Word of the Day – Opsimath


I came across this word in Stephen Fry’s book, “The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within.” (See previous post.) It refers to someone who learns late in life.


“An opsimath can refer to a person who begins, or continues, to study or learn late in life. The word is derived from the Greek ὀψέ (opse), meaning ‘late’ and μανθάνω (manthano), meaning ‘learn’.”

The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls – Part 1

The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls

The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveller hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

Darkness settles on roofs and walls,
But the sea, the sea in the darkness calls;
The little waves, with their soft, white hands,
Efface the footprints in the sands,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.

The morning breaks; the steeds in their stalls
Stamp and neigh, as the hostler calls;
The day returns, but nevermore
Returns the traveller to the shore,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.


What makes this poem so beautiful? Well, I’m not an expert, but the use of repetition seems particularly effective. The refrain captures both the restless rhythm of nature and the ceaseless passage of time. The stanzas progress through twilight, darkness, and morning, further reinforcing the feeling of time’s movement.

There is mystery in this poem as well. Who is the traveller? Why does he hasten, and what happened to him that he should not return? I believe he is not a person, but rather a symbol. All of us, like him, are travellers, rushing from here to there, just passing through. Our footprints, too, will be effaced (a well-chosen word).

“Efface: to eliminate or make indistinct by or as if by wearing away a surface (coins with dates effaced by wear); also : to cause to vanish (daylight effaced the stars)” –  Merriam Webster

“Erased” would not be nearly as effective; effaced captures the gradual disappearance of the traces we leave behind.

When “the sea in the darkness calls,” summoning “the little waves” with their “soft white hands,” the poem transcends mere melancholy, producing an eerie frisson. I can’t help but think of a shore haunted by ghostly children.

Finally, the lines have repeating words and sounds. The near rhymes are interesting:

“sea-sands” and “hastens”

“waves” and “efface”

Well, those are my thoughts. Any additional comments are welcome. Up next, I’m going to examine the meter of the poem and attempt to get inside Longfellow’s head!

Long-Billed Curlew (Numenius americanus), Fish...

Long-Billed Curlew (Numenius americanus), Fishing Pier, Goose Island State Park, Texas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Interested in Writing Poetry? Read this.

The Ode Less Travelled

Unlocking the Poet Within

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in writing poetry. It’s straightforward, unpretentious, and gently encouraging.

Stephen Fry is probably best known as an actor and comedian, and he’s the right man to tackle a subject that can be intimidating. This book is accessible and fun, and I particularly appreciated his clear discussion of meter and his criticism of modern poetry. His writing style is decidedly not academic.

The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within

The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I should have learned to appreciate meter in high school, but I can’t recall any of my teachers (in Honors English classes, no less) talking about the mechanics of poetry, outside of an obligatory mention of iambic pentameter in connection with Shakespeare. Learning about poetry consisted of reading a few well-known classics, such as The Raven and Ozymandias. That was it.

Meter is like the HTML of poetry. This book is a great starting place to learn about it.

In Praise of Eloquence

samuel daniel

Samuel Daniel’s The Civile Warres (1595–1609), a history of the Wars of the Roses, influenced Shakespeare’s Richard II and Henry IV, at least according to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

Despite intervening centuries, old poems can be easy to read. This one is over 400 years old, and yet once you remove the veil of archaic spellings, its meaning is clear. I came across Samuel Daniel, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, in an introductory book on poetry.

Here are some lines from Musophilus: Containing a General Defence of Learning (The image on the left is from another work):

Power above powers! O Heavenly Eloquence!
That with the strong rein of commanding words
Dost manage, guide, and master the eminence
Of men’s affections, more than all their swords!
Shall we not offer to thy excellence,
The richest treasure that our wit affords?

Thou that canst do much more with one poor pen,
Than all the powers of princes can effect;
And draw, divert, dispose, and fashion men,
Better than force or rigour can direct!
Should we this ornament of glory then,
As the unmaterial fruits of shades, neglect?

I sometimes wonder about the relevance of eloquence in today’s world, dominated as it is by memes and viral videos. The power of images — to the detriment of words — has ascended in our society, said media theorist Neil Postman, and I agree.

Eloquence needs to be reinstated. Let us reintroduce its presence in our lives. Let us seek it out, so that we, too, can attain the loftiest heights of expression.

Thou that canst do much more with one poor pen,
Than all the powers of princes can effect ;
And draw, divert, dispose, and fashion men,
Better than force or rigour can direct !

Fail your way to Success – Part 2

My first attempt at a blog failed miserably. Entitled “Spleen Magazine,” I wanted it to be a forum for me to rant about modern society, and mostly about how technology is making us less human. (An anti-technology blog on the Internet? How could that fail?) Not only was my blog unread and unfocused, but it was also self-hosted, something I wasn’t prepared to do, and I was immediately engulfed by a tsunami of spam. I gave up quickly.

Now I’ve returned. Yes, I still plan to question technology, but self-indulgent ranting was the wrong approach, and part of me is thankful for the spam surge. I needed to take a more positive tack. Just as the romantic poets reacted to the dehumanizing forces of industrialization and urbanization, I feel the time has come to start a new movement in opposition to the negative aspects of the digital age.

I don’t want to rant about the world; I want to remind you of the one we’ve forgotten.


Fail your way to Success

“Notice the difference between what happens when a man says to himself, I have failed three times, and what happens when he says, I am a failure.” — S. I. Hayakawa

Failing is an essential part of life. I sincerely hope you failed at something this week. Perhaps you botched a recipe, missed a few questions on an exam, or were rejected by the opposite sex. Congratulations.

If you’re not failing, you’re stagnating. Instead of moving forward, falling and scraping your knee, you’re pedaling in place, on the stationary bike that is your existence. You’re comfortably getting nowhere.

