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Sunday, October 24, 2010

What's in a Name?

Names are myths, and letters the archetypes that compose them, symbols that function as usable signs put to use on a daily basis by every person on the planet. Our names define who we are, wings on our shoulders that bear us up, or stuck to our tails, like a donkey.

Possibility and limitation both, holding hopes, desires, fears, courage, wealth and poverty all at once. They are our burden, and release. They are heavy loads that we carry, but they are also light and bear us aloft. They illuminate, and obscure, they are painful, and what is joyous both. They may make us great, or may cripple us terribly.

Letters, are the DNA of myth. Our own letters, recombine in our actions, in words we chose, and in our pre-selection of what we read. We scan for our name through the universe of experience. Names express, like our genes, in the jobs we take, professions we choose, the mates we select, and the children we bear. They in turn we name again, their children, the companies they work for, places they live, and countries they travel to. Those who know us choose in part, for our name, and the mythos of our letters. So they become our friends, lovers, enemies.

A names affects everything.

Some change a name in order to shed karma that follows like a curse, or, to avoid associates that they fear will affect their future, and more commonly, to bring possibilities into their lives that add new dimension. Inventing a new name creates a new future. Millions have done so from Madonna to Tiger Woods.

Name change is karma invention, a correction of the record as regards who we are.

One friend obtained release from repressive events in her past by renaming herself Rainbow Girl. Descended from a Native American tradition of re-naming, Rainbow is for Lauren, what Raven has become to me. A symbol of guidance. I noticed this when I met Rainbow, . . this began a thought processes that led to a form of poetry that was name-based, and lipogrammatic. 2.

Ancient cultures ritualistically conferred new names when a child reached maturity. Similar to Christian Baptism, in older cultures, it celebrates the rebirth of the child as an adult. The Thread Ceremony for Brahmans in India, the Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah, coming of age in all cultures, traditionally awards a new name. Myths associated with the new name, are deemed appropriate to the person to whom it is given.

Names are the myth of who we are, as is Whitman's Song of Myself. Named, we are dealt cards, the letters, each conveys a powerful mythos.

Traditions break when societies loose contact with the mythologies of names. When a culture forgets what names mean it invariably breaks. Carl Jung dubbed the collapsed stratum of the collective unconscious, 'archetypes', for a reason. All that is forgotten and compacted in the attic of the human mind continues to work through us in ways we cannot describe.Type, and letters are signs and symbols, reference cards for accessing this content. Understanding a name means understanding the myths at work within the symbolic bedrock of our souls, beneath the sounds and words that letters signify.

What are letters?

Signs that stand for a sound when spoken? Not really. Even our dictionary resorts to another symbol set when describing how to pronounce. For instance, 'pheasant' which by some dictionaries is pronounced:
employs the two letters 'ph', to sound like 'f'. One cannot defend phonetic spelling as the sole reason for letters. What of Chinese script? Korean, Japanese, Arabic? Increasingly English is taking on letter forms that have no phonetic component whatsoever. Mathematical symbols, scientific symbols. Even the much used smilies :) evolve towards 'letter' status.

Did one day a bright Phoenician have an idea for representing each spoken sound with a graphic symbol. Not at all. Letters, characters, as building blocks of language were never a sudden invention, or inspiration.

They evolved, over many generations. There's a story. They carried with them rituals of history, chapters of civilization, victories, and defeats.

Letters are the story of humanity, of all our myths and stories, compacted. Even today letters are still forming. We're not through with alphabets, even today. The ancient Greek alphabet has fewer letters than modern Greek. So with every language. Mathematics, physics, astrology, all of these activities compete to provide letters to our vocabulary.

The story of each letter is a myth, and a history unto itself. As united symbols of the collective unconscious, they are the makers of dreams.


The forgoing describes some of the background behind the lipogrammatic odes which I write using constrained letter sets taken from a person's name.

There is a long tradition of constrained writing. 3. From Nestor of Laranda who composed a lipogrammatic Illiad to Gyles Brandreth who has rewritten Shakespeare's plays with reduced letter sets, such as Macbeth without "A" or "E"; Twelfth Night without "O" or "L"; and Othello without the letter "O".

