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Scrabble -- Louis McKee

(Poem #869) Scrabble
 We used to pride ourselves
 on the words we knew.
 The dictionary sat beside us
 but was seldom consulted.

 I'm amazed when I think now
 of how few words we actually used

 to talk, that final game
 we played over and over.
 Our vocabularies froze,
 it was as though we were down
 to our last rack
 of letters, board

 space was limited to tight
 corners or tricky gaps,
 and the time limit, set so
 long ago when time seemed endless,
 ticked softly to its end.
-- Louis McKee
 From  "River Architecture: Poems from here and there, 1974-1984"
 Published by the Cynic Press, 1999.

 If Donne could find his conceits in Elizabethan staples such as astronomy
and alchemy, why should not a contemporary poet take his symbolism from the
game of Scrabble? Indeed, as conceits go, McKee's is rather a good one: as
anybody who's played Scrabble can attest, the possibilities when the game
opens are limitless, bingo lines and bonus squares enticing, tempting,
beckoning... equally, though, there are times when the board becomes
impossibly congested, words already played constricting, choking, cutting
off avenues of communication, letters on racks offering hopelessly few
options as the clock ticks inexorably down... an ebb and flow that
accurately reflects the tensions that inhabit many relationships. This is
McKee's extended metaphor, and a lovely one it is, too.



 Of course it's possible to take this sort of thing entirely too seriously;
see, for instance,

[broken link]

for a scholarly article that treats the game of Scrabble as "a
poem-in-progress: a text at cross-purposes ... simultaneously co-produced
and co-read [by] opponents [who] are also partners" [sic]. Herewith, a far
too generous extract:

 "Each advancing letter takes a step toward development while it reduces the
available field. Each formed word both encourages and limits potential
neighboring words. As players build words -- constructing a shared text
within a competitive and cooperative relation -- the issue becomes one of
context: What does the current construction enable and/or limit? Beyond the
immediate, contiguous contextuality of possible linguistic permutations are
the larger contextual limitations of convention and decorum (proper usage),
and the still larger bounds of national discourse (English or American
usage), and the largest bounds of sense (patriarchal usage?) and nonsense
(un autre écriture?). In brief, the Scrabble game enacts an allegory of
language acquisition and development within a maturing field of limit and
desire ...

 "... my adult, academic relation to language rests on and derives from my
childhood, and a particular kind of childhood play. As I reconfigure the
event, playing SCRABBLE with my mother represents and reanimates a potential
space of linguistic co-production between mother and child (see Winnicott
1971, 1-28; 95-110). It's a later developmental model, or high-level,
sublimated scene of earlier primordial relationships, such as reading with
mother and being read to by mother. On the foundational ground of a semiotic
orchestration of language (the Kristevan chora), the newly literate child
learns the powers and limits of a semantic or syntactic organization of
language (see Kristeva 1974). From an arbitrary parataxis of discrete
letters resting in potentia side by side (in a wooden frame, or in an
alphabet), he or she arranges a lexical syntaxis of singular meaning within
the delimited field of play."

        -- David Willbern, "Playing Scrabble with my Mother", in PSYART: A
Hyperlink Journal for Psychological Study of the Arts

25 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Julian Tepper said...

I would appreciate a straightforward explanation of what, content aside,
makes "Scrabble" a poem rather than prose. Thank you.


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