Failing is essential to the creative process. Ideas and creative works perish, in a process akin to natural selection: multitudes are born, most will die. The best make it, and provide seeds for future growth.

I’ve always been a fan of the Onion, the satirical newspaper that offers some of the most cutting, clever humor you’ll find anywhere today. Consider the work that goes into it: the writers of the Onion start with 600 potential headlines each week, and over two days, select a mere 16 to appear in their paper:

This American Life – Tough Room, 2011

I found this story to be rather inspiring, especially with my background in stand-up comedy. It made me feel better about all my failed jokes. If anything, it made me realize I wasn’t writing, testing and refining enough bad jokes.

A good artist needs to maintain a high, exacting standard. Produce and create first, and soberly assess, revise or discard afterward. Repeat!

My heroes: George Orwell and Gordon Comstock.

I while back I read George Orwell’s book, Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

If you romanticize your status as a “starving artist” and perversely regard your low income as a badge of honor, you need to read this book! You’ll be amused, horrified, and inspired to change.

Yes, I don’t like the title either. An exceptionally hardy house plant, the Aspidistra was once ubiquitous in the windows of Britain. For Gordon Comstock, a struggling poet and the novel’s protagonist, it symbolizes what he hates: a world devoted to maintaining respectability and to making money.

Well, Comstock decides to form a one-man rebellion against the money cult that surrounds him. He’s determined to remain devoted to poverty and poetry, but ends up financially and spiritually sinking until he hits rock bottom, even as his saintly girlfriend silently endures his baffling stubbornness to accept her help or get a real job.

Comstock met Rosemary at an advertising firm. He reluctantly accepted a clerk position there, thanks to his uncle’s influence. One day, when his superior finds out that he’s a published poet (his collection of poems — Mice — sold 153 copies), he gets promoted to copy writer.

Though his poetry output suffered from his self loathing and stagnation, it turns out Gordon has an effortless talent for writing advertising copy. The irony is cruel: failing at artistic integrity, he succeeds at fueling the engine of the capitalist, money-worshipping system he despises. Here’s how he describes his workplace:

“Most of the employees were the hard-boiled, Americanised, go-getting type — the type to whom nothing in the world is sacred, except money. They had their cynical code worked out. The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket.”

After his mother dies (freeing him from the consequences of guilt), Comstock quits his job, finding comfort in his return to poverty. Despite his struggles, he obstinately refuses help from his wealthy friend Ravelston, publisher of a monthly Socialist magazine. (Unbeknownst to Gordon, Ravelston had pulled strings to get his book of poems published.)

Gordon’s obsessive thoughts and rants can get a bit repetitive throughout the book, but Orwell’s observations on poverty  shine through with exceptional clarity. I’ve never read a book that so convincingly argues that the humiliation of poverty is worse than its hardship. This is what Gordon’s friend fails to understand. Orwell also illustrates the obstacles faced by friends of different social classes, and the absurdity of being a wealthy Socialist who sympathizes with the poor, while dining in sumptuous style in his favorite restaurant.

Orwell speaks through Comstock, but he draws on his own experiences, such as when he found himself Down and Out in Paris and London —  but that’s another book…

I love Gordon Comstock because I see myself in him — in some ways, I shared his attitude in my twenties! I thought I was rebelling, but I was only sabotaging myself. I owe a lot to this book for motivating me to start this blog.

George Orwell’s writing is direct, full of emotional sincerity, and powered with righteous indignation. Occasionally, he can even be funny. I leave you with this (it’s not really representative of the rest of the novel, but it made me laugh):

“This woman business! What a bore it is! What a pity we can’t cut it right out, or at least be like the animals — minutes of ferocious lust and months of icy chastity. Take a cock pheasant, for example. He jumps up on the hens’ backs without so much as a with your leave or by your leave. And no sooner is it over than the whole subject is out of his mind. He hardly notices his hens any longer; he ignores them, or simply pecks them if they get near his food. He is not called upon to support his offspring, either. Lucky pheasant! How different from the lord of creation, always on the hop between his memory and his conscience!”

After randomly paging to that passage, I decided to buy the book.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Keep the Aspidistra Flying (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Harry Clarke – my favorite Poe illustrator

The Masque of the Red DeathHarry Clarke, a stained glass artist and book illustrator from Ireland, wields black ink like no other. I don’t think you’ll find a  more mesmerizing illustrator of Edgar Allan Poe. Regrettably, when I find copies of his work in Tales of Mystery and Imagination in the average bookstore, they are inferior. It angers me when publishers churn out cheap reproductions of beautifully illustrated books. Shrunk to fit the page, the images become darkened, blurred, and robbed of their power. (Of course, you might say the same for their appearance on this website. Go ahead and click to get a better look.)

Years ago, I encountered an old edition featuring Clarke’s work and felt a renewed chill of Poe-inspired horror, a delicious feeling interwoven with nostalgia for my adolescence, when my sensitivity to such images and stories seemed greater than it is now. (We all encounter Poe in our adolescence, don’t we?)

pit and pendulumWhy is that? What makes Poe so fascinating to juveniles? Well, my guess is that at some point, adults stop feeling true horror; they just worry about bills and bullshit. Generalized anxiety replaces fascination with the unknown, the mysterious, the macabre, the supernatural. Adults aren’t frightened by the prospect of being buried alive — because most of them already are buried alive: under debt, depression and stress. The heightened feelings Poe inspires are a luxury for moody teens.

Perhaps it’s not too late to bring back those feelings.

Visit the House of Usher. Take Clarke with you.

A short poem by Shelley.


We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! — yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost forever:

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.

We rest. — A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise. — One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:

It is the same! — For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.

Lyre (PSF)

I only added this image because it offers a nice illustration of what a lyre looks like. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)