen text that pleases you, arrange it in lines, making what will look to an outsider like a poem received from the Muse, though you’ll know better. Finally, give it a title. In my example:


A path down it
low beautiful cry ways
land to a point. Branches
branch tiny white branch to flood
sudden tell a fragrance

And there’s your poem. Composting? Inspiration? Who can say?

Hot off the compost presses

Apologies, been away a bit, teaching, making poems. Thought I’d post a most recent one. The process I’ve been working out, I take a transcript of a dream from my journal, streamline it a bit, and type it up as a column of text about three inches wide. Looks something like this:

Across the water to an island ∙ I’ve left my
clothes in a woods a road runs through and
forget where ∙ a woods full of the light of an
inmost summer ∙ feeling naked on my way to
town I backtrack and find myself in a tent of
translucent fabric full of that same light ∙ a
young woman comes in ∙ we’ve not ever seen
each other ∙ Hello she says and lies down beside
me ∙ I put my arm around her and my hand
comes to rest on her breast ∙ she moves it off
with a kindness that seems to mean our love for
each other is ∙ but is not that it was recalling on
waking her kindness that made me so awfully
sad ∙ now I have clothes on and have hitched a
lift toward town with a trucker ∙ we go up and
down hills ∙ through mountainous sunsoaked
landscapes ∙ we come to a stop ∙ the road is an
upward rocky path with breaks and ledges at
skewed angles ∙ I’d like to get out of the truck
but stay seated ∙ The better way ∙ I say to me ∙ is
to be right there for what’s given ∙ what’s really
up though is I don’t want to look a coward ∙ the
driver takes a deep breath ∙ starts the engine ∙
we crash forward to the other side ∙ at another
spot the path is a notch between a boulder and
a rockface ∙ I or my mind am or is outside the
cab ∙ a post with a box on top blocks the path ∙
and now I’m at the ferry terminal where my
friends have made it over in their large toy cars
∙ mad how long it took to get here ∙ they mean
to turn round and get the next boat home ∙ Wait
I say we can all go to my place now ∙ that cheers
us up ∙ though evening the light persists in me

It’s far from being a poem. In fact, speaking of feeling naked, I feel quite exposed posting it! But I know we’re all friends here.

Given a source text, I burrow through, finding phrases that please or scare me. It’s pretty quick and quite intuitive … things go wrong when I become deliberate or try to make “strategic” choices. Starting at the bottom of the column, and hewing mostly to the left side, I get to this paragraph:

Up I say to mad friends and now stop ∙ stay
seated ∙ turn round ∙ spot the ash river a sad
king thought to face at a right angle and be wed
to war in these rockscape hills ∙ to each angel
comes a kind of rest ∙ a Hell no lucent woman
or man may be other to ∙ so I own that inmost
forge where in woods a road runs to an island

Not awful. Could stand on its own as a prose poem maybe. But I feel undone with it so I burrow through again. Here’s, this evening, the poem I got to:


Comes war to forge a man.
Eats up to king.

Hell, so a road.

Hills, right at the stop end.

stay sad,
a woe angle.

I know it’s a downward poem and that’s about it. There’s an upward poem in there too, its complement, next to be writ.

Been playing around awhile

with a composting practice. Take a transcript of a dream, embarrassingly open maybe, and type it up as a paragraph, stripping out punctuation and caps, a first stage of digestion. Then, burrow through it, wormwise, a la Tom Phillips, making phrases you’d never a thunk of, on yer own. Compose those phrases as a poem.

I’ll post one of those sometime soon probably. But here now’s to tell, I’m playing with a modified practice of that, two stages. One, worm through a dream transcript to make a prose poem, such as

The roads in are look thrown down over a side
of them a bit further ∙ so fine I have to map that
too ∙ each step I want more a mountain road to
where the valley of what else I am even in win-
ter sunlight on it and me bleached wood in the
water in a crouch ∙ a lake fallen through firs in
the foreground ∙ brilliant bare red bush ∙ then in
a car with the mountains hiking us ∙ art a moth
taught us ∙ Just be at rest as you hack through a
rent sort of small dead ∙ the trees here really do
wake an interwoven densely spacious impasse

And then, pass through again, wormwise as before, to make verse poems as castings, as here


Look fine.
I want what else I am brilliant at.

king, hack us through these
here red trees.

Each step bit them.
Am really in a rough pass
Winter oven.

Feels to me, it has more of me in it, the me most meaningful to me, for having about zero autobiographical to offer.

Exercise: Torn page (2)

This time you have a little more say. (One point of attention here is the play of decision and accident in the composition.) Take a page and tear it in half vertically. Find a language area you like. Begin reading from the (left or right) gutter and go as far as you like along the line (moving right or left). When you’ve had enough of that, jump to the next line, and repeat.

When you’ve made your selection, you can also make some small number of amendments, let’s say three. This came from William Carlos Williams’s Imaginations, looks like Descent of Winter, though I’m too lame to go check.

Again, transcribe the poem, as the act of making it your own.

And Coolidge said, let fenders
behind pine booths stead of the
old-time cake-thick faces! made
of some certain, how they shape for
the oven, the woven grey strips
wound pneumothorax pavement
office upon lights.

This one has at first the feel of being a sentence, but around “pneumothorax” it abandons the pretence of sentenceness and gives itself to its wordliness.

Exercise: Torn page (1)

Cooked this one up an hour before class yesterday. Pull a page out of a book. Crease it well down the centre (from top to bottom) and tear it in half. Do the same with each half. You’ll have four strips of page, and eight stripes of language, if the page was printed on both sides.

Browse through them for a language column that pleases you. No changing anything — part words are left as part words, syntax is let be scrambled.


But do transcribe the language column you’ve chosen. That’s how it becomes your poem — by travelling from eye to brain to hand. Mine is called “else *”. As you can see it’s an ode.

else.* Although he o
did not believe that
ity would come as a
was the powerful who
nment that wished to
actical precaution o
th care. If men with
they would certain
staging a “whisky
fore, was to protect
n did not actually ca
said, he did consid

See also Tristan Tzara’s directions on making a Dada poem.