Whereas most of these writers explore language as a kind of codified reduction, an ode allows a spirit of generosity, exploring everything that can be said with a person's name. Sometimes I'll combine the letters of two persons, if they are a couple. Invariably the result shows the overlap in the relationship, such as in a poem I wrote for Niki Notarile and her husband Chris. They were surviving by making short horror and martial arts films, on reduced budgets:

   I ink a letter to a Niki an' Chris Notarile
   In a sentence to share an altar . . .
   I notice Niki Notarile enthrall in action,
   A tattoo tantra, letters in attraction:

   A, C, E, H, I, K, L, N, O, R, S, an' T.

   As an actress Asian martial artist, she entices, slices, . . . entrails.
   A ancient lion she roars, he's her trainer, a killer cat alert,
   Stalks the stairs, knocks, kicks, attacks.

I sing their song, rejoicing in each of their letters.

Here's the beginning of an ode I wrote for my son Arjun prior to his graduation:

   Hear an ode on paper to Arjun Brandreth Potter . . .
   Be Dante here to tone a rap.
   Or Auden to pen a Bornean pantun
   . . . or Borat, to rune a rondeau
   A troubadour pater’ penned an epode tune,
   To a Buddha hunter, Arjun.
   A, J, B, D, E, H, N, P, R, T, U and O.

The foregoing stanza was written with only Arjun's 12 letters. These letters, given to him at birth by his mother and I, and have guided him unfailingly, towards his loves, which are birds, plants, creatures, nature, the natural world. These are his genes for singing the diversity of everything that lives.

The letters MUST BE SUNG! Why is this?

Ritual is the essence of learning, and song or poetry is a medium of ritual. All poetry, in fact all language, begins as ritual structure. Even young birds learning to sing, with one note, then three (composed of two sounds). . . in the structure A-B-A.

It is impossible to obtain to an understanding of character without a name, and likewise impossible to understand a name without the letters. The letters are the myths, of Ravens, of Jesus, of past kings, and Gods that guide us. Mythology is embedded in archetypal language. If we do not acknowledge this, at the onset of our investigations, how will we ever hope to understand what affect names have on us?

Here's a song written with a very reduced letter set for a model who worked for me briefly. Her real passion was dance:

   Blend a Cuban dance Danielle,
   U decide, u include,
   A dance Danielle, in Danube?
   Blend a Cuban dance Danielle
   In Albania, an Indian audience?

Anagrams are the most concise of lipograms. Whereas a lipogram allows for open composition constrained to a particular set of letters, an anagram is a single 1 to 1 rearrangement of just the letters in a word, name or phrase. For instance one may rearrange the letters in Clint Eastwood's name to get . . . "Old West Action". Madame Curie may be written as "Radium came". Tom Cruise, "I'm so cuter". Count Dracula, "A cauldron cut".

Anagrams of famous places and businesses may define the success or failure of the enterprise: Western Union becomes "No Wire Unsent", NewsCorp may be rewritten as "Pew! Scorn!" 1.

Lipograms, and anagrams put into relief an essential fact about language: language is code. Awash in words we often forget that our moment to moment thoughts are submitted to a matrix of words, letters, and myths. Writing and speaking are acts of coding. Whether composing daily speech, or writing code for a computer, we see how coding, and cryptology are fundamental to an understanding of poetic and linguistic structure.

In the simplest possible name there are myths at works. Here is one written about a Native American woman living who adopted the name "Sioux Lilly".

   Sioux Lilly's solo is S, I, O, U, Y, L, X
   Sioux Lilly’s soul is ill . . .
   Sioux Lilly's loss is silly
   Sioux Lilly's IOU is six

   Sioux Lilly's ill is loss of soil . . .
   Sioux Lilly's ill is . . . oil.

These poems are not 'fixed' in any way. I re-arrange them all the time, searching for the optimal composition that follows the implied vocabulary to maximum effect. They are our subconscious song. So they are sung again and again, in our heads, and recombined, so long as the rules (all rituals have rules) are obeyed. As poems they are reflections of the diversity, or power, weakness, or strength, contained in our names.

