Wednesday, 24th February 2010
In Competition No. 2635 you were invited to incorporate the following homophones into a poem bemoaning the general decline in standards of literacy: ‘elicit’, ‘illicit’, ‘lesson’, lessen’, ‘Dane’, ‘deign’, ‘dissent’, ‘descent’.
From time to time, a challenge triggers rumblings of discontent in the competitive ranks, and to judge by the exasperated note accompanying one entry — ‘you can’t imagine how much I hate this comp’ — this was one of them.
Its prescriptive nature is not to everyone’s taste, admittedly (a maverick few chose simply to ignore the theme altogether); and I did regret having to disqualify some good entries because one of the specified homophones was missing. What’s more, though most competitors did manage to incorporate them all, the results were on the stilted side, which I think is down more to the restrictive brief than to any lack of skill or ingenuity on your part.
Commendations to Katie Mallett, Adrian Fry, Mike Morrison, and Roger Theobald, who were unlucky losers. I could almost see the steam coming out of Basil Ransome-Davies’s ears as I read his tongue-in-cheek why-oh-why rant, but it was Mary Holtby who impressed me most. She pockets the bonus fiver, while her fellow winners, printed below, get £25 each.
Why do we call them lessons?
They lessen day by day
And as we lavish less on them
It leaves more time for play.
Most labour’s now illicit:
Why dredge the past with pain
Just to elicit who came first,
The Roman or the Dane?
Deign to dissent from oldies,
Wrapped in their mortal coil:
We’ll lock up Locke and happily
Let Boyle go off the boil.
Assent to plumb Avernus —
(Who he?) where others went
And found descent an easy ride
But toilsome the ascent...
Why oh why has no one learned the lesson?
The masses only want illicit thrills.
They lack the taste for civilised expression
And can’t acquire the proper language skills.
Time was when my instructions would elicit
Well-formed responses, courteously meant,
From banks and such. Good English, how I miss it.
Now keyboard monkeys rule. A sad descent.
My so-called secretary, for example,
Who now and then will deign to type a letter,
Writes barbarous solecisms (here’s a sample:
‘Our buisness gols’), but I can’t get a better.
There’s something rotten,’ quoth the gloomy Dane.
That’s us these days. Who can dissent? Downhearted,
I watch correctness lessen, standards wane
all round, while as for tax — don’t get me started!
Sorry, I’ll miss your lessen, Miss’, he wrote,
‘And, no, it’s not for an elicit smoke.
I’m eighteen now. I have to go and vote!’
‘Eighteen, and you write this! It’s not a joke;
Lesson has O, illicit double L,
There are some rules; some things we must maintain!
How can you deign to vote if you can’t spell!’
‘I’m British, by dissent. I’m not a Dane!’
‘Descent’, I scrawl in red. It fits the bill;
Standards of literacy have gone downhill.
Although we did illicit things behind the bike shed once,
In lesson time we listened and we learned.
We honoured swats I swear and deemed it dire to be a dunce,
Cone-hatted in the corner, justly spurned.
The dullard with the Great Dane brain was not to be admired
Nor would we deign to imitate his ways,
Dissent precedes descent. It was to wisdom we aspired,
To learn and earn in turn our teacher’s praise.
Today we lessen learning’s lore and, lowering our sights,
Accept whatever waffle comes our way,
Rhyming rhyme with fine in rap, or spelling rights as rites,
It seems to matter not a jot today.
No more do we elicit what was lauded years ago,
And yet we know, forever to our shame,
We’re the ones what brung ’em up and done the damage, so
It’s mea culpa, we’re the ones to blame.
A grammar lesson learned in schools
with painful pleasure — how we miss it!
We who were taught by Fowler’s rules
frown on descent to ways illicit.
Alas our cries for clearer speech
elicit howls of disapproval.
Apostrophe and comma? — each
is noted in its sad removal.
Dissent from those who would complain
is met with howls of raucous laughter;
the English used by Swede or Dane
in many ways sounds so much better.
The influence of those who shun
exactitude of former days
we seek to lessen and in turn
we deign to foster purer ways.