There was a fine doctor called Wordsmith . . .

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The Independent Online

I am very glad to welcome Dr Wordsmith, our language expert, just back from a round-the-world research trip into Edward Lear's poetry. He is here again, tanned, fit and hungover, ready to answer more of your questions on the language we speak. All yours, Doc !

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Why would you need to go round the world to do research into Edward Lear's poetry?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Well, all his limericks are set in different places, each one of which I felt I should investigate. If Lear says "There was a young lady from Riga", then it behoves me to go to Riga to find out why he set that poem there.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, And what was Riga like?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Bloody horrible. Not as bad as Cape Horn, though. I am not surprised that the young man of Cape Horn wished he had never been born.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Talking about poetry, I happened to see the poet John Hegley on 'Call My Bluff'. Do you think he was trying to acquire some exotic words?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I doubt it. His kind of poetry tends to eschew esoteric words.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, What kind of poetry is that?

Dr Wordsmith writes: There are two kinds of modern poetry. One is designed to be read out at poetry readings and get a laugh. The other is designed to be read out on Radio 3 and get a sigh. Hegley writes the first kind. When you hear it read out, it is so conversational you cannot imagine how it is written down.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I don't quite understand. Could you give an example, please?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Certainly. Here is a poem I have just written called "On Seeing John Hegley on Call My Bluff". Here goes. "The other day I saw John Hegley on Call My Bluff. He was asked to define 'poetry' in one of three different ways. 'Well, Poetry,' he said, 'is a kind of Shetland seaweed much used in mussel soup.' But you could tell that none of the others believed him and he didn't really seem to believe it much himself."

Dear Dr Wordsmith, But that's not poetry!

Dr Wordsmith writes: Ah! Not written down like that! But try this:

The other day I saw

John Hegley

on Call My Bluff.

He was asked to define

"poetry" in one of

three different ways

"Poetry," he said, "is a kind

Of Shetland seaweed

Much used in mussel soup."

But you could tell that

None of the others

Believed him

And he didn't really

Seem to believe it

Much himself.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes, that's certainly much better.

Dr Wordsmith writes: And more poetic?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes.

Dr Wordsmith writes: And yet they are exactly the same words! It's all in the presentation you see.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, As a matter of interest, did John Hegley actually say that ?

Dr Wordsmith writes: No, of course not. But nothing has to be true in poetry. What in prose would look like a lie becomes an inspired fancy in poetry. There was not, I am afraid, a young woman from Riga who went for a ride on a tiger. But we believe Lear when he writes it in a poem, because it sounds as if it ought to be true. Just as the name of Hilary Rodham Clinton sounds as if it should be the line of a Hilaire Belloc poem.

Dear Dr Wordsmith, How do you mean?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Well, as in:-

Hilary Rodham Clinton

Was ever so terribly smug

"I am right about everything

And everyone else is a thug."

Hilary Rodham Clinton

Loved valuable bric-a-brac.

She took a lot from the White House

And never brought it back.

Hilary Rodham Clinton . . . . . .

Hmm - we might have to check this with the lawyers. If they pass it, I hope Dr Wordsmith will be back with more poetry tomorrow.