Table of Contents

Newest Posts:

For the Love of Prepositions (and affixes) Part 10b — Ob-

Propertius III.i

The Chancellor and the Songstress — Epilogue — The Baby Song and the Baobab Tree

Plurality in Question

The Chancellor and the Songstress Part 7 — The Lion Unloosed

POETRY, POLITICS, AND LANGUAGE

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Original Poetry

Series

The Chancellor and the Songstress (2020-2021)

                    Prologue

                    Part 1 The Tale of Lily-White Riotess

                    Part 2 Hymn to the Flora of the World

                    Part 3 The Balloonists

                    Part 4 The Little Drummer Boy

                    Part 5 The Toppling of the Chairman of the Board

Part 6 Interlude — Dumbo in Cuckooland

Part 7 The Lion Unloosed

Epilogue— The Baby Song and the Baobab Tree

17 (2017-2018)

Section 1 – Prologue – Selva Oscura

Sections 2 and 3 – Picnic and Gas

Section 4 — Bangers Section 5 – Fall

Section 6 – She Section 7 – Park

Section 8 – Dogs             Section 9 – Siren

Section 10 – Dot Section 11 – Dorothy Agonistes

Section 12 – Mower

Sections 13 and 14 – Mike and Michael Angel

Section 15 – Psychopomp

Sections 16 and 17 – Purgatorio and Epilogue

64 (1991-2016)

Section 1 – Part 1 Prologue

Section 2 – Epithalamium—Parts 2 – 3 

Section 3 – Ekphrasis Parts 4 – 8

Section 3 – Ekphrasis – Parts 9 and 10

Section 4 – Katabasis – Parts 11-17

Section 4 – Katabasis – Parts 18-23

Section 5 – Honeymoon – Parts 24-26

Section 5 – Honeymoon – Parts 27-29 

Epilogue Parts 30-35  

            Sonnets on Autism (2003)

# 6, # 7, # 8

# 9

# 18, # 19, # 20, # 21, # 22

              200 (2018-2020)

Section 1 – Prologue – Part 1

Section 1 – Prologue – Part 2 – Mental Arithmetic

Section 1 – Prologue – Part 3

Section 2 – Witness

Sections 3 and 4 – Newcomer – Miasma

Section 5 – Breakfast, Dinner, Tea

Section 6 – Jude

Section 7 – Kseniya and Zhenya                                             

Section 8 – Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dee

Section 9 – Duet

Section 10 – Hymn to Liberty

Section 11 – Song for the Opium Poppy

Sections 12, 13 and Intermission

Section 14 – Checkmate – Kseniya and Zhenya do the CIA

Section 15 – When Tweedle Dumb met Tweedle Dee

Section 16 – Hymn to Ammunition

Section 17 Porton Down

Section 18 Yu Home

Section 19 – Jessie Down

Section 20 – Magic Act – Kseniya and Zhenya do Las Vegas

Section 21 – Potpourri

Section 22 – Bella

Section 23 – Bell at Seven Part 1

Section 23 – Bell at Seven Part 2

Section 24 Part 1 – Kseniya and Zhenya do Sunset Boulevard

Section 24 Part 2 – Zhenya Arrested

Section 25 – The Chancellor and the Fox

Section 26 – Meeting

Section 27 – Zhenya does Yellowstone

Section 28 — Epilogue Parts 1-3

          Unholy Sonnets (2001)

                          # 1, # 17, # 19

Collections

I Things Drawn from the Earth (1989-1992)

Young Carrots

The Desk Lamp

Your Freckles

II Held in the Air (1993-1997)

  Descent

 Nostalgia

III A Mind of Winter (1998-1999)

IV Inferno in a Teaspoon (2000-2001)

     Brides

     The Butterfly

Expurosis

      Honey

       New Moon

       Sunday Evening

VI Elegy for a Punk Nightingale (2003)

        Hymn to Sleep

         Ode to Oedipus

Propertius Elegies III.iv

         Propertius Elegies III.v

        Propertius Elegies III.vi

VII The Filth in the Machine (2005)

          Family Night Out

          Hallowe’en

           Hymn to Home

             Hymn to Neptune

            Propertius Elegies III.xxi

VIII Fragments of Affairs (2006-2011)

Dona Cecília Wants an iPhone

Pastoral

Stuff Picked up at the Supermarket

Young Women in a Coffee Shop

X Seeing through Fog (2015)

                              Amores I.ix

                              Burning Questions

                              Candle

                              The Caterpillar

                              Couldn’t

Daylight Hours

                               Expo 1851

                                Epic

                                First Crush

                                Expo 1893

The Little Auto

                                 A Little Metaphysical Haiku

                                 The Lizard

                                  Lucy

                                  Mangoes Growing

                                  Moment

Hymn to the Moon

Morning Rain

Paraklausithyron

Pollution

Renaissance

                                  The River Biss

                                  The Rope

                                  School through Fog

                                  Stack

                                  Stuff Stuffed in a Drawer

                                   Sugar

                                   Ode to Thread

                          Throwing the Postman out of the Pram

                                    Wake

                                    Wind Eye

                                    Urban Haikus

 X Fun and Suffering (2016-2019)

