Archive for the 'Language' Category

‘An homage’?

February 4, 2016

Snakeskin has writers and readers from all over the world. We only print poems in English, but English, of course, is a variable language. It has its dialects, its slangs and its local peculiarities, And is all the richer for it. Sometimes this variety throws up interesting issues.

I’ve received, for example, a couple of questioning notes about a phrase in Daniel M. Shapiro’s poem in the February issue. Daniel writes:

We whispered, unplugged,
an homage to Wicked Lester days.

‘Surely that should be “a homage”? ‘  my correspondents suggest.

That’s what I thought, too. Or maybe, I wondered, Daniel meant the French word, ‘hommage’, with the emphasis on the second syllable. It’s a term used by film critics when one director steals an idea from another. And, being unaspirated, it takes ‘an’.

I checked with Daniel and guest-editor Jessy Randall. Both are from Philadelphia, and say that ‘an homage’ (with the stress on ‘hom’) is standard pronunciation in those parts. Other Americans don’t recognise the phenomenon, but that seems to be how they say it in Philadelphia.

Despite Daniel’s generously offering to allow the change, I decided to keep the ‘an’. This is how he hears the poem spoken, after all, and that matters.

I very rarely suggest changes to the language of poems submitted to Snakeskin. I correct spellings and tidy punctuation where necessary, but don’t go further than that. If the poem doesn’t work for me as submitted, I generally just say ‘No thanks.’ The main exceptions come (and there are no more than two or three instances a year) when I can see a good shorter poem struggling to escape from a longer one. Sometimes, for example, I might say that I would print the poem except for the last verse which added nothing to an otherwise interesting piece. Or once, I said that I would be interested in printing a poem if the poet removed all the adjectives that were clogging up the lines. But such occasions are rare.

I’m English, and yes, my ear is attuned to the English way of speaking. In twenty years of Snakeskin, though, I’ve got used to other dialects and accents. Sometimes I’m offered a poem that rhymes perfectly if you say it in an Australian accent, but not in a British one. No worries. I can cope with that, and expect my readers to.

Daniel’s ‘an homage’, though, reminds me that the language is more various than I’d supposed. If that’s his way of speaking, then that’s how the poem should read.


Do readers, coming across that phrase, and thinking it odd, get their attention directed away from the poem to a detail that has little relation to what the poem is saying? If it’s distracting, should it be standardised? What do you think?




Bad writing

January 16, 2013

I enjoyed this analysis of Dan Brown’s worst sentences.

Poetic Phonetic

August 21, 2012

I’ve just received an interesting submission from Snakeskin poet Bryan Murphy. He has sent in a ghazal (“Whatever Can”)  in syllabics – seventeen syllables per line. Since syllable counts don’t always come out the same in different accents, he has sent  the poem in the phonetic alphabet, to demonstrate how it sounds in his (Southern urban British) accent. Here it is – those who can’t manage phonetics will have to wait till the September issue, to read it in more orthodox orthography:

bʊlz aɪ ɔn diː nəʊ tei ʃən jʊː fɪks ðɪː ʌn də miː nɪŋ pəː fɪkt staːt
ðɛn trænz leit mɔː feil tʊː ɜː lɪ tə reit ðʌs bɪ trei jɔː pəː fɪkt aːt
kʌt fæb sez ðə bɔs jə nɔt ʃʊə hɪːz dʌn rəʊlz ðə nekst siːn fæb ə gɛn
jə feis jə ɪm ɪdʒ ɔn scriːn krɪndʒ ət ðə hæm nɛ və jə pəː fikt paːt
brænd njuː stjuː diə jə vɔis swɪŋz wɪð ðɪː ɪn strəː mənts tʃaimz wɪð ðə kaun təz
ðei kɔːl jə bæk rə zʌlt ə mɛs tɛk mɪs teiks smæʃt jə pəː fɪkt bəʊ gaːt
naʊ jɔː ðə dai rɛk tə jə æk təz ə greit straik ɔːl jə lɔŋ sɔːt nəʊts
ðə friː zɪŋ θɪə təz ɛmp tɪ nəs hɪts jə ai laik ə pəː fɪkt θrəʊn daːt
ɛ pɪ də məl ɛks tə sɪː dʌv tei lɪŋ maindz dʒɔi ɪn fɔː ɪː tʃʌ ðə
ðɛn jə wəːd aut əv pleis sɛts bæk hə səːtʃ fə jə faː frəm pəː fɪkt haːt
jə əʊn wəːdz nau jə kən duː ɪt diː nəʊ kɔ nəʊ ə lɪt bʌt kliː ʃei
məː fiːz lɔː sʌn miːnz jəl nɛ və wrait wɛl ɪn ʌf fə ðis pəː fɪkt aːt


