POETRY TENDS TO BE PLAIN-SPOKEN AND PERSONAL
“Uncle, for God’s sake, speak comfortable words.”
--from Shakespeare’s RICHARD II
Regarding diction (which means word choice), there are basically two kinds of words: public (ones we use in the marketplace or workplace, and in formal situations) and personal, “comfortable” words (ones spoken among friends, in the home, etc.) Stuart Chase once said: “The long word may be the best word to use, but not because it’s long.” Poets tend to prefer personal, close words, such as “house” instead of “residence.”
Of course, as I’ve said before, there will always be exceptions. Emily Dickinson uses a long word exquisitely well at the beginning of a poem:
Exaltation is the going
of an inland soul to sea . . .
The word “incarnadine” comes up in MACBETH, referring to blood-stained hands. Robinson Jeffers, in a poem about looking forward to being consumed by buzzards after his death, says: “What an enskyment!” (I think he made up that word, which also happens in poetry, though not often.)
One of my favorite long words, which is a noun used an adjective, can be found in “To His Coy Mistress,” written centuries ago, by Andrew Marvell:
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow. . .
I’m sure Marvell savored that phrase, “vegetable love.” But even though there are always exceptions to any “rule,” poets generally prefer the common, shorter, everyday words of personal conversation. “What are days?”asks Philip Larkin in his poem, “Days.” And he answers himself: “Days are to be happy in . . . Where can we live but days?” This is clear, straight-forward, accessible language. What’s true of everyday conversation is also true of poetry: it’s harder to be straight-forward and clear and concise than it is to be long-winded, complicated, and obscure.
Maybe you’ve noticed that quite often when you hear someone excited speak, it’s as if they’re relying on something spontaneous and sincere—not something that’s overly “thought out” and deliberate. I had a very wise karate sensei who once told my class that, when you have something to say to someone, and look them in the eye and say it clearly and plainly, they can’t turn away from you—they have to listen. That was a karate lesson that worked for me, from then on, outside the dojo in everyday life.
You’ve heard it said that “there’s no such thing as a concise lie.” “What you hear coming out of a man’s horn, that’s what he is,” said the great jazz man, Louie Armstrong. The same can be said of how we use words. You know a lot about someone by the way they speak, and by the words they use—let alone what they say. In fact, when a person is being honest and forthright, it’s hard to separate the content from the style.
There’s a poem by James Wright in which the speaker is looking down into a river, where a woman he’s had affection for has jumped from a bridge to her death. Here are the last lines
Come up, love, out of the river,
or I will come down to you.
I believe that one reason some people turn away from poetry is that it can make them uncomfortable with its directness and powerfully expressed emotions. We all have these recycled emotions and ideas and thoughts going through our minds all the time, and poetry can sharpen them and expose them with lines like the ones above, by James Wright.
Or consider these lines in a poem called “A Blessing,” also by James Wright, about watching two Indian ponies standing close together in a field. The speaker and a friend approach them, stand close to them, and observe the horses, noticing that
They bow shyly as wet swans.
They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
I’ve always been a little puzzled by those last two lines. And yet there’s something right about what Wright says here: love and loneliness sometimes do go together. You may think they shouldn’t go together, and yet they can and do. Some of us just don’t care to think that it’s possible. And that’s alright too. Poetry, like Nascar racing or chess, is not for everyone.
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Poets like to speak in the dialect they grew up with, if only because they find those words and inflections comfortable. Consider Gwendolyn Brooks’ well-known poem, “We Real Cool,” which begins: “We real cool/ we left school.” She grew up on the South Side of Chicago where young men might very well say something like “We Reeeaaaal Cool,” which is how Ms. Brooks read the line when I attended her reading in Minnesota many years ago. It sounded authentic to me, and made me realize that I’d been reading it aloud to classes without the authentic inflections for decades. The poem is ironic, of course. The young men who hung out at the pool hall lived reckless lives and died way too young. They were anything but “cool.”
Consider the ending line of Carl Sandburg’s poem, about a passenger train and its passengers:
I ask a man in the smoker where he is going and he answers: Omaha.’
