Daily Archives: May 11, 2009

More rhyme subversion

Here’s my latest attempt at poetic rhyme subversion.

I worry so for dear old Bill,
So long abed, so very ill,
For if old Bill does not get well,
Then he will die and go too soon
To tell the tale he came to tell
And sing out his appointed tune.

Does it work? Although it does rely on the old comic cliché of “Hey, betcha thought I was gonna cuss!”, I think it still manages to be a poem rather than a mere gag.

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Strong-pun translations

First a note on how I think about puns:

I classify puns as either “strong” or “weak.” In a strong pun, the phonetic/linguistic connection between two words or phrases is accompanied by a genuinely meaningful semantic connection, and the deeper the meaning, the stronger the pun. In a weak pun, the linguistic connection is all there is, and the pun is enjoyable only because of its sheer improbability and the ingenuity required to construct it. Some weak puns are delightfully clever, and I enjoy them as much as (or more than) the next guy, but in the end a weak pun is just showing off, whereas a strong pun can be poetry.

The same principle applies to such things as anagrams, which I consider to be puns in the larger sense. Whoever first noticed that “H. Ross Perot” is an anagram of “sports hero” was undeniably clever, but it’s still a weak pun. A much stronger one is “Clint Eastwood” as an anagram of “Old West action.” Nicknames can also be pun-like and can be strong or weak. As nicknames for George W. Bush go, Shrub is weak; Dubieux (a Nostradamus reference, punning on “Dubya”) and George III (alluding to the many similarities between the third President George and the third King George) are much stronger.

If Piers Anthony (creator of such characters as the Junk Male and the Ice Queen Clone) is probably the king of the weak pun, the undisputed master of the strong pun would have to be James Joyce. Though nothing can make Finnegans Wake actually worth reading, its profusion of very clever puns, strong and otherwise, certainly rewards the occasional browse. My personal favorite is the Gracehoper, as Aesop’s grasshopper is very appropriately called in Joyce’s retelling, a pun so perfect that it’s a shame it had to be paired with the junk-pun Ondt. When Joyce introduces the fable with a reference to “Jacko and Esaup,” he simultaneously puns on the name Aesop and alludes to the parallel story of grasshopper-like Jacob and ant-like Esau. This is a good example of the power of the punplex, a set of interrelated puns which, aside from being clever in its own right, often provides a context which can turn what would otherwise be a weak pun (such as Esau/Aesop) into a strong one.

In this post I want to look at translations — or, more properly, linguistic borrowings — that are strong puns. When you want to import a foreign word into your language, you have two basic options. Since different languages will have different sound-meaning mappings, you can copy the original sounds without the original meaning, as in kung-fu, or you can preserve the original meaning without the original sound, as in Indian names like Sitting Bull. In English we generally go for the former option, since we can usually do so without any semantic confusion. Spaghetti didn’t mean anything at all in English until we imported it from Italian, so we were free to copy the original Italian word and assign it the original Italian meaning.

In Chinese, though, the situation is different. You can import a foreign string of sounds, but you still have to write it in Chinese characters, and each character is associated with a meaning as well as a sound — most likely a meaning that has nothing to do with the original meaning of the borrowed word. For example, Chinese has borrowed the word bagel as 貝果 (pronounced bei-guo), which literally means “seashell-fruit.” In contrast, when English first borrowed the word bagel from Yiddish, the word didn’t have any “literal” English meaning; it was a semantic blank slate, free to mean bagel and nothing else. Due to this problem of unwanted semantic baggage, Chinese borrowings from other languages more often translate the meaning instead of copying the original sounds. While “hot dog” becomes hot-dog in French, хот-дог in Russian, and so on, in Chinese it’s 熱狗, which literally means “hot dog” but is pronounced ri-gou.

Sometimes, though, Chinese manages to pull off the seemingly impossible — to find Chinese characters that approximate both the original sound and the original meaning of the borrowed term. The result is a pun — a strong pun — which I tend to find very aesthetically satisfying. Here are a few examples:

  • The word llama has entered Chinese as 駱馬, which is pronounced luo-ma and literally means “camel horse.”
  • The English term UFO becomes the Chinese 幽浮, pronounced you-fu and meaning “secret floating” — a good approximation of the idea of an unidentified flying object.
  • Worldwide web is sometimes ingeniously rendered as 萬維網, literally “net of ten thousand links,” which is pronounced wan-wei-wang, thus preserving the abbreviation WWW.