February 19, 2011

Helena Nelson has just sent me a couple of interesting-looking pamphlets to review for Sphinx.
She also enclosed a set of reviewing guidelines, indicating some of the cliches and awkwardnesses to be avoided by reviewers – ‘edgy’, ‘promising’, ‘epiphanies’, vague comparisons with other poets, specialist technical terms like parataxis, and so on. With these strictures in mind, I have sent her the following review:

‛Epiphanies’ is by Linda Beige
(Her début, eagerly awaited).
This new voice, full of edgy rage,
Is spiritual, yet understated.

Her parataxes (bold yet free)
Make her a Geoffrey Hill with bells on.
She promises one day to be
A brainier Helena Nelson.

Both Larkinesque and Eliotic,
Yet subtly sui generis
With  her command of street-demotic,
Miss Beige is one to watch. Don’t miss!


You can read Helena’s complete list of reviewers’ clichés here:

Also – see Tim Love on the language of reviews, at:


January 6, 2011

A lot of inexperienced trainee poets send examples of their work to Snakeskin. We are always pleased to receive it, but they may be interested in this list of things likely to annoy an editor.

1. Sending fifty poems in a batch.
The editor will use two or three at most. If he starts wading through a huge batch and finds them not very interesting, he may never reach the good one you put at the end. On the other hand, he may choose the three best, and ignore the rest. Whereas, if you had sent half a dozen, he might have chosen two or three from that selection, and would have been open-minded about the six more that you sent the next month.

2.Pointless fancy formatting.
About once a week we receive batch of poems that are centre-justified. Why? This makes them hard to read, and really does not impress. One can’t help suspecting that the author is not very aware of how poems are usually printed…
Fancy formatting can have a positive role, and if it somehow relates to the poet’s subject or style (I’m thinking of George Herbert’s The Altar) then that’s fine: Read the rest of this entry »

Typography Animation

January 23, 2010

Thanks to Bruce Bentzman for alerting me to the ‘Typography’ animation by Ronnie Bruce, based on a poem by Taylor Mali. A lovely piece of work. I’d like to see some visual poem-interpretations like this in Snakeskin. Click on the image to see it:


January 23, 2010

How do you choose which poetry books to buy?  Joan Houlihan, who has a sharp eye for cliché, has written a good article on how to sample the contents of a book, either in a bookshop, or making use of the Amazon ‘Look Inside’ feature.:

She makes an interesting point about the way sampling and pick’nmix could be the future of poetry:

As we move into the next decade, it seems very likely that a subset of all published poetry will, like music, become readily experienced or viewed for free, and that readers will “sample” poems and make any buying decisions based on these samples. Readers will become sophisticated enough in their own judgments, or tuned in enough to trusted recommenders wherever and however encountered, and soon the disappearance of reviews in mainstream periodicals won’t be missed. It may even turn out that the book of poems as physical object no longer holds us, cannot maintain its presence through the next ten years, cannot justify its 65 or more pages of poems all bound into one place—we might instead purchase only 5 or 10 poems at once, or a “mixed tape” of poems we love, or a subset of poems by a favorite poet. The packaging and distribution mechanisms are already in place; we, the readers, will only need to become proficient at making our own selections. Just be sure to read the first lines before you buy.


January 20, 2010

I’m rather proud of the fact that Snakeskin gets poetry submissions from all over the world, but I get a bit confused when the verses come from someone who rather obviously does not have English for a first language.

I once asked a correspondent from one of the smaller Russian republics: “Why on earth are you writing in English and not in your own language?”. The reply was: “Nobody speaks my language.”

Since her language was not Eyak, this was not literally true. A Wikipedia check suggested that there were several million speakers of her language.  Maybe what she meant was: “There is nobody who speaks my language who would listen to what I say, and there would be no chance of publishing my poems in my language.”

Well, the Internet makes it possible for anyone to put their thoughts and feelings in the public domain quite easily, and I suggested that she had a go. She might have been surprised by the response, and could well have discovered some kindred spirits.

But perhaps what she really meant was: “I don’t feel as though I belong to the community who speak my language. I belong to a wider global community, and the sign of being global is to speak English, therefore I write my poems in English, to proclaim my true identity.” Read the rest of this entry »