Michelle’s Word

September 8, 2007

A Tale of the Town and Gown

Filed under: alliteration,running,Speaking — Michelle Reid @ 3:19 pm

Legs like lead and lungs like beached fish.
Five kilometres in front, a far-off horizon.
Thoughts throng in my skull-pan, “Why put myself through this?
I’m a swimmer, not a land-lolloper, running isn’t my sport.”

Back to the beginning, the boyfriend’s bargain was broached.
“Come running with the crew, a collection of colleagues.
You’re fit and healthy, and could boost our brave band.
We’re warriors-all and want to win the work trophy.”
Flattered and cajoled, I conceded to the cries,
And embarked on my training, an epic endeavour:
The Town and Gown was the target, a 10K in May.

January jogging: Winter showers and street lamps pass by too slowly.
February follows: Bitter breezes bit my ankles and kept my feet flying.
March milestones: Targets are reached and muscles are tightening.
April anxieties: Have I practiced enough to prevent piercing pains?

Race-morning arrives, the streets are deserted;
A quiet descends with cars kept at bay.
Through Oxford streets a brave few are filing, we follow after, footfalls in time,
Gathering momentum, drawn to the magnet, we head together to the start in the park.
On the field of battle, we hail our fellows.
Tell tales of our training and tighten our laces.
Stretching, shaking and shuffling we sort to the start.

We’re lined up and numbered, ready to be counted.
The start rope is straining, we’re waiting for….


The floodgates released, and freed runners surge onwards
Striding and jostling, jousting for space
Fast, fast, and faster, we’re swept up with the others
Past the Pitt Rivers, past Wadham, down Longwall, onto the High Street and into the town…

My race strategies discarded like used water cups.
Blood pounds in my ears, searing heat fills my legs.
My friends are all lost, either lagging or leading.
So here’s where you joined me, halfway and flagging
Regretting a run-away rhythm that led me astray.

Oh sod this…why am I doing this again? I have had just about enough of running, it’s like alliteration, it gets really wearing after a bit.

Out of step, out of kilter, going awkwardly backward.
Remember the reasons for this running battle.
The charity, the challenge, colleagues and camaraderie.
Digging deeper I find I can drag my feet onward
A lumbering lope, more effective than elegant
Foot after foot, determinedly forwards.

Time and tired runners tick-by as I start to pick up
Parks swing into sight and a sigh of relief,
Then a groan of dismay…a man in a gorilla suit just went past me.
Ignoring the ignominy, the end is in sight.
Rounding the corner, wall of sound down the straight,
Cheers and applause as I stagger to a sprint.
Finally the finish, falling and flailing.
Fifty five minutes, a fine full effort.

We gather together and recount all our stories,
Hailing our heroes and marking the day,
My boyfriend beat his boss, so his smile is beaming.
We warriors head pub-wards for pints and for banter.

Later, the track has been cleared, times totted up and the sponsorship counted
What is the verdict passed down from on high..…

We emerge victors, the best corporate team!


August 25, 2007

Alliterative Verse, or Unleash the Onions of War!

Filed under: alliteration,Gawain,onions,Speaking,Writing — Michelle Reid @ 4:08 pm

Sentences stuffed with words starting with the same syllable soon sound silly.

Alliteration is a cheap trick; it makes you sound like you’ve escaped from Sesame Street, or from the pages of a child’s first alphabet book. There is something patronising and contrived about copious corresponding consonants. Yes, we know some words happen to start with the same letter, and yes, you can put them together, but it’s probably best if you don’t.

Does this mean we should cast aside all alliteration as childish?

No, alliterative verse has an entirely different word-weave; it uses the sounds of language to dramatic and subtle effect, conveying violence, vulgarity, delicateness, and pain. It’s a form of verse that uses alliteration as the main way of structuring and unifying the text, as opposed to other devices such as rhyme. Alliterative verse can be flexible, textured, rhythmic, and epic.

Alliterative verse was commonly used in early Germanic languages, and it characterises the poetic traditions of Anglo Saxon and Norse writing. Texts like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are written in alliterative verse.

In alliterative verse each line is divided into two phrases (hemistiches) and they are connected by the same consonant sound being repeated (pivot) from the first phrase into the second phrase. There are also a lot of other complicated rules about stresses and lifts and dips, but these are expertly explained in great detail on the Linking Letters site.

In Old English alliterative verse there tends to be only one pivot in each phrase, but in later Middle English alliterative verse there are usually two in the first phrase and one in the second, as shown by this example from the opening of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut / wat3 sesed at Troye,
Þe bor3 brittened and brent / to bronde3 and aske3,
Þe tulk þat þe trammes / of tresoun þer wro3t
Watz tried for his tricherie, / þe trewest on erþe

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was one of the first texts I studied at university and it has become one of my favourite books because of the rich tapestry of the language, the way the sounds of the words are used to such varied effect, and the elegant story telling in which the narrator deftly controls the passage of time. (There are also great scenes where the Lord is out on the Christmas Hunt, and Gawain is left in the castle to be “hunted” by the Lord’s wife, well…Gawain has this effect on ladies!)

