The Word-Winnower

Winnower in the Pontine Marshes ~  Rudolf Lehmann (1819-1905)


slighter stanzas 
surge aloft: a shed 
and swirling chaff sentenced 
now to fly ~ sibilant bits  
mixing with metaphor; rising
in clouds thick with sweet, singing rhythm;
seeking the joy of allitérant skies.


Comments always are welcome.
For more information on this Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.
For additional information about Rudolf Lehmann and other examples of his work, click here.

106 thoughts on “The Word-Winnower

    1. Soon you’ll be flying the skies yourself, if you aren’t already. I hope all your alliterations are pleasant ones; ‘lost, lonely luggage’ wouldn’t do at all.

        1. Some day when we don’t have anything else to do, we should have an ‘alliter-off.’ Many years ago, one got started on the Weather Underground site, and it was hilarious — not to mention a whole lot of fun.

    1. It pleases me that you think so, Derrick. I always read these Etherees aloud as I’m working with them. Even though we hear them in our minds, giving actual voice to the words can change our perception.

        1. Although it can be a two-part process. We may toss the words up, but it’s the wind that carries away the chaff. Figuring out where the wind’s coming from, and its strength, may be part of the art.

  1. You win a prize for trimming your tree with such strong alliteration at its top. And what a good play on words with sentenced.

    Inquiring minds want to know if you went with French allitérant for the syllable count.

    1. “Wind / winnowed / winter-tossed” was the genesis of the poem; the line came to me at work one day, and I liked the phrases. I got a kick out of ‘sentenced,’ too: not only for the alliteration, but for the layers of meaning it carried.

      I did chose allitérant for the syllable count, but in a round-about way. Initially, I used ‘mixing/alliterating/rising’ as the set of verbs, but I had described an ‘alliterating sky.’ That didn’t work, because of the confused reference. Since I couldn’t find another way to fit ‘alliterating’ into the poem, I decided to go with ‘mixing/rising/seeking.’ As soon as I’d made that change, I realized that allitérant would be an even better fit because it maintained the rhythm, and I messed with the last line to make the syllable count work.

    1. Thanks, Laurie. It does have a nice movement to it — as swirly as chaff in wind, but also as swirly as your recent snows. Despite everything, watching illuminated snow swirling at night can be pretty special.

    1. Peter, that made me laugh. You can’t believe how long the winnowing process took, or how much chaff had to fly away until these words fell to ground. Thanks for the nice comment.

    1. Sometimes it pays to push past the first few pages of results when searching online. Using ‘winnowing + painting’ brought up several artists I was familiar with, but this lithograph was perfect: neither too sentimental nor too geographically specific. I’m glad you enjoyed the pairing.

    1. I’m pleased you enjoyed it, Lavinia. I suspect you have the same experience with your songs that I had with this poem; there comes a time when you know it’s just right.

  2. Another lovely Etheree, Linda! This one flows off the tongue, begging to be read aloud. In fact, the rhythm and sounds truly vie with the content, making it a challenge to decide which I prefer. In that case, I’ll just enjoy it in its entirety!

    1. Once the rhythm got going in this one, Debbie, I worked to maintain it to the end, and was satisfied with the result. What’s funny is that I never learned all the niceties of poetry analysis in school, but the meter in this one was so obvious I went looking for information. I grinned when I pulled up this page. I remember all that meter and feet business from school; I think I’ve spotted a few dactyls in this one. Who knew?

    1. You’re welcome, John. It had been a while since some phrases came knocking and said, “We want to be an etheree,” but it’s always great fun when it happens. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    1. It really is fun. When I began, just getting the syllable count right was quite a challenge, but I slowly began to see how rhyme, rhythm, and all of the other poetic devices could be included within the structure. Try it — you’ll like it!

  3. Two words I’ve never heard—winnowed and allitérant. Needed to look them up and now I enjoy your stanza. Then I realized I wasn’t reading a stanza but I don’t know what else to call it without looking dull-witted.

