Day 28 of 31 Poems in 31 Days
Choose Your Words
Some poets write what they feel and spend very little time thinking about which word to use. They rely on instinct. Other poets spend a considerable amount of time trying to choose exactly the right words. They analyze and consider every word. I’m not going to advocate one method over the other. In my opinion, it is up to the poet to determine their approach to word choice. I am certainly in the middle of the road with my approach. I care about word choice, and I will often consider the benefits of one word over another, but I would consider myself completely sidetracked if I spent more than a few minutes deciding on whether or not one word is more perfect over another.
There are six general ways to influence and analyze your choice of words. The type of poem you write can make a difference in your choices. A poem with a metered form is going to involve choices about rhythm. A visually structured poem will entail a greater emphasis on appearance. A persona poem will require an increased focus on style. Beyond form, there is the individual style of the poet, which leads to subconscious word choices. Below are the six methods that you can use to determine word choice.
Meaning: The meaning of a word can be important in several ways. Obviously you want a word with the correct definition, but there are other considerations. Sometimes you want to reflect on the alternate meanings of a word in addition to the contextual meaning of a word. For example, you can say “we were filming the movie” or “we were shooting the movie”. Both phrases are correct in context, but the word shooting brings in other images because it has alternate meanings. Filming is the more precise word, which may be what the poet wants, but shooting has connotations of both violence and achievement (shooting a gun, shooting for the stars) that filming does not. These differences can have an overall effect on the poem, especially if reinforced with other word choices elsewhere in the poem.
Style: Another consideration is style and usage. Some words are more formal than others. For example, “cannot” and “can’t” are essentially the same word, but cannot is the accepted formal usage and can’t, like all contractions, is considered informal. Even more informal usages, such as slang or colloquialisms like cain’t, create a much different effect.
Rhythm: The rhythm of a word is essentially its meter, which I have discussed in earlier posts. It is the general pattern of the word, stressed syllables versus unstressed syllables. Even if you aren’t attempting to write a poem with a formal meter, you may find that you want a particular rhythm, especially for words on the same line.
Sound: The way a word sounds is always a consideration in poetry. The following words all mean essentially (though not exactly) the same thing: apron, bib, smock, pinafore. Each of these words has a different sound. Apron and pinafore have softer and longer sounds compared with bib and smock. If the exact meaning of the word isn’t your primary concern, then you might choose one of the four because it fits your sound requirements. It may rhyme, be alliterative, be assonant or add any of a number of other qualities to your poem.
Length: The length of a word can have very definite effects on a poem. The eye and even the voice tend to move more quickly over short words than long, even if the total number of syllables per line is the same. Short words tend to present as more active than long words. Long words tend to present as more formal and intellectual than short words.
Appearance: The final consideration in word choice is how the word looks on the page. For some poets, especially those who work with visual structures, this can be important. The words “little” and “modest” have similar meanings, the same number of letters and the same stresses, but the letters of the word little are (overall) taller and narrower than the letters in modest. For a visually-oriented poet, this can determine which word gets used.
Today’s Poetry Assignment
Write a poem that includes one or more descriptions of sounds.