Michelle’s Word

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!


March 15, 2007

Not Semi Detached

Filed under: Writing — Michelle Reid @ 8:53 pm

The semicolon is sadly neglected; it should be used more often. It’s a wonderful punctuation mark that enables connection, highlights cause and effect, and helps efficient prose.

The main problem is many people don’t know when to use it. It seems extraneous, stuck halfway between a comma and a full stop, as if it can’t make up its mind. I recall hours of punctuation exercises in primary school, drumming into us the correct use of a comma and full stop, but nothing on the semicolon. “Well aren’t they enough to be getting on with?” By the time we reached secondary school, we were supposed to have mastered basic grammar, and any time spent on punctuation was to shore up those fundamental principles. The semicolon was a luxury we couldn’t afford.

Use more semicolons!

They are more forceful that a puny comma, and more agreeable than the dead-end full stop; they have the power to hold two complete clauses in tension.

The most common use of a semicolon is between two independent clauses that are not connected by a conjunction:

Martin Luther King was a great leader; his speeches were inspiring.

Instead, these clauses could be divided by a full stop and stand alone as separate sentences:

Martin Luther King was a great leader. His speeches were inspiring.

Or they could be linked by a conjunction, in which case a comma is needed:

Martin Luther King was a great leader, and his speeches were inspiring.

The examples show that the semicolon is the most effective way to divide these clauses, as it demonstrates continuity and cause and effect. It indicates that King’s leadership qualities stemmed from his ability to motivate and move his audience.

Splitting the clauses into two sentences with a full stop creates a disjunction and puts a distance between King’s leadership and oratorical skills. Linking the clauses with a conjunction weakens the connection; it seems as if King’s speech-making talents are an afterthought, or secondary to his authority.

A semicolon can be used when independent clauses are linked by an adverb such as accordingly, besides, hence, however, indeed, therefore, or thus:

The kitten failed to make the jump; therefore she started washing herself to regain her dignity.

He was too preoccupied with his camera to notice the approaching herd of wildebeest; hence he was trampled by the stampede.

One exception is in aphoristic sentences where the phrases work better together:

I think therefore I am. Here today gone tomorrow.

A semicolon is also used to separate items in a list, when those items have internal punctuation:

And now for the football results: Everton 3, Liverpool 1; Chelsea 0, West Ham United 1; Manchester United 2, Watford 4 …

The comedian listed the unfortunate events: He fell down the stairs three at a time, before being kicked by the goat; he lost his footing when he stood-up, slipping on the banana skin; finally he came to rest inches from his mother-in-law, who was scowling down at him.

Happy semicolon using!

Sesame Street was brought to you today by the semicolon, The Chicago Manual of Style, Martin Luther King, a small kitten, unlikely Premiership results, Mr Strunk and Mr White, and a series of unfortunate events.

February 19, 2007

My secret double life as a romance writer

Filed under: Writing — Michelle Reid @ 11:02 am

Valentine’s Day has gone – thank goodness – but I thought I’d put a little bit of romance into your lives on this dreary February.

It all started when I searched for myself on Google and found I’d inadvertently written 26 novels…

OK I’m cheating, it is my namesake Michelle Reid, a romance writer for Harlequin Mills and Boon.


She grew up in Manchester where “Rough, tough, down-to-earth common sense was the main tool of survival not fanciful dreams of love and romance with the happy-ever-after prize at the end.” Her mother opened her mind to reading, and she soon became fascinated by the romantic conflicts and journeys threaded through the works of the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, and of “the great and sparkling queen of Regency Romance Georgette Heyer.”

It was strange to see the familiar shape of my own name on the cover of 26 romance books, and it made me confront some of my prejudices against romantic fiction. Having studied science fiction at university, I’m used to combating assumptions about the dirty worlds of genre writing. I’ll happily defend sf, mysteries, horror, and fantasy against the snobbishness of the literary establishment, but romance, that’s full of sexist cliches about rippling muscles and pounding waves. Or is it? How many romance novels have I read recently? What do I know about the genre?

Something Michelle Reid wrote in her biography made me reconsider: “I find there is something really satisfying in tracking two people through the trials and tribulations of falling in love. These days everyone is so busy with their careers etc. that they don’t seem to have enough time left to dedicate to the more personal side of their lives so conflicts arise.” Romance is about escapism and the happy ending, but it is also about the journey, the growing self-awareness of the characters, and the ways in which they act towards each other. There is a strong sense of morality; the characters have to earn or realise their happiness. This is perhaps a parallel to the chivalric codes that shaped medieval romances.

Arthurian stories, Gothic novels, fantasy fiction, historical novels, scientific/planetary romance, the female bildungsroman or coming-of-age novels: they are all linked to genre romance, and so am I. The familiarity of my name and the sense of being shaped by those letters gives me a connection to my romance-writing namesake. It has brought me closer to romance novels, and it is inspiring to see the recognisable pattern of our shared name on their covers.

February 9, 2007

Writers have rights too!

Filed under: Writing — Michelle Reid @ 4:30 pm

The main advice given to writers is to write. WRITE, WRITE, WRITE, WRITE and keep WRITING.

Both Neil Gaiman and Stephen King give very good advice. They are supportive and encouraging, but there is always the steely backbone glinting through; finish what you write.

I like Neil Gaiman’s statement, “On the whole, anything that gets you writing and keeps you writing is a good thing. Anything that stops you writing is a bad thing.” This is both a comforting permission and a deceptively simple piece of advice. How do we know what stops us writing until it does, and what then?

In On Writing, Stephen King cuts through the bullshit and cuts back to the bones of exciting plot. That visceral excitement of writing. He says, “But if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well – settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on.” (p.163)

Thanks Stephen! This kick up the backside works on some days, but what about the days when it doesn’t – ignore it. Walk away and trust yourself.

People are quick to criticise writers for not writing, not finishing, for dreaming about getting published, and for not being good enough. What about the credit for taking the risk in the first place.

To write is to be courageous and to put a piece of yourself out there on the page. Once it is there, the power lies with the reader to do with it what they will. What about the writer who made that bridge of words? They deserve respect for that act of reaching out to the reader.

This was inspired by Daniel Pennac’s wonderfully liberating book The Rights of the Reader. Thank you Daniel for telling me that it is alright to read in the ways I always have, but never knew I was allowed to. I will never feel guilty for not finishing a book anymore.

Writers should know that they have the same freedom:

The Rights of the Writer

1. The right not to write

2. The right to write about anything and everything

3. The right not to finish what you write

4. The right to break grammatical rules (including the right to use clichés if they work!)

5. The right to prefer what you write to “real life”

6. The right to experiment in writing

7. The right to write it down in any form

8. The right to show your writing to no one

9. The right to show your writing to everyone

10. The right to stuff the word count

11. The right to take only the advice you want to take

12. The right to dream

And one warning – don’t advise writers to just write…they know this, and it is never about just writing.

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