18 Reading Poetry Words
“Poetry: the best words in the best order.” ─Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Diction • Indeed, since poetry is, by nature, the most economic form of literature, poets struggle to find exactly the right word and to place it in exactly the right order. • Words have many functions to fulfill in a poem. More intensely than fiction or prose, the words of a poem need to create a voice for the speaker and reveal character, setting, and situation; they need to create sound, rhythm, meter, and image, and they need to convey often complex emotions and ideas. And they need to do so in as brief a space as possible. • The choice of words is called diction. The selection of words can be a slow and painstaking process for the poet. • Carolyn Forché reveals the “secret” of poets: “They actually read the dictionary the way some people would read spy novels.”
“A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant.” − William Carlos Williams
The Economy of a Poem • Poets work hard to be brief. Sometimes a short poem can take months or longer to perfect. • Consider Ezra Pound’s introduction on perhaps his most anthologized poem: “I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work ‘of second intensity.’ Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokku-like sentence”: In a Station of the Metro The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet black bough. • Consider the richness of this powerfully brief but elusive image. Pound compares the commuters with their ghostlike faces to flower petals on a wet black bough. Have the petals been blown off their flowers in a rain storm? Does the poem present an image of vulnerability and beauty? • Consider Pound’s explanation of the poem’s origin: “Three years ago  in Paris I got out of a ‘metro’ train at La Concorde, and saw suddenlya beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening I found, suddenly,the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation … not in speech, but in little splotches of colour.”
Varieties of Diction – Formal • Poets will draw from the three general levels of language: formal, middle, and informal. No level is superior to another. The poet will select the one most suitable for the voice of the poem. • Formal – Prior to the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, led by Coleridge and Wordsworth, poets were expected to write in a formal diction, that is, a language that was elevated, lofty, and grand. Consider these lines from Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn”: Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on. • These lines are fitting given the lofty meditation of the speaker, but they would not be nearly as effective if the speaker were less educated or less introspective. • The level of language needs to fit the speaker and content of the poem.
Varieties of Diction – Informal • Informal diction refers to everyday language, including conversational speech and slang. The range of what can be defined as informal speech can be wide, depending on era, poet, and speaker. • Consider the following examples: I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. Walt Whitman, Song of Myself Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. It’s had tacks in it. Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son” Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there Marie Howe, “What the Living Do” Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through. Sylvia Plath, “Daddy” ▪ Consider what would be lost if these poems were written in a more elevated or formal language.
Varieties of Diction – Middle • A middle level of diction refers to educated standard English. Word usage is somewhat sophisticated and grammatically correct, but not extravagant or exalted. Middle diction is straightforward and direct without the colloquialisms of informal diction and without the grandiosity of formal diction. • Consider these examples: In ethics class so many years ago our teacher asked this question every fall… Linda Pastan, “Ethics” I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions. Sylvia Plath, “Mirror” Young as she is, the stuff Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy. Richard Wilbur, “The Writer”
Varieties of Diction continued … • Poets will sometimes combine the three different levels of speech within a single poem. • What levels of speech are at work in the following passages? If her horny feet protrude, they come To show how cold she is, and dumb. Let the lamp affix its beam. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream. Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” I admired his sullen face, the mechanism of his jaw, and then I saw that from his lower lip – if you could call it a lip – grim, wet, and weaponlike, hung five old pieces of fish line or four and a wire leader. Elizabeth Bishop, “The Fish,” My black face fades, hiding inside the black granite. I said I wouldn’t dammit: No tears. -- Yusef Komunyakaa “Facing It”
General vs. Specific Language • Language can be general and abstract or specific and concrete. • Abstract diction is language referring to something more general or conceptual, or perhaps a quality: “devotion,” “mercy,”and “serenity.” • Concrete language refers to something more specific and definite, words like “fish,” “ice cream,” and “tears.” • Concrete language can make an abstraction, a feeling, or something intangible come vividly to life. For example, consider the speaker’s confusion in Marge Piercy’s “The Secretary Chant”: “My head is a badly organized file.” • In “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” John Keats compares his excitement at reading a translation of Homer with an astronomer discovering a new planet: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken.”
General vs. Specific Language continued … • Concrete language can clarify and illustrate hard to describe feelings and emotions. For instance, in “After great pain, a formal feeling comes –,” Emily Dickinson uses concrete images and references (to tombs, wood, quartz, lead, and stone) to explain the numbness immediately after severe psychic pain. • Concrete language can create unique images and comparisons which can bring new perspectives to old concepts. In “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” John Donne compares the connectedness of two lovers by comparing them to a compass, the kind used in drawing circles. • Shakespeare proclaims that poetry will endure longer than other human structures and, therefore, the beauty of the person he addresses will shine as long as people exist: Not marble, nor the gilded monuments Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme But you shall shine more bright in these contents Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time. • Sometimes the effect can be comic, as Thomas Lynch’s opening to “Liberty”: Some nights I go out and piss on the front lawn as a form of freedom – liberty from porcelain and plumbing and the Great Beyond beyond the toilet and the sewage works.
