Back to the September issue of Poetry; this time I want to praise a poem by Mike Chasar called “Conches on Christmas,” which happily for all of us is online (happily for you because you can read the whole thing, for me because it makes it a lot easier to quote). I love rhyme and meter and the whole kitbag of traditional poetic technique, but I’m aware that English poetry can no longer be constrained within those bounds (it requires a tremedous effort of will and imagination to write a good sonnet these days), so I’m especially happy when a poet is able to dance comfortably to the new music in an old pattern. I read the first stanza:

Diluvian, draggled and derelict posse, this
barnacled pod so pales
next to everything we hear of red tides and pilot whales
that a word like “drama” makes me sound remiss

and relaxed into pleasurable anticipation when I realized the rhymes were unobtrusive and exact, the meter irregular but confident, and the syntax complex enough to make reading further a compelling adventure:

except that there
was a kind of littoral drama in the way the shells
silently, sans the heraldry of bells,
neatly, sans an astrological affair,
and swiftly, sans a multitude of feet, flat-out arrived—

and at that I simultaneously cracked up at the transition from the solemn “silently, sans the heraldry of bells” to the bathetic “swiftly, sans a multitude of feet” (which instantly brought to mind “And this was odd, because, you know,/ They hadn’t any feet“) and marveled at the sonic sculpture of the line “and swiftly, sans a multitude of feet, flat-out arrived”—and I gobbled up the rest of the poem with undiminished pleasure, which I now urge you to do. When you get back, you can hit the Extended Entry for a few linguistic observations.

1) Perhaps the first thing that attracted me, even before I saw the poem itself, was its title, and specifically the word “conches.” I have always pronounced conch /kanch/ in my head, but ever since I learned that the “correct” pronunciation was /kank/ I’ve tried to say it that way, feeling that the /ch/ was some miserable bit of spelling pronunciation I should put behind me. Well, here was an actual poet (and quite a learned one, I found when I got to the poem) who clearly pronounced it the same way, since if you pronounce it /kank/ the plural has to be “conchs.” Validated, I resolved to have the courage of my inner voice.
2) In the ninth stanza, I was sent to my dictionaries by the word drasty (“to my drasty stretch of shore”); having tried Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, the AHD, and the New Oxford American in vain, I went to the OED and discovered it means “Dreggy; fig. vile, worthless, ‘rubbishy’” (from drast ‘dregs, lees’)—and hasn’t been used since the early 16th century. Unsure if this was the intended meaning, I took advantage of the miracle of the internet and asked the author, who said that it was; furthermore, it was a reminiscence of Chaucer’s tale of Sir Thopas, where Chaucer is interrupted by the Host and told, “Thy drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord!”
3) This tied in neatly with my other question to him, about the proper pronunciation of his name (you all know how obsessed I am with pronunciation): it turns out Chasar is an anglicized version of Hungarian császár ‘emperor’ (borrowed from Slavic cěsárĭ, the origin of tsar as well) and is pronounced much like Chaucer. So the Chaucerian reference was something of an in-joke. (As an extra tidbit, I’ll point out that the Hungarian word is first attested in 1405, just a few years after Chaucer’s death.)
So I intend to inform the OED that the word drasty has been revived and brought into gen-u-wine contemporary use in a 2005 poem, and I want to see it in the next edition with the Chasar citation. If they’re going to include Pound’s undigested quotes from a century or two previous as contemporary (1934 E. POUND Eleven New Cantos xxxvii. 32 “If you will give me A pinch of your excellent Maccaboy snuff,” quoting Shepherd quoting Benton quoting Van Buren; 1940 E. POUND Cantos lxx. 177 “Treasons, felonies, new praemunires,” quoting a John Adams letter from, I believe, the 1770s), they can damn well include this. And I urge others to start using it too. We’ll get ‘em all back!


  1. Ben Zimmer says:

    Interestingly enough, drasty was sometimes misread/misprinted as drafty (that darned long s, no doubt), and it appears that way in some editions of Chaucer. In fact, Sir Walter Scott (mis)quotes Chaucer with that spelling in his “Essay on Romance” (1823):

    But though the minstrels were censured
    by De la Brunne for lack of skill and memory, and
    the poems which they recited were branded as
    “drafty rhymings,” by the far more formidable
    sentence of Chaucer, their acceptation with the
    public in general must have been favourable…

  2. Patrick Linehan says:

    …and when did the “correct” pronunciation take over?
    from the OED:
    (kɒŋk, kɒnʃ) [ad. L. concha bivalve shell, a. Gr. κόγχη mussel or cockle, shell-like cavity, etc. Cf. It. conca, Pr. conca, concha, Sp. and Pg. concha, F. conque (16th c.), formerly also conche. The earlier Eng. form was perh. conche, pl. conches, from Fr.: many pronounce (kɒnʃ, kɒnʃɪz). In L. the name was extended to other shells, as a whelk, a snail-shell, the shell-shaped Triton's trumpet, etc., and these senses passed into the modern langs.]

  3. I’ve been saying “conch” wrong all this time too! Thank god I live inland.
    The non-ch “ch” of the other big word in the title, “Christmas” suggests to me that the poet may be toying with us. Curse him!

  4. in the crunch
    i pronounce it conch
    though i feel like a lunk
    hearing conk

  5. Don’t know how much to read into this but “conchs” and “conches” get roughly equal number of hits when restricted to English-language pages. (Without that restriction “conches” gets way more.) Here is a page with an interesting, mellifluous title and some nice pictures.

  6. All the little boys in every version of the Lord of the Flies movies seemed to all be able to pronounce it correctly. That in and of itself makes the movie version unrealistic.

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