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Poetry in Unexpected Places

June 10, 2008

I’ve stumbled upon a strange place for poetry. You see, in the last few months I’ve become reenamored with a hobby I’ve flirted with for several years: Heraldry. You may know it by that name, but you also may have heard it referred to as coats of arms (correct terminology) or crests (misused term).

Now if you are at all familiar with Heraldry, you may be wondering how I have found a poetic outlet in the pictures on the shields of the knights of old. Well, one of the very first things you learn about heraldry, is that it’s not a specific image that is linked to a particular person. It is, instead, the description of that image that is important.

In short, it is not a discipline of pictures, it is a discipline of words. And, as I’m learning, much to my own delight, those words can be wonderfully poetic.

Most of the common heraldic terms are not English, but (at least in most English-speaking countries, Norman French. The upshot of this, is that the text descriptions of the images I am designing, or reading about, are written in a beautifully foreign language.

Colors as simple as red, white and blue become Gules, Argent and Azure. An ordinary stripe can, depending on its placement, be called a Pale, Bend, Base, Fess or Chief. Even the directions, left and right, become more interesting when called Dexter and Sinister.

Take, for instance, the image next to my name in the sidebar. In English you might describe this as a red field with a silver lion and a gold head, under a blue strip with four ancient trumpets. Now while there would be nothing wrong with this, the correct description is much more interesting—Gules a Lion Rampant Argent its Head Or on a Chief Azure four Clarions Argent.

Taken at face value, this quirk of an ancient tradition would be nothing more than charming. However, in the midst of a particularly nasty bout of writer’s block, that stems largely from the fact that I have no more that 15-20 minutes each week to write, this quirk has become a poetic outlet.

I find myself composing new designs not for their beauty (at least not primarily), but instead for their poetry. I will discard certain symbols, because I find their name displeasing. If a description has an awkward cadence, I will rework it, or just go in a new direction.

In a sense, it’s poetry in the abstract. There is little concrete meaning to the words, and within certain limits, symbols and images can be chosen simply for their sound.

So what does this have to do with you, my reader. No, I’m not suggesting that you delve into heraldry with the intention of learning to design visual images with a kind of poetic cryptography. But each of us, particularly those of us who are apt to complain about a marked lack or writing time, can probably find small, unexpected outlets for us to eke out a tiny bit of creative writing.

When you’re short on time, look at your life and see where you might be able to squeeze in a little poetry.


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