Textuality

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One memorable quatrain

November 10, 2011 The American Naturalist poet Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn (1876-1959) wrote and published verse throughout her life, but only one snippet of hers, a solitary gem of a stanza from a satirical poem about child labor, is widely known and quoted. It is indeed a zinger:

The golf links lie so near the mill,
That almost every day,
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.

Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) is supposed to have written some 10,000 stanzas of about that size — 30 years’ worth if he was putting a quatrain a day on his blog. It was a splendid feat in itself, and one he buttressed with notable accomplishments in astronomy, mathematics, medicine, diplomacy, and so on. He was, in short, a very tiresome man, considering that he had to work without the benefit of Wikipedia, probably with sand in his eyes much of the time, and still accomplished more of note than we would regard as medically advisable today. Even discounting the rest — the parts he probably viewed as important — an oeuvre of 10,000 verses goes far beyond normal limits of prudence, taste and safety.

For the modern immortality-seeking wordsmith, Sarah Cleghorn is a much more inspiring example. You never know when you’re going to strike it lucky and come out with that one memorable quatrain.

Writing lessons from Saltbush Bill

November 7, 2011 Good clear expository writing can take a lot of forms. Here’s a beautiful example from the start of “Saltbush Bill” by A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson (1864-1941), an Australian poet who romanticized the Outback much as Robert W. Service romanticized the Klondike.

The ballad describes a fistfight between Saltbush Bill, a drover, and a ‘new chum’ from England, a squatter. The droving profession entailed driving large numbers of sheep across miles of inhospitable outback terrain, and delivering as many as possible alive. The squatter, whose vast property the drovers would cross, wanted his own grass for his own stock. The scene was ripe for violence — and for regulation. The law of the day laid out the necessarily quantitative compromise between the drovers’ and squatters’ interests that forms the background for Paterson’s story. In a couple of deft introductory verses, he puts you in the picture, laying out precisely the letter of the law, the cross-currents of interest that it represents, and what happens ‘on the ground’. How dry this could have been:

Now this is the law of the Overland that all in the West obey —
A man must cover with travelling sheep a six-mile stage a day;
But this is the law which the drovers make, right easily understood,
They travel their stage where the grass is bad, but they camp where the grass is good;
They camp, and they ravage the squatter’s grass till never a blade remains,
Then they drift away as the white clouds drift on the edge of the saltbush plains;
From camp to camp and from run to run they battle it hand to hand
For a blade of grass and the right to pass on the track of the Overland.

For this is the law of the Great Stock Routes, ‘tis written in white and black —
The man that goes with a travelling mob must keep to a half-mile track;
And the drovers keep to a half-mile track on the runs where the grass is dead,
But they spread their sheep on a well-grassed run till they go with a two-mile spread.
So the squatters hurry the drovers on from dawn till the fall of night,
And the squatters’ dogs and the drovers’ dogs get mixed in a deadly fight.

And thus into the story… Like many of Paterson’s poems, this one is well worth reading. It is available at Project Gutenberg. If you have time, check out “The Geebung Polo Club”, “The Man From Ironbark” and “Mulga Bill’s Bicycle” as well, or the better-known and more serious “Clancy of the Overflow” and “The Man From Snowy River”.

Eric Idle’s “Galaxy Song” from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life is another great example of this kind of writing.