As a freelance book editor and published author, I live in an ocean of words. They’re forever pouring into my head, flooding out through my fingers. I spend my mornings editing books for beginning writers who had nifty ideas but minimal writing skills. This is work I love, though occasionally I read something that’s so awful or so funny that I just want to bang my head against my monitor. Because I also write book reviews and articles for several magazines and regular column for SageWoman, I often spend my afternoons doing my own writing. Watch me bang my head against the monitor as I try to think of the best way to say what I mean. In addition, this fall I am rewriting my whole web site (we’ll start putting it up when Mercury goes direct) and editing a long, long novel that I want my literary agent to send to a good publisher. Some days I feel like I’m drowning in words. But you know what? If it’s possible to breathe underwater, then I’m doing it.
Some years ago, I wrote a book called Finding New Goddesses (ECW Press, 2003). Found goddesses are modern goddesses we invent. We make them up because the old familiar gods and goddesses just aren’t equipped to cope with the modern world. Who, for example, is in charge of car repairs? Anything to do with computers? That’s why we need the Found goddesses. Writing the book was enormous fun because I got to make up new words and write wretched verse and use puns on every page. Here is Verbena, Goddess of Wordplay and Really Awful Verse.
“I don’t get no respect,” Verbena complains, and it’s true. Worship of this inconspicuous but divinatory Goddess has been likened to addiction. Falling under Her spell is contracting an infectious disease. Once you start punning, they say, you just can’t stop.
Playing with words is a form of self-abuse that can start in childhood with little jokes picked up on Sesame Street. Or a child can be infected by an adult, who, finding an infant not wearing shoes, maliciously inquires, “Are you a barefoot boy or a boyfoot bear?”
Then it spreads. Some little ones are taken to Dr. Seuss, but instead of offering a cure, he actually makes it worse. It was Seuss, maker-up of words, who took the French verb grincher to name that green fellow who tried to steal Christmas.
The next stage is Muppetry, which is truly communicable, and if verbal frolic is allowed to grow, we reach the point where an apparently innocent child may announce—in mixed company, no less—that “transcendental” means “beyond teeth.” (This, cross my heart, came from my son, Charles, at age 9 or 10. He made this pronouncement to a room full of adults. A few of them got it.)
Left untreated, the verbenized mind continues to disintegrate. It moves into limericks and doggerel. It falls into amphigory, psalmistry, and sonnetry. It can sink as low as vers libre (during the 1920s, free verse was so shameful that one such poet was transmogrified into a cockroach named archy). The verbal abuser may become a poetaster. He may spend his days writing rock lyrics. If sent to school, the punster may stumble into houses of dithyramb and epithalamia, by which time not even a strong dose of thesaurovaccine can help. Scholars in extremis have been known to resort to figurative language and literary allusion, and it is on record that a certain not-to-be-named graduate student once actually titled a term paper “Complex Oedipus.” Sad to say, such scholars often become professors, and professors are often anthologized.
The final stages of the overzealous worship of Verbena are sophistry and punditry. By then, it’s not funny anymore. But the sophists and pundits go on television. They judge, they argue, they split hairs, they bore, they earn big money.
Hail, Verbena, you’re the one,
Help me find just one more pun.