    1. I’m a little surprised you didn’t know ‘winnowed.’ I guess I’m old enough and Iowa enough that I remember winnowing forks, while you’re more attuned to orchard-talk. Wind-winnowing or basket-winnowing rice was common in Liberia. It’s common in other cultures, too. I think this video is from Kerala, India. The technique is the same the world over. In South Carolina, traditional basket makers still are producing winnowing baskets.

      You might not have known allitérant, but I suspect that’s because it’s French. I’ve no doubt you know ‘alliterate’ and ‘alliteration.’

      As for the poem, there’s a sense in which an etheree (the form I like) could be called a stanza, making an etheree a one-stanza poem. I’d never thought of that before, but I don’t see why that wouldn’t work. There’s nothing dull-witted about that!

    1. Isn’t that a kick? I’ve never thought of using that form of the word, but it certainly worked well here. Sometimes playing around with words can be wonderful fun — glad you liked it!

  4. Word winnowing — editing — is one of the more difficult tasks of writing. Separating the grain of the meaning from the chaff of the unessential wordiness. Paring the text down to the bare meaning. Hand crafting every sentence.

    1. I don’t think I’d equate this sort of word-winnowing with editing, which is a controlled and more-or-less precise process. But that aside, there’s no question wordiness is a plague upon the land, and ‘less’ almost always is ‘more’ when it comes to the final result.

      On the other hand, “bare” meaning seems opposed to poetry (or even good prose), where the resonance of words, their ability to evoke layer on layer of response, is part of their appeal. I say it tongue in cheek, but I really do believe, that any piece of writing should use just the right number of words to achieve what it’s meant to do: no more and no less. Finding that sweet spot’s the challenge.

  5. I like the poem very much. It is funny but I don’t think that a of folks would know the meaning of winnowing. I learned it as a youngster from my parents. They often winnowed various seeds and some times milo maize which is a small round reddish seed used as a grain to feed farm poultry. I used to buy a combo of what I call chicken scratch- cracked corn and milo. I winnowed some seeds that I had last year in order to get the husk separated from the tiny seeds that I wanted to keep. It is kind of fun but the wind has to be just right for small seeds or they will be blown away too.

    1. I grew up seeing winnowing forks, both in action and stored in barns, and in Liberia, rice baskets were used to winnow rice. As a matter of fact, when I was cleaning my piles of basket-flower seed a couple of years ago, I used wind winnowing to separate the seed from the fluff. It’s as easy as can be; the fluff flies away, and the seed falls back into the basket — or pie plate, which is what I used so that the tiny seed wouldn’t end up getting lost in the weave of my baskets.

      We called it chicken scratch, too, and a lot of people still do. I’ve known people who use it for wild birds as well as chickens, but it does tend to attract grackles, starlings, and such. And, if the corn in the mix is cracked, I’m told it loses its nutritional value faster. Of course, if you’re not buying fifty pound bags, or if you have a big flock of chickens, that wouldn’t matter.

  6. Winnowed is not far removed from widowed. A widow’s wife was used as a term whereby a husband would be absent by playing golf. I never heard that mentioned whereby the wife would play golf.
    A nice ladder of a poem, Linda.

    1. Now that you mention it, I remember the phrase ‘golf widow’ being quite common when I was growing up. There were plenty of women who played the game, too, but ‘golf widower’ apparently never caught on. As far as I know, the expression never got applied in a different context. I’ve never heard of ‘bowling widows,’ for example.

      I do enjoy working with this poetic form. You thinking this one nice is especially nice.

    1. Thanks, Jeanie. Sing-song verse can be boring, but verse that sings always is a good thing.

      Speaking of singing, and creativity, I suppose you’ve heard about the death of Terry Jones. The first thing that came to mind was your annual viewing of The Life of Brian. He was so funny, and it’s quite a loss in a world less willing to let humor flow.

  7. I’ve read your lines a couple of times trying to figure out what made me want to hear them repeated and realized that there is a rhythm that I hadn’t expected. The words seem to dance their way down the trapezoidal pattern your lines have created…
    As a lover of the blues, I don’t find a poem about a poem unusual at all.

    1. With this one, working to maintain the rhythm that established itself early was as important as getting the syllable count right. I’m glad you felt it. I hadn’t quite expected it either, but it suggests what can be done with the form. It’s also a reminder that there are times when the words themselves set the direction, almost taking on a life of their own.

