Aspiring poets always think it’s all about the poetry. Read poetry. Write poetry. Study poetry. Buy poetry (via those expensive stores, M, F, and A). But, no. There’s more to it than that. There’s the simple stuff, often overlooked. Let’s start with words.
I can hear you now: “Words? What do you mean by words. I use words all the time! What do you think my poems are made of–broccoli stalks?”
Well, first of all, that would be pretty cool. And nutritious. But I mean word choice–or, as the French call it, le mot juste–and word choice depends upon a solid store of words, one that has a loading dock out back where trucks marked Brains R Us can bring in more supplies each day.
School didn’t end with school, in other words. You need to boost your vocabulary, mostly so you can understand as many words as possible when you read poetry, but also so you can avoid using these words in your own poems.
Ha-ha. A little curveball for you. I say avoid using them because, like thesaurus-itis (that dreaded disease), strutting-your-vocabulary-itis can be life-threatening to poems. Occasionally you will use a new vocabulary word, but mostly you will take a pass on it, especially if it’s a fancy, Latin-based word.
Don’t get me wrong–the dead language will have its place in your poems now and then, but the lion’s share will be Greek and Anglo-Saxon based. Plus, you want the nuclear option to use any old (or new) word you know because that’s power, the kind found in your pencil or keyboard thanks to the cauliflower pulling the strings (we’re back you your brain via vegetables, you see).
So, how do you do it? One simple way to boost the number of words available to your poems is to sign up for Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day. I look forward to my morning word-in-the-inbox. Yes, it’s often familiar (like today’s “malign”), but its roots, related words, and etymology are often not so familiar. What’s more, M-W gives you two examples of the words from the real (vs. the one in Washington D.C. right now) world.
How cool is that? Ask your air conditioner, then word-up
No Comments “Word Up!”
I so like how you turned this around to “so you can avoid using these words.” I had to look up about 30 words in a recent collection I read, and found it most annoying. They were mostly medical and scientific words. I consider myself fairly attuned to medicine for a layperson, but you shouldn’t need to be an M.D. or chemistry major to follow a book of poems. In a journal, I’d have skipped this author and turned to the next poem.
I’ve noticed that trend, too, especially in journals like POETRY. I don’t mind an occasional $10 word. Sometimes I’ll look it up and say, “OK, that’s specific for a reason,” but for the most part I use the same common sense rule as in real life: Never use big-shot words to show off. Keep them to yourself unless you (or your poem) really, really need them.