May 2021 . . . .


As you who have been reading my monthly vanity for a while may already have surmised, I am fascinated with language. I appreciate the vastness of the English vocabulary, and the nuance and selection offered to us, when we choose to read or talk or write. And I certainly don’t consider it pompous or elitist to use the available resource. In truth, I find it wasteful to leave words on the table in lieu of using pictures and glyphs in our daily communications with each other. Bad enough that we select nipped and tucked thought-lets to begin with, often someone else’s, I fear that for many reasons our year-long physical separation one from another has further edited our communication habits, reducing our patience for what is often disparagingly called long-windedness.

And that appellation certainly belongs to me. I’ve been on Zoom calls — friends getting together regularly or book-studies or with my daughters, and I frequently have to rein myself in. No one, I have deduced, wants to hear anybody unload all of the baggage they carry. We just don’t have the stamina, or like anyone quite that much. Oh, we may love them and deeply, but that’s asking a lot. My wife knows that, and uses the ploy of falling asleep when I go off on tangent after tangent answering the question “what do you have on tap tomorrow? ” My daughters, on the other hand, are kind and treat me as they would, say, a wet dog they found begging at the door. Who’s a good boy?

And so here’s your last warning to turn the page before I regale you with something I found recently. It has to do with the word with which I’ve entitled this ramble. The term “syzygy. ” Here’s how it’s defined from a cut-and-pasted online dictionary entry: 1. (Astronomy) either of the two positions (conjunction or opposition) of a celestial body when sun, earth, and the body lie in a straight line: the moon is at syzygy when full. 2. (Poetry) (in classical prosody) a metrical unit of two feet.

This fascinates me. Syzygy. From the Greek for yoke, union, conjunction. A word that has such diverse meaning is a bit of a unicorn, and great fun. Let’s unpack this. A common syzygy is the spring and neap tides caused by the sun, earth and moon being in syzygy (noticeable to us when the moon is full or new). The astronomy definition is laying out for us that the planets and the sun have their own elegance — they are behaving as they must, not with randomicity. That they can align as they follow their personal ellipses about the so-called center — the sun — reveals that rules are being followed. The harmony of the spheres, as it has been called, is that planets and stars have positioned themselves where they must be. They are right-distanced from one another, moving at the appropriate speed, spinning or not as they must. Evidence of their shifting over eons atop eons, plays this out.

What has this to do with poetry? Let’s see. A poetic syzygy is the alignment of two poetic feet, achieving an alliterative feeling to a phrase. You have to trust me on this. Go and dredge up your old Norton Anthology of Poetry and see for yourself. Whoever coined this term for poetic alignment was thinking about elegance, about the sensibility of this kind of stringing together of words, how well it worked for communicating beauty.

There is a third fragment of a definition that I left out. Any rare pairing, usually of opposites. A tempting tidbit: something to think about. And I think it is right that this should be included in our little semi-academic investigation. I’m no mathematician nor a poetic scholar, but for syzygy to work, I suspect, there must be as much push as pull. The celestial bodies align according to rules of mass and velocity, distance and time. Perhaps they even jiggle into place, like the tumblers of a lock do under the command of a very old key. And words? Endless combination, endless tension gained and released, to make the point.

And herein lies my own point. The truth as I see it, we risk losing the capacity to say what can be said, elegantly or otherwise. We don’t take deep enough breaths, perhaps. Everything seems to be a bark, a dog saying something in one short and mighty woof, and the rest of us only passing that message on down the lane and around the corner.

Make the big statements, say I. Ramble on. Go on a diatribe. I’m with you, along for the ride, seatbelt fastened. Play with structure, be somewhat difficult to follow. Occasionally veer off into the deep weeds.

And while you’re at it — think about this, just for fun: Syzygy is the shortest word in the English language that, when written in cursive, lower-case, has five letters that drop below the line. Five of six, to be precise. Check it out.