    1. I do enjoy them, but the urge to write one has to come upon me. I’ve never thought, “I guess I’ll write an etheree today,” then pulled up a chair and gone to work. But every now and then a phrase or sentence comes to mind and I think, “That needs to be an etheree.” It’s a little odd, really. But they’re great fun, and can veer off in any number of directions.

    1. Thanks, Deb. I’m really quite fond of this one. The thought has crossed my mind that I need to go back to some of my early ones, just to see if they need a little re-working. I’ve seen some possibilities for them that weren’t on my radar when I was just syllable-counting.

  8. Your talent and skills with words are always a joy, Linda. Your poem, as well as the reminder of the sacredness of winnowing, were a wonderful gift today. Thank you.

    1. I like that you used the word ‘sacred’ to describe winnowing, Jet. So many of the practices of the past weren’t just routine; they were seasonal markers, and reminders of our dependence on the earth. Too much of that has been lost, I fear. Thank you for the kind words about the poem, too. I do enjoy creating these, and I’m always happy when others enjoy them, too.

  9. I like this poem very much, wonderful language & imagery, and what a lovely thought, of poetry swirling upwards and into singing clouds. It reminded me of when I was a kid in school, and ran across the phrase “the music of the spheres,” and thinking how wonderful that these planets would harmonize and make music together as they spun around the sun – – and it seemed like it would naturally be wonderful mysterious chimes and ringing tones, wouldn’t it?

    Growing up, sometimes I’d run across an old barn, with an unusually tight floor, and big doors on two sides, must have been east & west, because of the typical winds, and they’d say, it’s a winnowing floor. They’d open both sets of doors, nearly the whole wall, and let the wind carry off chaff. Once in a great while, you’d even find a hand-cranked winnowing machine, and if it wasn’t rusted solid, a kid could turn the handle and usually make a nice eye-watering dust cloud.

    I feel like I should re-introduce myself – – looking at your Lagniappe gator, I realized WP had un-followed The Task at Hand. It’s done that a few times before – someone in Canada just mentioned that she’s had to re-follow my blog sev’l times. I’d actually thought you were just posting more infrequently, maybe traveling or something. Well, got some catchin’ up to do!

    In Milwaukee, it’s mixed snow & rain, a perfect day for playing music and reading.

    1. There’s been a lot of that WordPress frustration going around. I’ve had other people say they stopped getting notifications of my posts, and I’ve been unable to add ‘likes’ to a few posts. Right now, everything seems fine for me — I hope it straightens out for everyone else.

      I still remember first hearing the phrase “the music of the spheres.” It was the summer that our vacation Bible school teachers used the hymn “This is My Father’s World” for our focus for the week. Every day, we’d go out and find something related to a verse, and another little girl proposed the ball she used for playing jacks as a worthy example of a sphere. Why not? But I agree that, musically, the tinkling sound is better than the thump of a rubber ball.

      In fact, one of the last things I need to do to finish up my move is get out the drill and hang my wind chimes. They’re called Music of the Spheres, and you can choose soprano, alto, tenor, or bass, as well as a scale. I have the alto pentatonic — you can listen to them here. I wanted to meet all my neighbors and make sure they like wind chimes before I put them up. It’s a “go” from everyone, and I’ll be glad to hear them again.

      The thought of a winnowing floor makes me smile. Haylofts, corn cribs, wheat sheaves, and gleaning harvested fields bring the same sort of smile — but not detasseling. Corn detasseling was the midwestern version of chopping cotton, and it was usually the teenagers who did it for summer wages. After all, you could pile up a lot of money at fifty cents an hour! (And that’s no joke.)

    1. It is fun to read — and try! — different styles. Just like your haikus, etherees can be much more than syllable counting. That’s what makes them so enticing, and so much fun.

    1. I was happy with this one, Otto. Isn’t it fun when we can enjoy our own work? I’m glad you enjoyed this one, too. I had to “keep moving” around it for a while, but it was worth the effort.