There are three excerpts from the text that stay in my mind:

Þat þe scharp of þe schalk schyndered þe bones,
And schrank þur3 þe schyire grece, and schade hit in twynne,

[the sharp weapon cleaved his bones, and sank through the fair flesh, severing it in two: ll.424-25]

This depicts Gawain chopping off the head of the Green Knight as part of the Knight’s Christmas bargain. You can hear the splintering of bone and scraping of metal through flesh so graphically in the harsh “sch” sounds.

With mony brydde3 vnblyþe vpon bare twyges,
Þat pitosly þer piped for pyne of þe colde.

[Many mournful birds upon their bare branches, piping pathetically there, in pain from the cold: ll.746-77]

This describes the hardships that Gawain faced in his journey to find the Green Knight; a journey which takes him past the isle of Anglesey and Holy Head where I was born. The thin reedy ‘pi’ sounds convey the bitter cold and high pitched twittering of the shivering birds.

Chalkwhyt chymnees þer ches he inno3e
Vpon bastel roue3, þat blenked ful quyte;
So mony pynakle payntet wat3 poudred ayquere,
Among þe castel carnele3 clambred so þik,
Þat pared out of papure purely hit semed.

[He perceived there many chimneys as pale as chalk
Gleaming whitely upon the tower roofs
So many painted pinnacles were scattered everywhere
Clustering so thickly amongst the embrasures of the castle
That it looked just as if were cut out of paper: ll.798-802]

This is Gawain’s first sight of the Lord’s castle. It describes the intricate detail of the building which is an imposing fortress, but also pure white with many modern and delicate architectural features. It conveys its mirage-like quality for Gawain, who, after his long journey, isn’t sure if the castle is real, or merely a flimsy vision.

The other form of word-wrangling involved in alliterative verse is the use of kennings. Kennings are cunning little metaphoric phrases that describe something by linking two of its attributes together. They are very common in alliterative verse, especially in Anglo Saxon, Celtic, and Norse literature, where common kennings became traditional fixed formulas. They are like mini riddles and often contain allusions to myths.

In Beowulf the sea is described as the whale-road, which captures the vastness of the sea, as well as the desire to travel and navigate across this expansive road. Other kennings include:
breaker of trees = the wind
raven-harvest = corpse
slaughter dew = blood

My personal favourite has to be ONION OF WAR to mean a sword! Hmmm – how are swords like onions….they both sting if you cut yourself with them? If anyone could explain the reasoning behind this, or a source for it, I would be a gift-giver of gratefulness.

Anyway, my next speech for the Oxford Speakers Club focuses on choosing the right words, which is exactly what alliterative verse is about; tapping into the texture and sounds of language. Alliterative verse originated as an oral verse form, so the linking of letters and use of common kennings is supposed to be memorable and flexible for the performer to retell. Using the rhythmic repetition of consonants is also said to mirror the natural stresses and patterns of speech more freely than other verse forms structured by rhyme and meter. I’ve decided to put this to the test and give my next speech in the form of an alliterative verse about running the Town and Gown 10k; it was a suitably epic endeavour to deserve description in an heroic verse form – I’ll let you know how I get on!

June 5, 2007

I Want to Fail Better

Filed under: Failing,Learning,Speaking — Michelle Reid @ 5:23 pm

Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.

I see this quotation by the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett everyday. It’s emblazoned on the wall outside a lecture theatre at the University of Reading. As I pass by, I always wonder what does it mean to “fail better”?

So I want to work out what this means, calling on some illustrious companions…Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Bob Dylan…to help overturn your perceptions of failure.

American inventor, Thomas Edison, is credited with saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

This confidence in the process of experimentation and exploration is what I try to convey in my job as a study adviser at Reading. Often students get their essays back and get a lower mark than they expected, so they come to us for answers: “What do I need to do to get better marks?” Straight away, I fail to meet their expectations, as I tell them there is no elusive secret to getting higher marks. Then we begin a process of trial and error helping the student understand why and how they learn best. Often it means seeing things in a different light, like thinking of an essay like navigating a river.

This change in perception is part of “failing better”. We normally have a narrow conception of success – a flat mark on a piece of paper, and all the rest is consigned to the rubbish bin of not- quite- right. In which case we’re all failing most of the time; it’s a normal state. Rather than constantly not being good enough, better to look at it as a liberation and a process of being allowed to experiment.

But the way students like the neat security of the right answer made me wonder how we learn more generally.

Einstein said “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

Have you thought about how you react when you have to do something new?

Are you a performance targeted learner – Someone who wants to learn in order to win the prize. Performance learners use strategic methods, and calculate exactly what they have to do in order to achieve, then do no more.