                                     April

Care

                                     Chang’e

                                     Conspiracies

                                     Cycle

                                     Luzia in Flame

                                     May Day

                                     Outpatients

                                     Parkland Requiem Chorus

                                     Prince Henry Does the Cape

                                     Red Cross on White

                                     Ron Doe

                                     Saltire

                                     Satellite

Stars

The Street

Other Translations

     João Cabral de Melo Neto

                                     A Blade With No Handle

              Manuel Bandeira

                                      The Caterpillar

              Rainer Maria Rilke

                                       Duino Elegy # 4

               Pindar

First Nemean Ode

Propertius

Elegies III.i

     Experimental Poetry

                               Habeas Corpus

Birth Year Words Poems

Prose

Short Stories

                                           The Street

     Essays

                                            Second Post First

Fifty Years On

History and Psychology

Ten Differences Between Britain and Brazil

A Tragedy in Brazil

Black Friday

The Point of Killing

Decisions, Decisions

Angiogram

Five Types of Taxi Driver

Tattoo

     Novel

                                               Sally in the Woods Chapter 1

Literary Criticism

The Ghost of Philip Larkin

The Lizard and the Caterpillar

Encavernment in Beckett, Musil, and Kafka

William Carlos Williams in the American Grain

Amateur and Professional Poetry

Why Poetry Didn’t Go Dada

John Berryman and the Male Gaze

Mower Poems

Dogme in Poetry and Film Part I

Dogme in Poetry and Film Part II

Why I Write

The Space of Writing

Creative Idleness

Sylvia Plath’s Full Stops

What Makes Literature Good

Why Poetry Didn’t Go Indie

Moonset in Walt Whitman

Advice to Young Poets

The Devil in the em-dash: a reading of Emily Dickinson

Language

Series

                 For the Love of Prepositions (and Affixes)

Part 1 At

Part 2 By

Part 3 The F-words: ‘of’ and ‘off’

Part 4 Back and Forth

Part 5 To be or not to be…

Part 6 On ‘on’…

Part 7 And…

Part 8 …but

Part 9a Games with ge-, y- and a-

Part 9b Playing the Language Game

Part 10a -ob

Part 10b ob-

Part 11 Till Death Us Do Part

Part 12 Coronavirus

     The Truth about English Verbs

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4a

         Modal Verbs

Modal Verbs over Time

Modal Verbs in the News

Managing Capacity – Modal Verbs in the Real World

             Miscellaneous Grammar

Governor Brewer’s Present Perfect

De-escalation and the Nature of the English Language

Grammar Lessons from Antonin Scalia

(Our) Words of the Year

Fluidity of Person

The Genuine Article

Ergativity in Trump White House Discourse                       

A Number of Issues Regarding Number

If he wins…

Plurality in Question

Vocabulary

What Spelling Tells Us

Food for Thought

Lists      

Hope and Speed

                Pronunciation

The Politics of Stress

                Punctuation

                               Between Quotes

Teaching and Tests

Testing Tests

Creative Idleness

Poorsplaining and True Education

Sheep and Goats

Life in the UK

Politics

     General

 Democracy as Alternation in Britain, France, the US, and Brazil

Laudable Pus

International

Learning from Ukraine

China, Russia, and the United States

Greece in Europe

Syriza and the SNP

The Sweet Inception of War

Catalonia, Scotland, and Kurdistan

UK Politics

The British Labour Party and Scottish Independence

The Voter’s Dilemma

Victory in Defeat

How not to Miselect a Government

       US Politics

  Piers Morgan’s Guns

Honey and Bile: The Rhetoric of Sarah Palin

Ergativity in Trump White House Discourse

The Politics of Stress

If he wins…

        Brazilian Politics

A Democratic Coup

What is going on in Brazil

Throwing the Bloody Book at Them

Other Topics

                Math and Science

                               Markov Chains

TV and Film

                Death of a Clown

Genre Shift in Film and TV

Dogme in Poetry and Film Part I

                Popular Music

                               Billy Bragg, the Smiths, and Eminem

Voice and Song – Part 1

Lucifer Falls over Lancashire

Back Catalogue #2 The Pavement (1990)

[Here is the second in my new back catalogue series of postings. This simple prose poem was written around 1990. The greatest influence upon me in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the prose poetry of the French post-surrealist poet Francis Ponge, some of whose works I translated at about the same time. But my work also reflected my interest in modern and contemporary art, about which I wrote as part of my job at a publishing company.]

#2 The Pavement (1990)

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

As a child, being closer to it, I was able to undertake a more scrupulous examination of the pavement.

The pavement is a flat, unique landscape of irregular cracks and cambers strewn with grit and dust. Like magnetic tape it illegibly makes record of all activities—performed by shoes or rain—that have ever impinged upon it. The gaudy bright black tarmac has grown grey smooth uniform.

The pavement is a particular type of rock that is deposited in parallel strata along the roadsides. Intermittent manholes or gas mains remind us of the subterranean utilities. It is a type of rock exposed to the vicissitudes of time, but it is also a machine that works.

Robust plants and dusty grasses, which, because they are not flimsy and sensitive to weather or rough treatment, we are rude enough to call weeds, cause and exploit its fractured crust. Pavement falls into disrepair more quickly than rubber, metal or plastic. Although technically artificial, it is accepted as part of the ground; not exactly used. Still less scrutinized. As adults, we are inclined to trip less often, and, therefore, are wholly disoriented when we find ourselves fallen, nose to nose, with this parallel, Lilliputian lower world.

All the slightest imperfections in the pavement are marked with small pools or fluvial systems by the unerring flow of rainwater.

I dare not wish to copy the pavement as accurately as this rain. I would lose my wits to its miniature microcosm. But, if I were responsible for the day-to-day maintenance of the city pavements, I would order detailed annual photographic records, in full color, to be kept of each stretch. These would then be bound in huge volumes, made accessible to the general public for inspection and contemplation in local libraries.

The pavement is no mundane convenience; it is a world in its own right. A lesson to be learnt. Worth scrutinizing.

Back Catalogue #1 The Kitchen Garden (1989)

Since I am planning to return to the British Isles in the near future after 25 years living in Brazil, I have been reflecting on the past and, in particular, the 32 years that  I have been writing poetry with some degree of seriousness.

In view of this, over the next few weeks, I shall be posting 32 of my stand-alone poems in roughly chronological order. Some of these poems may already have been published online but not on this blog.