  10. I find the idea of a poem being winnowed quite compelling. I have sometimes compared poetry to prose like spirits to wine (or beer, I suppose). Each has alcohol, but one packs a punch with a lot less.

    1. The more I think about winnowing as a metaphor for the poetic process, the more I like it. I think the reason is that it suggests all the forces outside the poet that help to shape the final result. The nature of that ‘wind’ will vary from writer to writer, and even from poem to poem, but it’s always blowing. It also suggests that the experience of being ‘becalmed’ or ‘in irons’ could be metaphors for what we usually call writer’s block!

  11. I love the way it was composed. I can visualize all of it, particularly: “…surge aloft: a shed
    and swirling chaff sentenced now to fly ~ sibilant bits mixing with metaphor; rising
    in clouds thick with sweet, singing rhythm; seeking the joy of allitérant skies…” with the beautiful work by Rudolf Lehmann.

    I read it several times, and the title ‘The Word-Winnower’ also reveals what I interpreted. Words may be meaningful but only in the context of time and space. Words will soon escape us, and what is left is only the memory. Words will easily become “swirling chaff sentenced now to fly.” The meaning one has now is transient.

    1. When I wrote it, I was thinking in a just slightly different way: that the ‘good’ words, weighted with meaning, fall to the ground, while the ‘chaff’ — the unnecessary words — fly away. While it’s a way of talking about editing, poetically, the difference is the addition of the wind: all those external forces that impose a kind of natural editing on our words. You mentioned one: the transience of words. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of the perfect word to use here or there, and within minutes, it’s just gone. I’m getting better at keeping paper and pencil with me.

      1. Thank you, because I understand it now more completely. It is elegantly composed with so much food for thought.

        When I read the poem I also thought of the proverbial saying in Spanish: “Las palabras se las lleva el viento.” (the wind will blow away words). It is a saying that is often used when someone talks too much and doesn’t do anything, meaning that useful words are to be accompanied by goals and actions. To tell someone that “las palabras se las lleva el viento” is a sign of mistrust. It’s actually more colloquial than a proverb. It’s used as a warning even, referring to someone that has not acted upon his/her words. Just sharing this as an anecdote of my past.

        1. That’s a wonderful and useful saying. I’ve known people like that. When I was growing up, the saying in English was, “He’s all talk, and no action.” There are other, more colloquial ways to say the same thing. One of the best-known Texas versions is, “He’s all hat, and not cattle.” Sometimes, people refer to others who “talk a good game.” Obviously, the experience is common across cultures. I’m sure if we dug a little, we’d find similar examples from all around the world.

  12. A most enjoyable read from the title to the end, Linda. The etheree verse rhythm is awesome and your alliterations are simple wonderful. Take a bow.

    1. Thank you, Dina. I’m especially fond of this one. There’s always a sense of amazement after the fact, when all the aspects of the poem fit together well. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I’ve re-read it a few times myself!

  13. Lovely prose, Linda. The word “winnower” was thought-provoking for me. I remembered when I first learned the word – from my grandmother, while we were deadheading spent flowers and she showed me how to separate the chaff from the seed, collect the seeds and put them in paper envelopes (never plastic bags lest they spoil), and store in a cool, dry spot. I don’t believe I’ve run across that word in many decades. It’s a beautiful and descriptive word. The rhythm of the poem creates a vision of my grandmother gently shaking and tossing chaff and seed.

    1. The farther we move from our roots in the natural and agricultural worlds, the more words like ‘winnow’ fade from use, and finally from memory. It wasn’t until I began collecting wildflower seed that I remembered the practice, and began using it again myself. I might not have known to use paper bags rather than plastic, had I not learned some seed collecting techniques from people in the native plant society here, but once I understood that, I understood why all of those wonderful seed packets (with the gorgeous art!) are made of paper.

      I need to catch up on the news of you and the deer, but I really wish you could spend an hour here to see the action at the bird feeders. Everyone still is a little skittish, but I have three gray squirrels and one fox squirrel now, and so many chickadees, wrens, house finches, and doves that some of them finally have begun using the tube feeders. I can watch them from my desk, and once the weather warms enough to keep the windows open, I should be able to shoot photos of them at relatively close range.

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