‘The crown of literature is poetry. It is its end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind. It is the achievement of beauty and delicacy.’ ~W. Somerset Maugham
What powers does the poet wield to create this sublimity? To infuse poetry with nuanced meaning and gorgeous vistas? One of the fiercest must surely be language itself. Words, in all their grand, melodic, rending, shaping, and intensifying character entwining to form entire worlds on a page, allow poets to achieve feats of transportation and transformation. Welcome fellow word lovers my name is Anna Montgomery (blogging at chromapoesy) and I am thrilled to be your guest host for Poetics.
Today I hope you’ll join me on an expedition into the wilds of language. We’ll roam through the thickets of texture, the landscapes of sound, and oceans of meaning they embody. It may seem basic but the diction we employ as poets has enormous power. It reveals an aesthetic sensibility, can induce laughter, sharpen tone, create characterization, refine nuance, sing with rhyme, seduce with beauty, soothe with rhythm, introduce the reader to new ideas, help their visualization, entice with foreign words, or even merrily confound them with nonsense. To get the creative juices flowing I’m going to talk about some of the many ways to increase intentional use of language in your poetry and give some examples. We’ll look through the lens of virtuosic diction, neologisms, nonsense words, and colloquialisms. In a few weeks I’ll be back to talk about incorporating foreign languages and terms from specialized disciplines.
While what constitutes virtuosity in poetry is rightly contested, somewhat a matter of aesthetic taste, one sonnet widely recognized for its remarkable diction is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias. In this poem that speaks of the ephemerality of political power he creates texture, irony, and a sense of the passage of time through imaginative and specific word choices.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
Diction may also be enhanced though the creation of new words. As many of you know, Shakespeare regularly coined neologisms. He lived through a golden era of culture when the English language was becoming more expressive and mutable. Some marvelous words we owe to Shakespeare’s writing include: auspicious, castigate, courtship, disheartened, fitful, gnarled, invulnerable, lonely, multitudinous, obscene, pious, radiance, and sanctimonious to credit just a few. His contribution to the English language could be favorably compared to Italian’s historic debt of gratitude to Dante Alighieri.
For fun with neologisms we can turn to comedian Rich Hall who calls them Sniglets, words that should exist but don’t. Cinemuck: The sticky substance on the floor of a movie theater. Lactomangulation: Manhandling the ‘open here’ spout on a milk carton so badly that one has to resort to using the ‘illegal side’. Here are a couple of my own that I use at home now that I’ve adopted two puppies from a shelter. Dogzilla: When a normal, sweet puppy transmogrifies into a rampaging monster embarking on a reign of terror (really just a good bit of fun and mischief involving shoes). Scamperskritch: Various hops, contortions, turnabouts, and frantic scratching accomplished by a puppy when she learns why she shouldn’t stand on an ant hill.
Not all made up words make it into the lexicon, nor are they intended to and this is where nonsense words come into play. Dr. Seuss and Lewis Carroll were famous for making up words. Some marvelously strange ones at that. Some of the Dr’s: wocket, squitsch, midwinter jicker, zlock, jertain, whisper-ma-phone, diffendoofer, and bippo-no-bungus. Carroll’s Jabberwocky (appearing in Alice in Wonderland) contains some great phrases: slithy toves, gyre and gimble, vorpal blade, and snicker-snack. Reading Jabberwocky causes Alice to exclaim: “’It seems very pretty’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Sometimes it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are!’”
When unique words or changes in pronunciation make it into the collective conversation of a region they can be considered colloquialisms. While we frequently associate them with the pages of novels they do appear in poetry. Colloquialisms can strengthen characterization and are used to excellent effect in narrative or persona poems.
One poet that used the contrast of more formal language and colloquial speech well was Langston Hughes. His poem The Weary Blues weaves the two seamlessly as the singer intones:
‘Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’,
And put ma troubles on the shelf.’
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more -
Please write a poem incorporating one or more of the suggestions above:
employ complex words or nuanced meanings; make up your own words or borrow neologisms from other writers; add some colloquialisms; and/or create nonsense words or fold in some from others. If you’d like you can include notes about your choices, definitions, translations, or whatever else you’d like to share. I encourage you to be creative, curious, mindful, willing to use your tools, and courageous.
There are about a quarter of a million distinct words in the English language, giving you lots of opportunities to learn and remember the observation of W.H. Auden, ‘A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.’
Additional sources of inspiration: Wordnik, connecting people with meaning, a fun source for getting multiple definitions, synonyms, superordinates, subordinates, and other good stuff
Here’s how it works…
- Write your poem
- Post it on your blog
- Click the Mr. Linky button below, and in the new window that opens up input your name and direct url of the poem
- Visit others who have taken the challenge
- Have word-fun!