Photo by Marcus Spiske on Unsplash

#1 The Kitchen Garden (1989)

[The first of these poems were written in Oxford between 1989 and 1991. As I embarked on adult life, I looked back with affection and nostalgia on the simpler existence of my childhood. Many of the poems, like this one, are about suburban landscapes, plants and gardens.]

Half way down the garden, beyond a creosoted lattice fence, began a vegetable world; where the grass and flowers gave way to cabbages and Brussels sprouts and thick, decent, wet, substantial clods of earth. To move from the realm of turf and lilac, privet, laurel, and roses to this kitchen garden, hemmed in by wire not shrubs, was to enter a world at once wilder and more practical. I remember playing on the crazy paving between the two wings of fertile earth, my clenched hands not much larger than the clumps of uberous Brussels sprouts, hanging proudly from their sturdy stalks. Admiring on equal terms the large lushly veined cabbage leaves, groaning open with goodness, a bit nibbled round the edges by caterpillars but no more imperfect than is lace, engendering white butterflies from their huge dark green crinkled nests; as they might then have admired me amongst them; not much more than a plant then; long before writing or walking. Being able to sit upon almost equal terms in the parliament of these vegetables is the proudest honor I can remember. Democracy is for the young.  The speechless infant. Spoilt even by the crawl of toddlers or of snails.

For the Love of Prepositions Part 14 — Round and Around

Round and Around

In my previous post in this series I remarked on the fact that the Ministry of Truth that appears in George Orwell’s 1984 is frequently misquoted as ‘Ministry for Truth’.

Such almost universal misquotations are much commoner than one might imagine. Michael Hoey in his eye-opening study of Lexical Priming notes that the Jules Verne novel, the title of whose first official English translation was Around the World in 80 Days, is almost universally misquoted by journalists as ‘round the world’ especially in articles on yacht races, luxury cruises and the like.

Hoey notes that the original translation of Verne’s title (Le Tour du Monde en 80 Jours) is infelicitous. ‘Round’ is the more commonly used preposition where literal circular motion is involved, while ‘around’ is used when we mean ‘all over’ or ‘throughout’. Writers would thus seem to prefer to follow prevalence of use rather than accurate citation. Some more recent translations reflect this.

‘Round’ and ‘around’ also provide a good illustration of different phases in the historical process of language change that linguists call grammaticalization.

A corruption of the Latin adjective ‘rotundus’ meaning ‘like a wheel’ (rota), ‘round’ still preserves its original lexical sense and can be used as an adjective to mean ‘circular’ or ‘spherical,’ as in the phrase ‘The earth is round.’

‘Around,’ on the other hand, has been fully grammaticalized and lost this more specific meaning. In fact, ‘around’ can be used to refer not only to approximate values but also to anything vaguely located in time or space. “They live around here” means “They live somewhere in this neighborhood”. ‘I’ve been around a long time’ is a euphemism for ‘I’m old’.

Nine-a-day Veggie Ratatouille

[Some scholars claim that when a civilization comes to view food as art, it is a sure sign that that civilization is nearing its end. Regardless of this, I have decided to start posting recipes on this blog]

Nine-a-day Veggie Ratatouille

Nutritionists recommend that we eat nine different kinds of fruit and vegetable a day. This simple recipe provides all nine in a gluten-free meal suitable for vegetarians and vegans.

Ingredients (for at least two servings)

At least one medium-sized onion (preferably red)

At least two cloves of garlic

At least three bell peppers (preferably a mixture of red, green and yellow)

Two medium-sized carrots

One largish aubergine

One medium-sized courgette

Tin of whole plum tomatoes in juice

Two spring onions

Two radishes

Handful of parsley and/or basil leaves

Two cups of (good quality) rice (preferably Basmati)

Two eggs

Olive oil

Salt, ground pepper and grated Parmesan cheese

Preparation of Sauce

Peel and finely chop onions

Peel and finely chop, crush or grate garlic

Coarsely chop bell peppers

Chop carrots à la julienne

Finely chop basil/parsley

Meanwhile, coarsely chop aubergines and courgettes

Sauté onions, garlic, peppers and carrots in olive oil

Add tin of tomatoes, squish around to break up tomatoes and bring to boil

Add chopped aubergines and courgettes

Add basil/parsley, salt and ground pepper to taste and simmer for fifteen minutes to half an hour

Preparation of Rice

Pre-cook rice

Finely chop spring onions and grate radish

Heat olive oil in a frying pan

Add eggs and scramble until slightly brown [Vegans may omit this stage]

Add rice and fry slightly (mixing in egg well)

Garnish with chopped spring onions and grated radish

Serve garnished with grated Parmesan cheese [Vegans may omit this]

The dish can also be served with gluten-free pasta

Propertius III iii

[Another go at translating Propertius]

Propertius Book III Poem iii

Et in Arcadia ego, relaxing on a cool mountain

slope in Greece, where it is said that Pegasus once stamped

his hoof upon the earth to open up a gushing spring, I fancied I was.

A magnum opus on the kings and queens of times

gone by and of their deeds I seemed to have the power

to sing to the sound of strummed strings.

I had already dabbled a little my clumsy little fingers

in those mighty streams (the ones from which Chaucer

and Shakespeare once had supped their tales:

of how the feuding mobs of old fought out

their family grudges with spears; the royal spoils conquered

and shipped from Macedon to Rome by Lucius Aemilius;

the softly-softly approach adopted by Quintus Fabius; the massacre

at Cannae; gods answering prayers; All Souls booting

the Punic general out of their Roman abode; Jove

on the Capitol finding salvation in the honking of geese)

when, in that wooded valley of the dolls they call their muses,

Apollo leant on the gilded crossbar of his lyre and eyed me

from the opening of his cave and spoke. “What are you up to,

Dumbo, meddling with rivers great as these?” “Who on this earth

gave you the right to tinker with works of art about our national heroes

and foes?” “No name awaits you here, young scallywag.

