Thursday, November 16, 2006

What Words Sound

The question is asked: What are some favorite words you have that sound poetic?

My first thought is: The very last thing a poet should do is go in search of words that "sound poetic." The thing a poet should go in search of is the perfect, most apt word, for any idea or emotion they are trying to represent in writing. Poetry is nothing to do with "poetic words," but with stringing together poetic and unpoetic words so that they ignite poetry in the reader and/or listener.

A word "sounds poetic" if it's the right word for the moment, used in the right way, in the context of the poem. Even the plainest, most ordinary, everyday language can, in the context of a poem, become heightened, liminal, numinous, exalted. (Go ahead, look those words up.)

There are no shortcuts. Reading lots of poetry, and, frankly, reading dictionaries, is the only way to go about it. The language is full of fabulous, bizarre, ostentatious, mellifluous words, and it's a joy to discover them. The trick, if it is a trick, is to learn how to use the words correctly and intuitively, with their meanings clear and their usage intentional.

I get questioned, in some of my poems, about language I sometimes borrow from physics and geology; having studied both of those disciplines, I know how to use the word correctly, with its proper meaning and context, and in the context of a phrase in a poem. But it works because I've studied physics and geology, not because I just threw in the word for fun. It also works because of the layered meanings, not because it's specialized jargon.

If one goes about looking for poetic-sounding words, the end result is often that the poem sounds very self-consciously "poetic" and doesn't come over as natural or authentic, but rather as artificial and forced. I have to ask at that point if the word is serving the poem, or killing it.

Sounding self-consciously poetic often involves sounding anachronistic, like an imitation 18th or 19th century poet; which might be acceptable under certain conditions, with certain intentions for the poem; for example, in parody. But I find it difficult to relate to a poem that's talking about a contemporary subject as though Andrew Marvell had written about it; it just rarely works, and it's really hard to pull off. It can be done, but it's rare. Lots of beginners think if they just try to sound like their favorite 19th century poet, then they've pulled A Great Poem; this is one of the classic beginner's mistakes. What young poets don't realize, when they do that, is how they come across is derivative, cliched, mannered, and self-conscious.

Poetry is a subtle art: it's language, yes, but it's heightened, non-ordinary language, it's more-than-speech. It's condensed speech, compressed, intensified language. Imitation is a great way to learn how to write poems, at the start of a career, but at some point you have to give over imitating your poetic idols, and start writing in your own voice.

About dictionaries and thesauri:

I'm geeky enough to have read them for fun, early on. I spent most of the 5th and 6th grades reading dictionaries for the pleasure of learning new words; thanks to a pretty good memory, nowadays I rarely need to look things up.

Having said that, I do occasionally find terrific old dictionaries and thesauri in thrift stores and Goodwill for next to nothing. A buck or two for a tome that you could stun an ox with. I especially enjoy unabridged dictionaries published before 1960; I have three or four of them, all found for a couple bucks apiece. They're great to have on hand. I also have some big dictionary-organized books of quotations, found in similar ways.

My advice to any young poet:

Discover the love of words. Get geeky. Enjoy learning about words for their own sake, for no other purpose. Then, and only othen, you will be ready to write poetry.

If you're looking to increase your historical knowledge of words, I recommend "Merriam Webster's Vocabulary Builder." This book presents a creative way to expand your vocabulary, while also picking up a lot of other stuff along the way. Learning a foreign language is a terrific way to get more into words; you'll find your knowledge of your own native language increasing exponentially as you go about the process.

I can't really provide a list of my own favorite words, because most of them you would really have to strain to use in a poem, without sounding mannered or ridiculous. I like these words simply for their sound and sense, in themselves:


Write your own list. You may never use any of the words in a poem, but they contain pleasures in themselves.

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