Ancient words, new poems

All poems are inside the dictionary under the clock
All poems are inside the dictionary under the clock


Seven people–or rather, six people and one group–sent me poems for the “Ultraconserved Words” challenge.  The prompt was to write a poem using ten or more words from a group of twenty-three words that some linguists believe have been in use since the end of the last ice age. Congratulations to all the participants!  Five of the seven poems centered around a mother figure, but besides that, the poems were different in form, tone and–even with a common core of words–diction. All of the words– I, we, thou, ye, who, this, that, what, mother, male/man, not, worm, bark, hand, ashes, fire, to give, to pull, to spit, to flow, and to hear–found a place in at least one of the poems, including ye and thou, not easy words to find use for in 2013.


Where to put poems based on words with ancient etymologies?   A dictionary, of course, a big fat dictionary housing all our English words and their origins. These days a dictionary is something of a fossil in itself.  So few people use them that putting the poems in the pages of one at my local library felt as if I were burying the poems to be resurrected by archeologists of the future.  Who knows when the physical version of these poems will resurface?


I put each poem next to a dictionary entry that was a key word in the poem.


The first poem is a collaboration from a group of nine women who call themselves the “Literary Ladies” of the Providence Aged Care Facility in Victoria, Australia.  The Literary Ladies is the only nursing home poetry group in the University of the 3rd Age, a worldwide ongoing learning program for seniors and the disabled.  The poets, all in their 80s and late 90s, meet twice a week to write poetry.  Facilitator Robyn Poul transcribes their lines on a white board and takes the poems home to type up.


Here, in their own words, is how they approached this poetry challenge:  “We thought that the words were so old that we had to give them some religious or spiritual significance. So we wrote a religious chant or prayer. The slow rhythm and repetition creates a picture of a ceremonial pace – a walk with an ordered crowd chanting together.” I put “The Mother” near “bark,” because I love the lines, I am Bark/to protect/to warm.


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It’s a marvel of the modern age, isn’t it, that these wonderful women can at the same time connect with women from eons past and with present-day readers the world over.  As Robyn the facilitator would say, cheerio, Literary Ladies!


Ginny Love Connors’ poem “Impossible” is above the word “worm.”  A worm, like the poet, like the “old black art,” can transform dirt/pain into something richer, something that allows growth.

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Of course I put “Ashes to Ashes” by Suzanne Fontaine under “ash.”

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Bark hard  and veins like worms are such strong descriptions of the old woman’s hands and unfortunately an apt one of my own that I think I’ll just give up on hand creams altogether.


Kathleen Haney’s “His Heart” is right below “fire.” This poem sounds like a song to me, a song Lucinda Williams might sing in a voice full of experience, heartache and tenderness.

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Trish Rawlings’ untitled poem, which I put above “who,”  is composed almost entirely of words from the list.  Quite a feat!  It puts me in mind of a spell or incantation.  Trish, please explain the sound of the worm flowing in the bark.  It gives me the heebie-jeebies.

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E. Muir says that writing her poem “Baby Turns Five” helped clear her mind during a busy time with her young children.  Her poem sits above “mother.”

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Finally, Teri Ledbetter’s poem.  The situation is evocative and mysterious–is the man begging on the street corner or is he someone in her inner circle?  At any rate, he’s an interloper, not welcome in the child’s world.

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Thanks to all who entered!


  1. Trish Rawlings

    HI Dear Poem Elf and the poets who submitted work for the challenging ancient word contest..I loved these!

    My own submission is a chant in honor of this woman I saw as I began working with the words. She just sort of came at me, or upon me, and was insistent. She’s pretty fearless and omnipotent, reminding me of the latent power we all posess yet seldom call upon. Her hearing’s so acute she can hear life doing its thing out-of-sight, the worm in the bark. She can have a fire and likes risking it with killing spit and a dousing dose of ash, knowing she can summon more fire as needed. She’s disdainful of limitations, impediments. She laughs at “no.”

    Sorry about the heebie-jeebies!

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