Your work’s more lawn-mower than Lamborghini or Rolls.

Fit for some bird to flip through on a sun-bed on the beach,

waiting for Mr. Right to stroll along the sand. Don’t bother trying

your writer’s hand at wresting yourself from your predestined course.

Your art’s no oil tanker, more of a pleasure barge for punting

along shallow streams out of harm’s way.

The high seas with their churning surge

 are not your cup of tea.” Thus spake Apollo

and gestured with narwhal-tusk-crafted plectrum

towards a patch of mossy ground upon which crazy

paving already had been laid. Drums hung up in a cave

carved out of pumice, adorned with pebbles and greenery,

the paraphernalia of the Muses lying around, a graven image

of the bawdy old don who tutored Dionysus, the pipes of Pan;

a flustering flock of doves awaited me—

compliments of our mistress, Aphrodite—

wetting their purple-tinted peckers in the pool

sprung from the hoof stamp of the Gorgon’s spawn.

Here each of the nine girls busies her soft hands

with the duties she’s allotted by fate. One gathers

holly and ivy for the decorations; another tunes

strings ready for song; a third, green-fingered, tends

a garden full of roses. And of this bevy of deities,

the one they call Calliope (if I rightly recall)

gently laid hand upon me and advised:

“Stick to the snow-white swans. Don’t bother the warhorses.

It’s not your job to blast out The Last Post upon a cornet

or sully the snug bar-room of the Ploughman’s Arms

with tales of gore, or grace our ears with updates from Afghanistan

or lamentations from the bloodstained lands east of the Rhine.

Your lot’s to sing about folk getting off: cuckolded husbands

staggering back home from the pub, while lover boy attends

to her indoors. So be it,” Calliope spoke, drawing a little

crystal-clear water from her fount and dabbing my lips with it.

For the Love of Prepositions Part 13 — For it is sweet…

For it is sweet…

A recent translation forum debate regarding the correct preposition to use in the names of government departments reached a consensus that, while ‘of’ is the most appropriate preposition for the more prestigious ministries, lesser government agencies with longer more descriptive names tend to be less resistant to the use of ‘for’. ‘Ministry of’ is thus the proper nomenclature for Health, Education or Defense, but ‘Department for the Environment, Housing and Planning sounds OK too.

While few countries around the world have graced their major offices of state with the title of ‘Ministry for’, the phraseology is certainly very common in translation and this suggests that some underlying change is in fact afoot. In the case of government agencies that opt to call themselves departments rather than ministries, the changeover from ‘of’ to ‘for’ is already quite advanced.

In 1992, in the UK, the one-time Ministry and then Department of Education (in existence since the Second World War) was transformed into the Department for Education and, despite various infelicitous name changes since then, the ‘for’ has remained firmly in place.

A similar pattern emerges with other UK government departments. The Department of Transport swapped its ‘of’ for ‘for’ in 1997, and various other newfangled divisions of Her Majesty’s Government have been baptized likewise in recent years.

The purpose of this is clear. ‘For’ connotes a caring agency rather than a grim bureaucracy and suggests friendly encouragement of self-help rather than the doling out of government handouts. For the same reason, pompous- and—since Orwell—somewhat sinister-sounding ‘ministry’ is being pushed out in favor of ‘department’ or ‘office’, both words that voters will be familiar with from their own workplaces.

Even Orwell of course named his dystopian ministries the Ministry of Truth, the Ministry of Peace, the Ministry of Love. ‘For,’ in this context, would in fact sound even creepier. Perhaps we have reason to be wary of ‘for’.

A quick Google search for “Ministry for Truth” shows that the name of the authoritarian institution in 1984 is in fact frequently misquoted this way. More interestingly still, this usually occurs in contexts that are clearly themselves using the term for propagandist purposes.

A Sky News podcast likens Antifa to Orwell’s Ministry for Truth (sic). The Daily Telegraph warns us that Orwell warned us of a coming ‘Ministry for Truth’. And, in a peculiar twist, the Guardian newspaper misquotes the Sun quoting Orwell’s dystopian novel correctly when accusing David Cameron’s government of operating a ‘Ministry of Truth’.

A left-wing blogger freely moves back and forth from ‘Ministry of Truth’ to ‘Ministry for Truth’ in a single post attacking Teresa May, and Time Out, in a review of a lefty gig, remarks that the University of London’s Senate House provided the architectural inspiration for Orwell’s ‘Ministry for Truth’.

Both extremes of the political spectrum would thus seem to agree that “Ministry for…” sounds far creepier than “Ministry of…” and yet this is precisely the terminology that is becoming fashionable and finding increasing favor in government circles these days.

A recently published science fiction novel about environmental catastrophe entitled The Ministry for the Future has won plaudits from Barack Obama and other liberal politicians. The imaginary international organization that gives the book its title is described as being ‘“charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves” and is clearly intended to inspire our praise.

Herein, however, lies the problem with ‘for’. An organization that speaks or acts for groups of individuals who would otherwise be deprived of a voice can be seen as liberating in so far as it advocates for the rights of those who go unrepresented in modern democracies, but it could also be viewed as sinister in so far as it presumptuously arrogates to itself the right to speak for groups (such as animals or the unborn) who are a priori incapable of speech or opinion and, by extension, for other supposedly ‘silent majorities’ who do in fact have their own voice.

As the ideological diversity of the misquotations from Orwell cited above suggests, no one party or political persuasion has a monopoly on this tendency. Activists on the left claim to speak for the workers or the planet, while those on the right stand up for the nation and the war dead.

For it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country, a long-dead poet once pronounced on behalf of heroes who had long since lost their right to voice their own point of view.

‘For’ is a preposition that has a long history of sweetening such subterfuge.

