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Steve Kowit's "The Grammar Lesson"

Updated on October 9, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Steve Kowit


Steve Kowit's "The Grammar Lesson"

A noun's a thing. A verb's the thing it does.
An adjective is what describes the noun.
In "The can of beets is filled with purple fuzz"

*of* and *with* are prepositions. *The's*
an article, a *can's* a noun,
a noun's a thing. A verb's the thing it does.

A can *can* roll - or not. What isn't was
or might be, *might* meaning not yet known.
"Our can of beets *is* filled with purple fuzz"

is present tense. While words like our and us
are pronouns - i.e. *it* is moldy, *they* are icky brown.
A noun's a thing; a verb's the thing it does.

Is is a helping verb. It helps because
*filled* isn't a full verb. *Can's* what *our* owns
in "Our can of beets is filled with purple fuzz."

See? There's almost nothing to it. Just
memorize these rules...or write them down!
A noun's a thing, a verb's the thing it does.
The can of beets is filled with purple fuzz.

Reading of Kowit's "The Grammar Lesson"


Kowit's whimsical villanelle makes fun of both the poetry form and the ultimate utility of the elementary grammar lesson.

Steve Kowit's "The Grammar Lesson" is a whimsical villanelle, 19 lines with the traditional rime scheme, ABAABAABAABAABAABAA, scattered among five tercets and one quatrain. The repeated lines that form the refrain plus the final refrain repetition are also present in this villanelle.

(Please note: The incorrect spelling, "rhyme," was erroneously introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson. For my explanation for using only the correct form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

First Tercet: "A noun's a thing. A verb's the thing it does"

The speaker pretends to offer a grammar lesson beginning with the noun, which he explains, "is a thing." Immediately, he moves on to the verb, which he defines as "what a thing does." The reader will identify with this lesson learned in elementary school that a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing, and a verb always describes an action or state of being.

The speaker concludes his first tercet with an example sentence that contains an adjective that describes the noun: "The can of beets is filled with purple fuzz."

Second Tercet: "of and with are prepositions. The's"

The speaker tackles the prepositions, pointing out that of and with in the preceding sentence are prepositions. He says that "the" is an article; he notes that can is a noun, and then he repeats the definition of noun, "a noun's a thing." He also repeats, "A verb's the thing it does."

The poet finds himself in a lucky position: the villanelle requires repetition, and so does teaching a grammar lesson. Thus, this happy situation provides the poet and his speaker with the tools simply to have some whimsical fun.

Third Tercet: "A can can roll - or not. What isn't was"

The speaker continues his lesson by illustrating the interesting fact that both "can" as a noun and "can" as a verb exist side by side in the language: "A can can roll or not." He then tackles the curiosity of tenses, emphasizing that "might" means "not yet known."

Returning to the can of beets, he uses the line, "Our can of beets is filled with purple fuzz," to demonstrate the tense of the be verb, which he carries on into the next tercet.

Fourth Tercet: "is present tense. While words like our and us"

Here the reader discovers that "is" is present tense, as exemplified in the can of beets example. The speaker next moves on to pronouns, stating that words like "our and us / are pronouns." Clinging to the can of beets image, he offers further examples of pronouns: "it is moldy" and "they are icky brown."

And yet again, the required return to refrain, "A noun's a thing; a verb's the thing it does. "

Fifth Tercet: "Is is a helping verb. It helps because"

Explaining the nature of the helping verb, the speaker elucidates that "is" is a helping verb because "filled" is not a full verb; thus it requires a helper. He then returns to the pronoun, this time explaining the possessive pronoun's use, "Can's what our owns."

Of course, he is once again referring back to his sample sentence, "Our can of beets is filled with purple fuzz."

Quatrain: "See? There's almost nothing to it. Just"

Quite possibly growing weary of his grammar lesson, the speaker decided to sum up. He first asks his phantom student, "See?" And continues by claiming that grammar lessons are really quite simple.

The speaker then admonishes his student to simply "memorize these rules . . . or write them down!" To which he attaches the requisite, final repetition: "A noun's a thing, a verb's the thing it does. / The can of beets is filled with purple fuzz."

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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