Or are you a mastery targeted learner – Someone who learns, not for the sake of winning rewards, but to foster a deep understanding. Mastery learners tend to take risks and try harder tasks.

Learning is all about falling over and getting back up again, but the British education system breeds performance targeted learners and instils a real fear of failure. However, recognising and defusing this fear can help people learn. To give an example, I was at a workshop on running given by Malcolm Balk a Canadian athlete. We were in a circle and had to balance on one leg. We all concentrated on not teetering and looking foolish, until Malcolm told us all to look up and outwards; to delight in the fact that someone opposite us was balancing worse than we were. We all laughed because we each thought we were the worst, and we were all secretly sizing up how everyone else was doing. Bringing this fear into the open diffused the tension; we could sympathise with each other’s anxiety, so we allowed ourselves to fail better and fall better.

What about learning public speaking…it’s one of the most scary thing to learn. Why? Because every time we get up to speak, we fail. You can’t understand exactly what I’m trying to say (or write), because what’s in my head is filtered through my words, then filtered by your ears, and then processed by your minds.

Let me demonstrate: I say the word “Dog”

…and you’re all thinking different things now, from preening poodles to gangling greyhounds, and all strange associations connected to the word dog that I don’t really want to go into! Language fails because the symbols “D-O-G” are an arbitrary label, there is no inherent connection between them and the idea of a dog, or the thing which is a dog. That’s great because interpretation and imagination slip into these gaps. Yet when we communicate we’re always trying to bridge these gaps in language, so we’re striving to fail better.

“Failing better” means broadening ideas of success, overcoming the fear of learning, and enjoying the imperfections of communication.

We have solved Beckett’s puzzle, but there’s this other quotation that’s been bothering me. It’s a lyric from Bob Dylan’s song Love Minus Zero No Limit: “there’s no success like failure / And failure’s no success at all.”Now what does that mean?

(This is a version of a speech I gave a few weeks ago at The Oxford Speakers Club. Thank you to everyone at the club who gave me really helpful feedback on it. The audience seemed to appreciate the message, so I thought I’d share it with you guys!)

February 1, 2007

Speaking without a parachute

Filed under: Speaking — Michelle Reid @ 5:40 pm

On Tuesday I joined the Oxford Speakers Club. Although I’m very much at home with words when they’re safely written down on paper, when I speak in front of an audience, my sentences tend to run away with themselves. I feel as if I’m flying without a parachute.

I like the control that writing gives, with the chance to draft and redraft, but it is exhilarating to talk in front of a group and build a rapport with your audience. It is terrifying as well!

Of course, spontaneity when speaking in public develops with practice. Some people make it seem effortless; an innate art that comes from charisma and confidence. Yet I don’t think anyone is born a public speaker.

The best speakers in the group know their material really well and have learned the tricks of keeping going. They have “signposts” in their speeches, like repetition, questions, gestures, or key words, which give them a structure to work with, and highlight the important points for the audience.

In the club, we all have the chance to improve our spontaneous speaking with the “table topics” at the beginning of each meeting. People are chosen at random to speak on a topic for two minutes with no preparation. The topics can be as varied and humorous as describing ladies tights, talking about things beginning with the letter “B”, or advocating why a certain part of the body is better than others!

It’s a scary kind of fun, but we are all in the same position and everyone is friendly and supportive.

Three things that I have learned from watching table topics:

Don’t fret: The most successful spontaneous speakers are the ones that don’t think! This doesn’t mean they don’t think about what they are saying, but they are focused on the moment itself and what they will say next. Crucially, they don’t think about their nerves or the awe of being in front of an audience. They avoid that double-awareness, “Oh no I have no idea what to say, and just look at all those people out there,” which could hamper the fluency of their speech. I guess this is similar to the advice given to novice climbers: “Don’t look down!”

Formal is friendly: Having a structure is a comforting framework, especially in a spontaneous speech when you don’t know what you are going to say, but you do know that you want a definite introduction, middle, and conclusion; it is something to hold on to. The comforting structure also comes from the way the meetings are conducted. The Oxford Speakers Club is very friendly, but the meetings have a set formal structure. The formality makes each session more friendly, because nothing is unexpected and there is plenty of time to clap each speaker and give positive support.

Feedback comes in threes: One table topic evaluator advised that a good way to give constructive feedback is: Commend, recommend, commend, meaning, first give positive encouragement, followed by a suggestion for improvement, then end with positive reassurance. This stayed with me, as I have a tendency to commend then recommend, but don’t end on a positive note which can “lift” the person who is receiving the advice. I am trying to apply this three-part model to all the feedback I give now.

I’ve only been to two meetings and I haven’t spoken at a table topic session yet. I know I’ll be nervous, but I can’t wait for the thrill of getting up there and going for it!

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