Allusion • Poets often refer – or allude to – the work of other poets. Matthew Arnold alludes to Sophocles in his classic poem “Dover Beach,” which deepens the emotion of the poem. Sophocles, Arnold’s speaker says, heard the same sadness in the Aegean Sea as he hears as he looks at the English channel. • In “The Dover Bitch,” Anthony Hecht alludes to Arnold’s poem in a humorous way. He appropriates the voice of the woman who had accompanied Arnold’s speaker and who had listened to his melancholy. According to Hecht, she was not a kindred spirit and lost patience, saying “one or two unprintable things” to him. • Through allusions, poets maintain tradition and connect with poets and works they consider important and inspirational. Both Alexis Sherman in “Defending Walt Whitman” and Allen Ginsberg in “A Supermarket in California” evoke Walt Whitman, reflecting his poetic style and endorsing his vision of America. • Allusions can be a way for poets to respond or converse with earlier poets. Both Emily Dickinson’s “I died for Beauty – but was scarce” and Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar“ can be read as responses to Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
Allusions continued … • In the title to “‘Out, Out –’” Frost alludes to Shakespeare and a famous soliloquy of Macbeth from Act V, scene v: … Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more; it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. • If we know the soliloquy, the title of the poem and the first line with its reference to the snarling buzz saw induce an immediate chill in us. Despite the beautiful rural setting and the warm family atmosphere, we know from the title that the young boy’s death is inevitable.
Denotation vs. Connotation • Poets choose words for what they mean literally and for what they evoke. • Denotation refers to the dictionary meaning of the word, its direct and specific meaning. A tiger, for instance, can be defined as a large, carnivorous feline animal. • Connotation refers to the implications of the word, what it evokes beyond its literal definition. In “On Becoming a Tiger,” Lorna Goodison’s speaker, a victim of theft, pledges to transform herself into a tiger, meaning she intends to develop in herself those qualities that we associate with tigers: strength, pride, determination, beauty, courage, fierceness, and so on. She is determined to live with the quiet intensity of a predator. • In a form where language is compact and economical, connotative meaning further extends a poem’s potential scope, meaning, and implication. • Be aware that the connotation of a word often depends on context.
Denotation vs. Connotation continued … • After reading the poem below, focus on the connotations of the words in bold. Do these words suggest something similar? • Then consider the words in italics. What do they suggest? Delight in Disorder A sweet disorder in the dress Kindles in clothes a wantonness. A lawn about the shoulders thrown Into a finedistraction; An erring lace, which here and there Enthralls the crimson stomacher; A cuff neglectful, and thereby Ribbons to flow confusedly; A winning wave, deserving note, In the tempestuous petticoat, A careless shoestring, in whose tie I see a wild civility; Do more bewitch me than when art Is too precise in every part. – Robert Herrick
Denotation vs. Connotation continued … • The group of words in bold (thrown, distraction, neglectful, confusedly, careless) all suggest spontaneity, disorder, and liveliness. • In the context of this poem, the italicized words (sweet, kindles, wantonness, fine, wild, and bewitch) suggest the speaker’s passionate response to the woman’s dress. He is sexually aroused by her tastefully disordered dress, as he finds “delight in [her] disorder.”
Syntax or Word Order • Syntax refers to word order, i.e., the grammatical order of words in a sentence or line of poetry. • The word order of a simple English sentence is subject + verb + object, as in, “The student read a poem.” • Poets will often invert this standard syntax to develop emphasis, cadence, drama, or rhythmic effect. In the opening line of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” Frost writes, “Whose woods there are I think I know.” This unusual syntax slows the reading of the line, creating a more dramatic rhythm, and contributes to the speaker’s sense of uncertainty.
Syntax continued • Note the unconventional syntax to the opening of Donne’s “The Sun Rising”: Busy old fool, unruly sun, Why dost thou thus, Through windows, and through curtains call on us? • Most speakers would place “call on us” immediately after “thus.” However, Donne’s unconventional syntax shifts the rhythm, perhaps emphasizes the speaker’s anger, and certainly places the focus on us, which is especially appropriate for a poem about two lovers. • When you come across a syntax that seems disordered, try to determine the poet’s reason for that particular sequencing of words.
For Further Consideration 1. What do the levels of speech (formal, middle, informal) and the connotative power of their diction reveal about the speakers and their emotional states, particularly the way they deal with grief, in Auden’s “Funeral Blues” and Donald Hall’s “Letter with No Address”? 2. How does Shakespeare use both abstract and concrete language to reveal theme in “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” and “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”? 3. In D. H. Lawrence’s “Snake” and Emily Dickinson’s “A narrow Fellow in the Grass,” how are the speakers’ reaction to their dramas shaped by the denotative and connotative authority of language? How do the poets create meaning and effect through denotation and connotation?