For example

Still mulling about how language changes and whether or not I agree with Emerson:

“Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Well, maybe not the tropes’ poetic origin but the words’ cultural origin. Their social origins, because language is inherent in human culture–we must communicate to survive. And if that means language includes words with violent origins or male hierarchical origins or race supremacist origins or nationalistic origins, the words cannot so easily be erased. We use them as they are, regardless of their nasty backgrounds, tropes and metaphors and all. An accretion of meanings alters the words as cultures evolve and change.

That doesn’t mean we should not critique or examine our words.

In a decade or two, terms change. Jargon, technology, politics, culture all exert forces on how we say what we mean. Here’s an example from my own experience as a creative writer. I wrote a poem in 1983 (published in a journal I cannot at the moment recall), a poem about yearning, in which the speaker observes a male-bodied person who dresses as a female. In 1983, the most respectful word to use for such a person was “transvestite.” Hence the title I chose for the poem: “Transvestite on the Long Island Ferry, July.”

Perhaps the person in the poem was not transvestite but transgender (though that was very rare in 1983)–or “gender-fluid.” In my poem, the observer/speaker uses the pronoun “she.” The observer can only speculate and does so on the speaker’s terms. Without the word transvestite in the title, the poem could be more generally understood–as, say, an older speaker watching a young female.

As the writer of this poem, I’m not going to revise its terminology; but I might change the title if I were ever publish it in a collection (this poem, nearly 40 years past its composition, has not appeared in any of my books). Given that, here it is–with a change in title and nothing else. What do readers think?


On the Long Island Ferry, July
She leans against the deck rail,
  her red dress an amaryllis
    in a khaki sea.
I notice she is unfamiliar with the problem
  of holding a dress down over her backside
    while keeping the wide white sunhat in place—
and what to do with the matching bag?
  That kind of awkwardness
    marks her as an amateur.
I think, she wants womanliness
  like in the movies—
    La Dolce Vita, maybe—
she hasn’t learned, yet, about women.
  I could laugh at her impression,
    but I understand her longing.
She stays at the rail, struggling to enjoy flirtation,
  the barfly wind pestering her relentlessly,
    Hey honey, wanna go out?
Boozy breezes disarrange her hair,
  grab at her panties,
    try steering her to a quiet corner.
But she stays put. I sympathize with her need
  to drink in the restless waters of the Sound,
    feeling new in her body: bright, swirling, real.
I watch her from Bridgeport to Long Island
  with a kind of envy, unable to recall
    the last time I longed for anything so completely.


Hymns & yearning

Around 1996, my friend and colleague Alla Borzova, a contemporary classical composer of considerable talent, asked me to help her “trans-literate” the libretto of her cantata Majnun Songs from Russian into English. She had composed the piece in Russian, so the English version had to fit the existing music. The cantata is based on the story, made famous in the Arabic world through the works of the poet Nizami, of Majnun and Layla…a story of abiding, and forbidden, love. Majnun, “Madman,” finds his purest self through this unrequited love for Layla as he wanders the desert creating poems praising his beloved.

One selection of Borzova’s cantata that I particularly love is called, simply, “Hymn.”

A hymn is a song, either of praise or worship, usually both. We may worship a god or many gods; or a beloved, human or non-human; or a value or other abstract concept (generally personified) such as nationhood. In this case, the poet worships his Layla.

Wiktionary says–and I have checked several other sources–that the word “hymn” derives from Middle English ymne, borrowed from Old French ymne, from Latin hymnus, borrowed from Ancient Greek ὕμνος (húmnos). Links courtesy of Wiktionary. The húmnos was part of ritual and sung to praise gods or heroes, but the ode genre easily lent itself to songs praising a loved one or merging the idea of human passion with a “higher” passion. Which is one way to read The Song of Songs attributed to Solomon, and which is one way some readers have interpreted the Majnun cycles as well: relating the sexual-passion-into-spiritual-purity to religious fervor, by analogy.

This seems a particularly human level of the consciousness continuum: the ability to blend several similar relationship ideas, as is so obvious in our uses of symbols, metaphors, analogies and similes. The resulting hymns can be wildly transcendent, alloys of passion, lyric poetry, imagery, rhythm, and tones when the music melds with the rest. Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” as presented by Beethoven, for example. Few hymns attain such a pinnacle, but the effective ones–religious and secular–reach listeners in a way similar to the best poetry and create the same kind of surprising prickle in the mind and body. It may be a sense of glory or a sense of awe, or a sudden shiver of beauty, unity, or wholeness, or an indescribable feeling of love greater than oneself, or the awareness of a keen yearning.

Yearning seems to me to be the over-arching tone in Borzova’s “Hymn.” In this two-minute piece, what comes through is a yearning for the beloved so deeply and for so long that what finally matters is not the being-together but love itself–eternal.

You can listen to it here:


In what ways, and through what means, do we relate our lives, our selves, and our world to love? There’s a question I have lately been meditating upon.

Redbud leaf in fall


For about as long as I can remember, my favorite Christmas carol has been “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

Today, as I listened to an instrumental version scored in a baroque style, I had an insight as to why I have such fondness for the piece. Partly, the appeal is the antiquity of the tone: the carol is quite old, veni veni featuring in sacred songs as far back as 8th-century antiphons, though most sources I’ve checked cite the version we know as dating from the 12th-15th c.

Hence its minor key and simple “sing-ability.” I’m not a good singer myself, but I can sing this carol. The range works for most of us.

But that wasn’t what struck me this morning as the music surrounded me in my car en route to work. What I noticed—felt, in my marrow—is the sense of yearning in this carol. There is something particularly human in the minor-key longing for release, relief, joy, escape, liberty, union with a beloved other, desire that is both physical and spiritual, the yearning for renewal. Not hope but the desire, the longing for hope.

This sense resides in the tune itself, not just in the words of the carol whether Latin or French or English. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!” in the text I know best is translated by John Mason Neale and Henry Sloane Coffin, yet the heart-breaking anticipation this carol captures for me has less to do with the rephrasing of Isaiah than with the poignancy of the musical prayer it evokes in me. A sigh, a wisp of possible exultation that is not exactly a promise I can understand but which stays inside me waiting to be awakened.

For various reasons, that yearning for hope resonates with me this year. And always.

Ann E. Michael