For the Love of Prepositions (and affixes) Part 10b — Ob- continued…

[Another post in my ongoing series on prepositions and affixes]

For the Love of Prepositions Part 10b

Ob- continued…

‘Against’, ‘at’, ‘before’, ‘towards’, ‘upon’, ‘with regard to’, ‘in the way’: the Latin prefix ob- and its Greek counterpart epi- are by no means short of meanings.

But, while Greek ‘epi-‘ has become the preserve of esoteric erudite terms such as ‘epistemology’ and ‘epidermis’, ‘epideictic’ and ‘epinephrine’, Latin ob- remains earthily ensconced in common parlance and has, over time, accrued a semantic crust that specializes in signifying obstruction.

And yet, despite, or perhaps because of this somewhat obstreperous reputation, ob-, through objectivity and observation, has somehow insinuated itself into the very nerves and sinews of our modern empiricist, scientific view of the world. Ob- has gotten under our skin indeed.

Object has a strange history; that of observe is stranger still.

Meaning literally something thrown before us like an apple of discord, the litigious Romans used the term obiecta primarily to refer to the charges brought against the defendant in a court of law.

By extension, Medieval scholars came to use the word to refer to things obvious to sense-perception and hence also that to which cognition reaches out. The grammatical sense derived from this appeared much later and is not found in English until well into the 18th century boom in linguistic prescriptivism.  

The Romans called the case of this part of speech ‘accusative’ by way of mistranslation of Greek aitiatike, which would more accurately be rendered ‘causative’.

The Greeks of course got it right. It is the object that causes action in the subject, not vice versa.

The object from this more ancient perspective is thus not something summoned into being or subject to our will but something beckoning to be reached out to: an essential part of the essentially graspable comprehensible, intelligible world.

And yet there remains something mysterious about objects that entices and yet remains fundamentally unidentifiable: celestial bodies, UFOs and foreign objects embedded in human tissue, in the stomach or the eye.  Objets trouvés in unclassifiable museum displays.

The object is the cause of our curious inquiry. The object of epistemology.

While ‘object’ has shifted meaning over time, the verb ‘observe’ sprang into the language of the Ancient Romans already decked out in its full array of modern meanings and collocations. It means as it has always meant ‘keep watch’, ‘wait’, ‘guard’, ‘notice’, ‘care for’, ‘heed’, ‘respect’, ‘abide by’, and ‘obey’.

The underlying root of ‘servus’ slave is now somewhat obscured but still makes its presence felt, standing at once over and under us, like a patient guard(ian), hiding in plain sight.

Watchers serve their charges by blocking the way. We observe patients in hospital to keep them safe from harm and we observe convicts in panoptical penitentiaries to keep us safe from them.

We observe laws and we observe the movements of stars and planets in the heavens. We observe customs and holy days. Our social life is grounded in observance and our science in observation.

In laboratories and observatories we keep careful watch over a world full of daemons and baleful celestial beings that have no reason to wish us well. With our reason we attempt to keep these always ultimately unidentifiable objects firmly within our purview. Held tight or kept at a safe distance, we ensure that they are always kept closely in check.

Propertius III.i

[Another loose translation from the Latin of Sextus Propertius]

Don’t get started on the cult of dead poets

and the dreary old dramas of old.

I’m  a wannabe Sextus Propertius.

I want into a classier club.

*

Wanna sing you the blues in pig Latin,

punk and hip hop in Attic Greek.

I’m for putting the funk back in Sappho.

Where do I sign up?

Wanna jam with Callimachus and Pindar,

get on down with Alcaeus the drunk,

doing acid with Homer and Vergil

to the jazz of Thelonious Monk.

*

I’m not one for imbibing the Kool-Aid

nor for taking the populist path;

won’t waste time on the laureate’s war drum

or record on a label for cash.

I won’t dance or do chat shows for ratings,

won’t panhandle on Facebook for likes.

I won’t dish up cheap trinkets for profit.

I need freedom to smooth up my craft.

*

I want fame that is guided by NASA,

flying out into interstellar space.

No rock-stars in electric Lamborghinis

could ever keep up the pace.

*

No-one said it was going to be easy

getting into the history books.

No-one said it was some kind of doddle

travelling to the ends of the earth.

*

But if peace on this earth be forthcoming,

and the sisters of mercy permit,

 I’ll be bringing work down from pop heaven

on pages unsullied by shit.

 *

You can crown me with flowers not iron.

I don’t want such stuff weighing me down.

For the honors declined in my lifetime

will pay rich dividends when I’m gone.

*

Posterity makes all things greater;

folk are loath to speak ill of the dead.

Readers thrill to the song of the Light Brigade

and the Generals by whom they were led.

For how else would we know of our heroes

that laid their lives down in the bog?

or escaped from the steel walls of Colditz

in the belly of a vaulting horse?

*

How else would we know of the rivers

dried up for the sake of the Plan?

How else would we know of the gulags

that dot the Siberian plain?

How’d we know now of Phobos and Deimos,

polyanthus and Eau de Paris?

We’d know nothing of the proud Annunaki,

who once walked upon earth among men.

We’d know nothing at all about history,

the kings and the warriors of old.

Gilgamesh’s adventures in Hades

would now go untold.

*

And, when

New York and London are flooded

in a future outshone by our past,

folk are sure to remember a poet

who predicted it all with such class.

The Chancellor and the Songstress — Epilogue–The Baby Song and the Baobab Tree

The songstress picks herself up out of the gutter

one more time. Playing the victim well enough,

she thinks, to earn her one penultimate encore.

And, with a lackadaisical air, she’s coaxed back

to the little spot of light upon a stage

in which she’s sweetheart, princess, queen; mistress and dame

of all around who laud her with applause. And little

girl lost as well. Her sotto voce voice, quiet

as lovers in bed, amplified by the cord

that binds her to the crowd of spellbound worshippers

 on whom she feeds. Who sing along and wave their lighters

in the air, thrown into utter darkness

by the bedazzling  holophotes that rim the stage.