That Midwestern diction, and tone of voice, along with the triple-rhythm-pacing of the line with its many syllables, has always reminded me of a train clicking down the tracks. This line—in fact Sandburg’s poetry in general—has been pretty much my standard as a poet for all of my career, or ever since I found the train poem and a few others by Sandburg in a book (which I still have) on my dad’s book shelves in the hallway of our house in Sioux City, Iowa. The poem, called LIMITED, especially its ending line, had a genuine quality to me, and it was ironic that, at the time I discovered the poem (about 1954, at the age of 14), I was living on a railroad bluff, so I just happened to have been very familiar with passenger trains.
Also, I’d never in my life seen the word Omaha in a poem. This was something altogether new to my young mind—a revelation. How could it be? I was thinking to myself. How could a poet use a word like that—naming something so local, so close by, in fact only 90 miles down the highway from Sioux City: another packinghouse town like ours! Seeing the word amounted to a giant leap in my life as a language person (though at the time I didn’t consider myself a language person at all, but pretty much a jock). It was a sledge-hammer word: Omaha. And it would help me realize, over time and especially in my apprenticeship years as a poet, that poetry can come right out of one’s own personal experience, out of one’s own backyard, or, just over the railroad bluff—there it is, a poem: Look! And other things as well: the roundhouse, the oil cars, the steam engines and their hissing steam—all of it. I could write about what I was familiar with: Trains, yes, and pole vaulting, running with a football, high school buddies, my girlfriend—the Missouri flood of 1952, walking through sewers with a flashlight, anything, all of it . . . .
Another example I found by Sandburg in those same moments that day—I still recall, vividly, standing there with that thick, dark blue anthology in my hand, THE OXFORD BOOK OF AMERICAN POETRY, which my dad probably found at the Salvation Army store under the viaduct—was from Sandburg’s poem, “Fish Crier.”
I know a fish crier down on Maxwell Street who has a voice
like the north wind blowing over corn stubble in January.
Those lines were believable to me as well, since, up to the age of eight I lived on an acreage that was bordered by cornfields. I had heard the sound of the wind “blowing over corn stubble in January.” It was an enchanting sound already fixed in my memory. In recent years, I stole the phrasing and imagery from Sandburg in a short landscape poem.
Even poems written hundreds of years ago can sound believable as speech. The following lines have been around for a long time:
Come live with me and be my love,
and we will all the pleasures prove . . .
And of course Shakepeare’s sonnet that begins
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
How about Nursery rimes, for instance: “Hinx, minx, the old witch winks,/the fat begins to fry,/there’s nobody home but Jumping Joan,/and father and mother and I.” ? I think that poem is about 500 years old, and its diction is still fresh.
These opening lines of a poem by a recent American poet also have a truthful tone and rhythm and diction, at least for me:
The last time I saw Donald Armstrong
he was staggering off oddly into the sun,
going down, of the Philippine Islands.
I’ve spoken in this column and elsewhere about poets imitating and/or stealing from other poets. Many years after reading the poem I just quoted from, I wrote a poem about watching a baseball game in Kansas City. The poem begins:
The best thing in my head of baseball
and Kansas City is the Royals playing the Red Sox . . .
My opening line has the exact rhythm of the other poet’s opening line, one that I think creates a lot of initial momentum and drama. You see, I had that line and its rhythm in my head and it just came out at the beginning of my poem. I don’t think it was a conscious thing—it was just there in my memory—a line by one of my favorite poets, and one who, like Sandburg, has had a powerful influence on my own development as a poet: James Dickey.
Take a look at any poem you’ve liked for many years. Read it aloud, and ask yourself: does this sound like someone talking? Does it sound like real speech, what some have called “heightened speech?” (A good definition of poetry, I think.)
Consider the opening lines of a poem by Janet Lewis called “Girl Help”:
Mild and slow and young
she moves about the room,
and stirs the summer dust
with her wide broom . . .
Note the familiar diction here, and the slow, deliberate pacing—a girl taking her time as she does her work around the house. Even the long vowel sounds—“mild, slow, young,” etc. slow down the pacing of the poem. Again: whether you use meter and rime (as in the lines above), or write free verse, try to draw from the actual speech rhythms and vocabulary of what you hear around you, and what you yourself sound like when you talk. That is where poetry begins and ends: in how we speak, and the words we use, mostly in private, around friends and family. Comfortable words.