The ancients understood that singing an Ode, or a poem about a person could be healing. It could confer power, physical strength in battle, luck, wealth, fortune in marriage, remembrance after death.

Names are not absolutes. Some names fall like an anvil out of the sky and seem to crush the bearer, who then rises in spite of that burden, and surmounts it.

But the myths of the letters have that written in as well.

I am not saying that our lives are predetermined by the letters and words that can be cast from our given names. I am saying that they reverberate in us like another force that continuously stirs our precious liquid.

We make our names and our names make us.

Let me give you an example:

I worked with an art model whose name was Malin. She was from Sweden, and being Swedish meant she was unaware of the Latin Root 'mal', meaning 'bad' or 'evil'. Of course Modern Swedish has inherited very little from Latin. The name, a diminutive of 'Magdalena', is commonly used in Sweden, also in Hindi speaking communities. The irony is it is also an English name that used to mean "strong little warrior", but likely fell out of use when William the Conqueror came to Britain bringing French with him. Anxious to avoid the negative connotation of "mal', few are named Malin by modern English speakers.

To make matters worse Malin's email address (similar, but changed to protect her identity) was Yet there was nothing 'mal' or 'evil' in Malin's character whatsoever. She was a sweet, honest girl, from a good family from another country. So why was her life such a continuous litany of setbacks, and disappointments?

"Malin, why have you chosen this email. Do you think you are Evil?"

She was surprised by my question. The reason for the email address was that she lived in the East Village!

Small of build, she considered herself a 'fairy' of the East Village of New York City. 'Evil' stood for 'East Village'. As a foreigner she was not familiar enough with English to be able to recognize the confusion, so by error, she had conferred upon herself a very negative email address, which is close to being a name.

Malin's first name, combined with the email address, and her lack of comprehension of English, in a subtle way was bringing about all her disastrous problems. The email address reinforced a word-rooted suspicion in her name itself. Without the email, she would have been helped most likely instead of hindered.

And I mean disastrous. Her visas were revoked. She was fired everywhere. Constantly looking for work. And after she worked she often would not be paid.

And yet, she kept her strength up, maintained a good attitude, without ever suspecting that her email address was working against her. I realized the problem, (almost immediately) and when she realized the innocent spirit in which she had dubbed her email account, she was considerate, appreciative, but skeptical.

To this day I don't know if she has changed either her name, or her email at this point in time.

Karl Jung understood these principles, as well as poets of past ages.

In ancient Greece, and around the mead halls of Medieval Wales, odes were fashioned spontaneously so that names could be sung, at banquets, before battles, at crucial moments in life. All were conscious of the power contained in words, and letters. These poems were not fixed, in fact they were flexible. The poet only had to be able to manipulate the large vocabulary as a performance.

Lipograms appear late in human history, almost as a kind of regression, from ever expanding alphabets, instead condensing backwards, working with fewer letters.

"Gadsby: Champion of Youth" was a 1939 novel written by Ernest Vincent Wright who tied down the "e" key of his typewriter. Seemingly an impossible task at the time, it nevertheless tells a story. To me that story is one of human media and technology being used to 'filter out' the noise of modern society.

Bards in the mead halls of old Wales didn't fumble for written notes. They could compose on the spot, with structure, rhyme, meter, etc.

The modern poet is drowning in vocabulary. He needs a device to focus and sharpen the image of his subject. When snapping a photograph you don't want every light ray in the universe to enter the camera, you only want a selected set of photons to do the work. But what selects? Do you really want the modern mythos dictated by advertising, and everything else that you read?

Working with lipograms, and in particular, with given names, gave focus to me.

I began a long program of poems written to friends, lovers, family, about places, and fictional characters, and even more importantly, about strangers. They are here on this blog. Look for them. They begin with a singing of the letters . . . of that name.


1. Anagrams may be explored through this wonderful site. You may also enter phrases and have all possible anagrams for a set of English letters returned to your computer.
2. Lipograms, or constrained letter set writing may be further explored here.
3. Constrained Writing is a well developed literary tradition and takes many forms. Start at Wikipedia

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