The Baobab and the Baby Song was always

a number went down well to end a show and so

she whacks it out for them one last nostalgic time.

Dancing a pas seul sans pareil for unseen crowds.

*

Mum pauses to catch her breath under a baobab

tree, opens the applet on her gadget and sings

to her distant siblings in clicks and sibilants

of the soft infant growing in her womb—

the ballad of the babe’s conception and birth.

How, in a ruckus on the way back from the pub,

she and the dad-to-be snuck up into a dimly-

lit back alley and fucked and took a hushed piss

as a policeman plodded oblivious by. The songs

on the karaoke machine that night furnished

a duly rhapsodic overture for that life

stirring within the empty music of her womb

and the ensuing absence of matrimony.

*

And now she sits humming the baby’s tune under

this gouty upturned tree, whose upper shoots and leaves

and flowers and seeds provide ample replenishment

in the aridity of the Sahel. Its thick

bark teems with crawling life, echoes when struck,

and is provider of a feast of wholesome fare

to fuel the passing herds of mighty elephants,

whose solemn remnants glumly haunt the tracts

of deserted land that swathe the equatorial

flanks of the meridian line, on which Miss Herschel

and her brother at the observatory foresaw

a second coming for her ribboned comets

and were first to lay eyes upon the planet named

after the unmanned father of Old Father Time.

*

The songstress tugs at the edges of her thigh-length skirt

and bends a knee. The show’s over for now. She beams.

The Chancellor leaps to his feet in loud full-blown

 applause. The audience dissolves into a sluggish

trickle, wending its way back out, under the stars,

to cars parked in the lot, now there’s no sights to see,

nor songs and sounds to titillate their minds and ears.

Plurality in Question

The Linguistic Concept of Number and its Diversity

Number in linguistics clearly goes far beyond the simple arithmetical concept. Grammatical number overlaps with other arguably more primordial categories, such as countability and definiteness, and may carry significant cultural connotations also.

Many languages make no distinction between singular and plural or at least possess no marker of this distinction. Most internationally prestigious modern languages, however, distinguish singular (one) from plural (more than one) for either nouns or verbs or both and sometimes for adjectives also.

Theories of Countability in English

Grammar books normally assert that nouns in English can be countable or uncountable (other terms, such as ‘mass’ and ‘count’ nouns are also sometimes used) and it is often argued that this is similar to the way that nouns are classed as masculine or feminine or according to some other classification in other languages.

It is, however, a significant oversimplification to equate countability with grammatical gender. Mass and count words in English do not fit cleanly into categories or classes but range about along a relatively flexible continuum. Conservative estimates put the number of clear clusters along this spectrum at five, while eight is often cited as the agreed number among scholars of such matters.

These distinctions can be subtle, such as that between wine (uncountable) in general and wines (countable) meaning different kinds of wine, or somewhat more substantial, as in that between countable lambs (meaning the young animals skipping in the field) and uncountable lamb (the meat on a dinner plate). In some cases countable and non-countable versions of the same word may have distinct if not entirely unrelated meanings (e.g. uncountable ‘room,’ meaning space, and countable ‘rooms’ meaning the rooms of a house).

Countable nouns can be used in the plural, with numbers or with the indefinite article, while resiliently uncountable nouns cannot. Uncountable nouns form collocations with the quantifiers ‘much’ and ‘(a) little,’ while countable ones take ‘many’ and ‘(a) few’.

Furthermore, it is important to note that individual items of lexis may move back and forth along this spectrum over time.

Countability and Language Change in Present-Day English

One common shift over time is from the nearly always uncountable category to one of the categories that allow for countable uses (with or without some degree of difference in meaning).

The causes of this shift may be obscure but there can be no doubt that the phenomenon occurs among users of English as a second language. For example, the plural form of ‘research’ ‘researches’ is becoming common in international academic journals.

Some words, however, such as ‘information’, ‘equipment’, ‘music’ and ‘bread’ have proved more resistant to pluralization/countabilization even though they are used as such by many non-native speakers. Unlike ‘researches’, one is unlikely to find ‘informations’ in a major international publication. Interestingly, in the case of ‘researches,’ this plural form was in fact acceptable and not uncommon in the not too recent past.

It remains to be seen at which point instances of the use of such language become sufficiently commonplace to be deemed normative. For now, however, they clearly constitute non-standard forms of the language and should be corrected in more formal discourse.

More problematic, is the case where a traditionally uncountable word is made countable (usually by way of permitting pluralization) for ideological reasons or to express a new perspective on a subject.

As with other linguistic developments that fall into the somewhat pejorative category of ‘political correctness,’ the motivation for such wording ranges from a genuine need for greater precision, a marker of ideological purity, to, in the worst instances, mere imitation in an attempt to appear scholarly and/or progressive.

‘Feminisms’ plural, for example, meets a genuine need to indicate that the feminist movement embraces a wide diversity of theories and approaches but may also be employed by writers keen to demonstrate to their readers that they are sufficiently open-minded to be aware of this diversity. ‘Technologies’ used willy-nilly with no clear difference in meaning from ‘technology’ is, however, in my opinion, purely decorative and thus inelegant.   

I would suggest, however, that, in most cases where there is some degree of flexibility with regard to countability, the word has been uncountable in the past and this usage is thus simply being revived.

This is the case with ‘research’, as seen above, and also of ‘history’, which is often pluralized nowadays in an academic context to underline the fact that there can be no single objective interpretation or account of historical events: women’s history differs from men’s history and even within these there are various different ‘histories’. This usage still seems borderline unorthodox today but it was not so long ago that ‘history’ and ‘story’ were synonyms and could both be used countably or uncountably. Indeed, the title of the first book of history in history—Herodotus’s Histories—contains the word history in the plural in its traditional English translation.   

