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For my birthday several years ago, my wife got me a little book by Jeffrey Kacirk called The Word Museum. It was a collection of “forgotten words.” They certainly seemed like poem titles.


Such music as an old organ

might wheeze, whether pipe bag

or mouse-gnawed flute,

might limp, skitter and ooze,

might hover, fogdamp,

curtain-wiped, carpet sodden,

an old machine like an old

lover, an old bull, solemn

in the far field, forlorn,

but its music gobbledy,

flawed, fancy as ash,

and never, alas, enough.


Kacirk says buzznack is an old organ, out of order and playing badly, but you really don’t need to know that. It’s more fun to make the word new. I think I wrote about the sound of the word first, made it a machine, and then couldn’t help listening to the sounds it would make.

After a while I went to one of Kacirk’s sources, Joseph T. Shipley’s Dictionary of Early English. My copy is used, was published the year I turned twelve, never mind when. I was just starting to practice the flute that year, and the music I was learning came in old books, too – well, in reprints of old books. I guess I like old books and old words.

Words mean first one thing, and then another. They stand on each other’s heads. They fly away, then come back in the spring, changing a lot faster than the songs of the birds I’m thinking of. We have only been reading them for 6000 years, give or take a few centuries.

No wonder it’s hard to read. No wonder (I was astonished at first) that I have writing students who say they don’t like to read. (But they want to write!) You have to practice reading the way I practiced that old Bundy flute. It cost $140 and was the most valuable thing in the house. We hid it in the linen closet. David Brooks says it takes about 10,000 hours to learn to play the violin well or hit a major league fastball.

I can play the flute pretty well, but I’m retired from taking orders from conductors. So now I make up poems about old words. There’s a whole section of them in Goldberg-Variations. I want to bring them all back. I want to learn to read them.

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