Copy editors ... write poetry

By Don Munday
The Kansas City Star
Someone once said that prose is words in their best order, and poetry is the best words in the best order; and certainly copy editors writing a 2-48-3 have to have the best words in the best order in the shortest space for the headline to work. Hence my contention that all copy editors write poetry; many headlines are poetry, at least in cadence if not in rhyme.

Rhyme and poetry are a natural offshoot from working with words. I well remember one of my professors at the University of Kansas, John Bremner, enthusiastically reciting the John Ciardi's "Widgeon in a Wicopy" poem (watch Bremner read the poem here) as an example of how merely perusing a dictionary can spark the creative fires.

When I started out as a copy editor at the Wichita Eagle-Beacon in Wichita, Kan., I did the "People" column, which was basically celebrity news. Perhaps foolishly, they told me to jazz it up, which I did, sometimes writing little ditties that played off the news. Often they were parodies, ranging from A.E. Housman to Ernest Thayer's "Casey at the Bat."

For example - and this was back when the British royal family was in happier days - a story about the first birthday of little Prince William ran with his baby picture and this poem:

"When I turned one and nothing
I heard my nanny say:
'Your folks are off in Canada;
It's not a special day.'
But one day I'll be king, and then
They'll serve lots more than tea
Each time my birthday rolls around,
And they say, 'God save me!'"

At The Kansas City Star, when I became a slot I'd sometimes send stories back to copy editors with a little ditty to act as a mnemonic on some point of style or usage. For example:

"I have to use Immodium
When people misuse 'podium.'"

Eventually the editors here kindly let me have a column in the Monday paper, called “Munday on Monday.” That column, in verse form, has been running weekly for four years now. The general theme of "Munday on Monday" (if there is one) is "what irritates me this week? The guy who stands with two dozen items in the 10-items-or-less express line? People who talk aloud in movie theaters?" Or, in "Grammar Chat," the topic was closer to home for any copy editor:

Grammar chat

IN THE NEWS: Birds display knowledge of a rudimentary type of bird "grammar," scientists say.

Our feathered friends show common sense
With preposition, noun and tense;
Their singing chirp is steady, yet
Is subject, bird and predicate.
The wise old owl knows hoo from hoom;
The robin proved he also knew'm
While thrush and starling tend to pause
To diagram each sep'rate clause
(Their placement of each adjective
Is really quite imagin'tive.)
And lest you be the least confused
The passive voice was also used.
Yet stumped they were by should and would'r
'Cause humans know our grammar gooder.

Then in 2005 I began assembling a Web feature on The Star's Web site, Kansascity.com. The Afternoon Coffee Break feature is meant to help drive traffic to the site in the afternoons. It's a blend of Kansas City trivia questions, puzzles, goofy wire photos, and things geared toward people who'll be heading home from work soon (hence a recipe and that night's TV listings.)

As part of the Coffee Break, I write Web-only poems, sometimes two a week, sometimes more. Most of those poems have tended to be topical, played off something in the news - say, the demotion of Pluto from the list of planets. I may carry such a topic to extremes, say, by imagining what if geographers bumped down the list of continents from seven to four.

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