Strong-pun translations seem to be rare even in Chinese, and English doesn’t seem to do them at all, which is just too bad. If I could introduce one into the language, it would be Greased, to replace Christ as the English version of Χριστός. That’s right, Jesus Greased, Greasedmas, the anti-Greased — you get the idea. Not only is /grist/ actually closer to the original Greek pronunciation than /kraɪst/ is — you might say I’ve “Greeced” the word by taking it back to its Hellenic roots — but it also preserves the original meaning of “anointed,” that is, “smeared with oil.” (If you think that’s an almost blasphemously bad translation, don’t blame me. I got the idea from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose version of the Bible routinely uses “grease” for “anoint.” Psalm 23, for example, contains the line “With oil you have greased my head.”) I might also mention that the one who greased Jesus was none other than the Lard God, and that Jesus Greased would fit right in with other religious founders like Gautama Butter, but such decidedly weak puns would just be flies in the ointment.

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Exploiting the anticipated rhyme

People will sometimes set their audience up to anticipate a particular rhyme and then fail to deliver. This is usually done in a pretty unsubtle way for comic effect either by cutely not cussing (“Ra ra ree, kick ’em in the knee! Ra ra rass, kick ’em in the other knee!”) or by pretending to be too dumb to think of the obvious rhyme (“I’m a poet and I didn’t realize it”). This can be entertainingly clever at times, but it’s not exactly poetry. But can the basic idea be used in a subtler, more poetic way?

Moving up the scale just a little bit, we have this line from the They Might Be Giants song “Kiss Me, Son of God”:

Now you’re the only one here who can tell me if it’s true
That you love me and I love me

Still pretty unsubtle, but it’s a step up from “Roses are red / violets are blue / Some poems rhyme / But this one doesn’t.” It doesn’t subvert the rhyme just for the sake of subverting the rhyme; instead, the dissonant unexpected non-rhyme is used to express an dissonant unexpected thought. However, it’s so heavy-handed that it still registers as a gag, not poetry.

But consider this example, from the Moxy Früvous song “Down from Above”:

Your mother made you cry
When she told you about the womb
And how people die
Watching over you when you were young
Smiling when you learned to crawl
You don’t know her at all

This one is subtle enough that you probably don’t consciously notice the subverted rhymes at all. I think they’re there, though, and are at work at a subconscious level to make the verse more satisfying. When the second line ends with “womb,” it sets you up to expect the usual rhyme, “tomb.” That rhyme is not forthcoming; but the third line, while rhyming with the first, also contains the idea of the tomb that the second line prepared you to subconsciously expect.

There’s something similar at work in the next two lines, though I can’t properly call it a subverted rhyme. “Watching over you when you were…” makes you anticipate “small” at least as much as “young.” “Young” is the word they actually use, but the word “small” has still been primed in your mind, making the next two lines, which rhyme with “small,” more satisfying.

The song is hardly great poetry, but at least it is poetry, not a gag, and demonstrates the legitimately poetic possibilities of this technique of creating anticipations and then subverting them. And, unlike the previous examples, this one doesn’t dissonantly fail to rhyme. On the contrarty, its subverted expectations serve to bind the poem more tightly together.

Finally, here’s an example of my own — just some doggerel I slapped together as an experiment:

The lily and the gentle dove
Remind me of the one I fear.
Yes, I allude to you, my dear,
For I do fear to fall in love.

What do you think? It’s not Shakespeare or anything, but I think it works. First you expect the second line to end with “love,” then the third line, and then the fourth line finally delivers. As in good music, the dissonance is followed by a pleasing resolution. And as in “Kiss Me, Son of God,” the form reflects the content, as the second line uses the unexpected non-rhyme to express an unexpected feeling.

I intend to spend some more time tinkering with this technique, and I would be grateful to any commenters who can point me to other examples of this kind of thing in poetry.

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