Non-standard usages relating to Concordance

Moving on from issues relating to countability, another area where confusion between singular and plural may arise and in which non-native speaker language use may have some influence concerns agreement in number between subject and predicate. Errors in this regard may be compounded by the question of countability.            

This issue is often presented in grammar books in terms of cases where a plurality of subjects each possesses a certain object.

[1a] The two men put their hats on their heads.

[1b] *The two men put their hat on their head.

In some languages 1a would sound strange because each man only has one hat, but in English 1b strikes the reader as very unnatural, even though the normal English rendering leaves room for some doubt as to whether each man wore one hat or more.

As is often the cases with grammar books and grammar exercises, however, such examples are both infrequent and atypical. More common is confusion between phrases such as

[2a] People’s everyday lives

[2b] ?People’s everyday life

in which the ‘wrongness’ of the second is far less obvious.

In my experience, it is far more frequent to encounter cases of concordance error where countability issues also play a role. 

The following sentence, for example, is entirely correct and sounds quite natural in English.

[3a] Telemedicine is now an accepted way of providing treatment for patients.

Many non-native speakers, however, will write this sentence as follows:

[3b] ?Telemedicine is now an accepted way of providing treatments for patients.

The logic is that many patients receive many different kinds of treatment and, indeed, the same patient may receive multiple treatments. Singular therefore would be wrong.

However, to a native speaker, while not wrong, the over-precision of this sentence sounds a little strained, as if the writer were laboring the obvious. As a general rule, English prefers vagueness, where meaning can reasonably be inferred from context.

If we replace the word ‘treatment’ with a word that falls into the resiliently uncountable category, such as ‘care’, the plural sounds very strange indeed and would be considered by most native speakers to be non-standard or wrong.

 [4] *Telemedicine is now an accepted way of providing cares for patients

Note the following, however:

[5a] Patients undergoing multiple treatments must be especially careful with their medication.

[5b] Patients undergoing treatment …

Here we need to add the word ‘multiple’ because otherwise the plural would sound strange. The singular, on the other hand, implies a certain specific kind of treatment.

As noted at the beginning of this section, movement from countable to uncountable status may combine with an urge to provide the kind of unnecessary precision discussed here.

In phrases, quite common these days such as

[6a] ?The course provides various insights into the psychologies of young children.

it is by no means clear whether the author intends to emphasize the plural nature of child psychology or perspectives on it, or whether they are opting for over-precision, on the grounds that any one child can evidently be affected by more than one psychological condition.

In cases, where these strategies overlap in such a way that the making of a valid point becomes indistinguishable from error, I think it is justified to categorize such usage as non-standard. Especially since such sentences can almost always easily be reworded to avoid the ambiguity.

[6b] The course provides various insights into the psychological states and conditions of young children.

Brevity and familiarity of discourse may however play a role in such linguistic decisions on the part of writers and speakers. If so, ‘psychologies’ could be regarded as acceptable shorthand for ‘psychological states and conditions’.

A related, although somewhat marginal and self-contained issue concerns the agreement of seemingly singular quantifiers such as ‘a number of’ and ‘the majority’.

I think that most native speakers of English would baulk at the sentence

[7a] *?A number of issues was raised in the meeting

and prefer [7b] A number of issues were raised in the meeting.

Opinion regarding the following pair, however, may be more divided.

[8a] ?The majority of British families now possesses a washing-machine

[8b] The majority of British families now possess a washing-machine

To native speakers of a neo-Latin language, however, [7b] and [8b] sound outright wrong and such individuals will actively resist [7a] and [8a], because so much importance is attached to this particular ‘grammar rule’ in their schools.

Such concordance issues are not accorded so much emphasis in schools in English-speaking countries and it is not therefore uncommon for even educated writers to produce non-standard sentences such as:

[9a] *The quality of information technology courses have been on the decline in recent years

rather than

[9b] The quality of information technology courses has been on the decline in recent years.

Some US tests of English as a foreign language still include Use of English questions of this type.

This suggests that international cultural differences also play a role in determining the extent to which forms of use of the singular/plural distinction are acceptable or not. Different cultures entail different patterns of prescriptivism and such different cultures may co-exist within a single language community. 

Number and Definiteness

Singular and plural can also be used to indicate subtle differences in the degrees of definiteness and in such cases the use of the definite article also plays a role.

[10a] Farmers need more support from the Federal Government

[10b] The farmer needs more support from the Federal Government.

The former sounds more natural nowadays, but the latter is commonly found in the political discourse of a few hundred years ago and is still not deemed non-standard today.

The definite article plus singular form persists in scientific treatises such as

[11a] “The Anatomy of the Horse”, i.e. the horse as an ideal type.

A book entitled [11b] “The Anatomy of Horses” suggests a more accessible guide for horse-owners.   

Definiteness and number overlap in creating the desired effect.

Language is necessarily flexible and tolerates a certain quite large degree of ambiguity. Most patients will not complain or sue their doctors if their (indefinite/general) ‘cancer treatment’ in fact involves several different (definite/specific) kinds of treatment.

Anglo-American philosophers who are interested in the subject of generics attempt to distinguish subtle distinctions between different ways of saying very similar things. Their focus is somewhat different from mine in that they are interested both in the way concepts are supposedly organized in the human mind and in the nature of reality (if at all accessible), while I am interested here purely in linguistic patterns of use.

From the latter point of view, all of the following are possible ways of expressing the idea that members of the species of bear referred to in common parlance as ‘grizzly bears’ are biologically programmed to hibernate:

[12a] Grizzly bears sleep in the winter

[12b] A grizzly bear sleeps in the winter

[12c] The grizzly bear sleeps in the winter

or [12d] The grizzly bears sleep in the winter

While an urge to avoid ambiguity, produces a clear preference for the first of these nowadays, a specific context may, however, lead our preference to shift to one of the others, as follows:

[12e] [contrasting groups] The polar bears hunt all year round, while the grizzly bears sleep in the winter.

