Friday, July 6, 2018

The Lost Words

Hello and Happy Poetry Friday! Be sure to visit Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect for Roundup.
I am away from my desk yet again (O, Summer!), but I wanted to share with you two things:

1. a podcast with me and Charles Waters and  Matthew C. Winner, where we talk the writing process and CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR? Matthew was a fun host with great questions... lots to love here.

2. a gorgeous book of poems I've recently discovered: THE LOST WORDS by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris (House of Anansi, 2017). I learned about this book in an article in which one of my literary heroes Geraldine McCaughrean (who wrote THE WHITE DARKNESS) was talking about how kids are smart, and they deserve rich language in children's literature. The book she cited as an example? THE LOST WORDS. So right away I secured myself a copy. (It's published in the UK, not US, but you can find used copies online.)

Here's the publisher's description of the book:
In 2007, when a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary -- widely used in schools around the world -- was published, a sharp-eyed reader soon noticed that around forty common words concerning nature had been dropped. Apparently they were no longer being used enough by children to merit their place in the dictionary. The list of these "lost words" included acorn, adder, bluebell, dandelion, fern, heron, kingfisher, newt, otter, and willow. Among the words taking their place were attachment, blog, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste, and voice-mail. The news of these substitutions -- the outdoor and natural being displaced by the indoor and virtual -- became seen by many as a powerful sign of the growing gulf between childhood and the natural world.
Ten years later, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris set out to make a "spell book" that will conjure back twenty of these lost words, and the beings they name, from acorn to wren. By the magic of word and paint, they sought to summon these words again into the voices, stories, and dreams of children and adults alike, and to celebrate the wonder and importance of everyday nature. The Lost Words is that book -- a work that has already cast its extraordinary spell on hundreds of thousands of people and begun a grass-roots movement to re-wild childhood across Britain, Europe, and North America.

And oh boy, what a treat this book is! Rich language? YES. The book is oversized for one, and there was no skimping on the art, that's for sure. The poems are all about wildlife of one kind or another, and they are presented in alphabetical order. All of the poems are a variation on the acrostic: instead of the first letter of each line spelling out the poem's subject, the first letter of each stanza does that. Which allows the poet a great deal more freedom! I have never been a fan of acrostic poems, but these I do like, very much! Here are two favorite examples:


I am ivy, a real high-flyer.

Via bark and stone I scale tree and spire.

You call me ground-cover; I say sky-wire.

An example of a poem that has changed the way I look at ivy... forever!


Kingfisher: the colour-giver, fire-bringer, flame-flicker,
  river's quiver.

Ink-black bill, orange throat, and a quick blue
   back-gleaming feather-stream.

Neat and still it sits on the snag of a stick, until with . . .

Gold-flare, wing-fan, whipcrack the kingfisher -
   zingfisher, singfisher! -

Flashes down too fast to follow, quick and quicker
   carves its hollow

In the water, slings its arrow superswift to swallow

Stickleback or shrimp or minnow.

Halcyon is its other name - also ripple-calmer,

Evening angler, weather-teller, rainbringer and

Rainbow bird - that sets the stream alight with burn
and glitter!

I mean, what a glittery poem for a glitterbird! Such a celebration of language, and of the bird, too.

And just for fun, I decided to write a poem in this style, about the skunk my husband photographed last week:


Stealthy as moonlight (and as predictable),
    you saunter past blackberry brambles,
    all regal swagger and peaceful gaze -- you, O

Keeper of night --
    you wear your stripe like a scar,
    just part of who you are.

Unfazed by fox, you rough your fluff,
    release a warning scent
    before lifting your tail in a blaze of battle . . .

No need to spray when wily fox turns tail,
    leaps to safety (anything to avoid being musked)
    while you forage for frogs and mushrooms.

Kingdom of kudzu awaits your return,
    soon welcomes you back to greentree hollow
    where you curl into a furrow to nap away daylight hours.

- Irene Latham


  1. Wow! I'll be dancing to that Kingfisher poem all day. What a celebration! And, I love how your words in SKUNK go from peaceful gaze to blaze of battle. Once again, I am thankful for the rec and the inspiration found here. Safe travels to you.

  2. Oh Irene, I nearly shared this book today. I have it and Ingrid and I have pored over it. I do think it's spectacular and adore that you wrote your own poem "after" the poems in the book. The picture itself is wonderful. I love the "Unfazed by fox, you rough your fluff," Don't you wonder what they do fear, if anything?

  3. Such a rich poetry book, I'm looking forward to spending some time with it. I've had the opportunity of painting in a pond where a kingfisher would fly over–they are gorgeous! And what a lucky skunk to have you pen a poem for him–hope that charming "green tree hollow," where he'll "curl into a furrow" is far away from your home–fun poem Irene, thanks!

  4. Thanks for sharing this title, Irene - and the podcast, which was such fun to listen to! I love the way you captured the spirit of the skunk:"all regal swagger and peaceful gaze".

  5. I love this post! I just spotted a kingfisher by the river yesterday afternoon. They are such wonderful birds and the poem you shared adds layers to my enjoyment of them. Lost Words is a gorgeous book ,which I bought after someone recommended it here (Christie Wyman maybe?). At any rate, somehow I'd missed the backstory, so now I love it even more. Your skunk photo and poem are fabulous! Like Tara, I enjoyed that perfect skunk description "all regal swagger and peaceful gaze."

  6. Irene, this post has brought a new poetic form into the spotlight with wonderful examples, including your own. I think the ivy poem is so clever with its word play as are the others too.

  7. The Lost Words sounds like a marvelous book, and I love your skunk poem!

  8. Clearly, I missed this post in 2018! I love your skunk poem! I'm going to try some Macfarlane inspired acrostics, too!


Your thoughts?