[12f] [logical induction from general to specific] A grizzly bear sleeps in the winter, so this one won’t bother us at this time of year.

[12g] [a natural history documentary] The grizzly bear sleeps through the winter, while much of the forest fauna continues to go about its everyday business.

In political discourse, nowadays, the generic with the definite article (such as ‘the farmer’, ‘the soldier’, ‘the voter’) seems to be being avoided in favor of the bare plural form ‘farmers’, ‘soldiers’, ‘voters’. This may reflect a concerted effort to avoid (or to be seen to avoid) stereotyping or homogenizing members of a diverse group. It may constitute an attempt to disambiguate the phrase. Or indeed may seek to accomplish both simultaneously. This same desire may underlie some of the less acceptable-seeming politically correct usages such as ‘child psychologies’.

Number in Legal English

While everyday English tends to prefer ambiguity and vagueness if a choice exists, legal language needs to be clear and its distinctions crisp. In legal usage, therefore, it may be necessary to provide explicit explanation to the effect that ‘the singular includes the plural’ or vice versa.

The [13a] ‘right to bear arms’ includes the right to carry just one weapon. A law stating that it is [13b] ‘illegal to discharge a fire arm in a public place’ does not imply that it would be permissible to use a whole arsenal.

Descriptivism, Tolerance and Prescriptivism in a Polarized Age

It is important in matters of language, as in all things, to strive to uphold a crisp distinction between subjective and objective criteria.

Linguistics has long been beset by a prescriptivist element that confuses the objective and subjective ‘rules’ and even some supposedly scientific descriptivist linguistic studies may justly be accused of this. Linguistic arguments that seem silly today were once considered highly objective. In the case of number, we need go back no further than Logan’s 1941 article on countability in US spoken discourse to find prejudice against language change donning the guise of objectivity. His “instances in which the plural adds nothing to the clarity of the statement, though the authors probably thought they were making a valuable distinction” include some turns of phrase that seem quite normal today. On the other hand, this same author also provides numerous examples of needless use of the plural that I feel would be unlikely to occur today. Few modern writers, for example, I think would follow Dickens in describing an after-dinner speaker as ‘toasting the healths’ of the guests.

It is, therefore, important that we remain alert to the possibility that over-tolerant anti-prescriptivism may itself become intolerant and prescriptivist. This will surely be the case if we accept the standards of our own age as the norm and, for instance, tolerate non-standard forms in which political correctness is at play, while baulking at non-native speaker errors such as ‘musics’ and ‘equipments’. More controversially, any full description of a language should surely include a description of any and all instances of perceived prescriptivism on the part of its many different users.

A Typology of Non-Standard Uses of the English Plural

By way of a tentative attempt to provide a typology and tolerance guide with regard to this particular feature of the English language, I suggest the following types of non-standard usage of plural/countable forms, presented here in order of increasing acceptability:

[A] Simple grammatical error [*The men is old]

[B] Use of plural form for resiliently uncountable nouns [*?The house has many furnitures]

[C] Over-precision in use of a plural form [?The doctor provided treatments for many patients]

[D] Plural applied for merely decorative purposes [?The school uses a variety of educational technologies]

[E] Plural applied to make an ideological point [?Feminisms in History]

[F] Plural applied for reason of greater accuracy (academic/legal English) [The 18th century saw the publication of numerous histories of England]

For anyone interesting in exploring this topic further, I include a short bibliography.

Bibliography

Aarts, B., Denison, D., Keizer, E., and Popova, G. (Eds.) (2004) Fuzzy Grammar: a reader. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Corbett, G.G. (2004) Number. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Downing, A. and Locke, P. (2006) English Grammar: a university course. Routledge. New York and London.

Gillon, B. S. (1992) “Towards a Common Semantics for English Count and Mass Nouns” in

Linguistics and Philosophy 15(6), pp. 597-639

Hamm, F. and Hinrichs, E. (Eds.) (1998) Plurality and Quantification. Springer. Dordrecht.

Huddleston, R. (1988) English Grammar: an outline. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Huddleston, R. and Pullum, G. K. (2005) A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Jespersen, O. (1949) A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles. Einar Munksgaard and George Allen & Unwin Ltd. Copenhagen and London.

Landman, F. (2011) “Count nouns – mass nouns, neat nouns – mess nouns” in The Baltic International Yearbook of Cognition, Logic and Communication. Volume 6 – Formal Semantics and Pragmatics. Discourse, Context and Models. Retrieved from  https://doi.org/10.4148/biyclc.v6i0.1579   

Logan, C. T. (1941). “The Plural of Uncountables”in American Speech, 16(3), 170. doi:10.2307/486884 

Massam, D. (2012) Count and Mass across Languages. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Murphy, R. (2012) English Grammar in Use: a self-study reference and practice book for intermediate learners of English. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

Pelletier, F. J. (Ed.) (1979) Mass Terms: some philosophical problems. Springer. Dordrecht.

Pelletier, F. J. (Ed.) (2010) Kinds, things, and stuff: mass terms and generics. Oxford University Press. Oxford.  

Sharvy, R. (1978) “Maybe English Has no Count Nouns: Notes on Chinese Semantics” in Studies in Language, 2(3), pp.345–365. doi:10.1075/sl.2.3.04sha 

Sinkko-Latvala, S. (2009) A Study of the Countability of Some Usually Uncountable Nouns in British English from the 16th Century to the Present Day. Master’s Dissertation. University of Tampere, Finland.

Storch, A. and Dimmendaal, G. J. (Eds.) (2014) Number – Constructions and Semantics: case studies from Africa, Amazonia, India and Oceania. John Benjamins Publishing Company. Amsterdam/Philadelphia