Today, I enter the chapter of my textbook, an Introduction to Poetry, 7th ed. Kennedy, titled: “Saying and Suggesting”. And if a poet doesn’t get this part, then he or she really isn’t writing poetry. Words are the root of everything and fully understanding the denotation, what a word’s dictionary definition is, and connotation, the word’s implied meaning, of them the poem can end up being lackluster or just plain silly.
Let’s say a poet refers to his girlfriend as a wolf. Perhaps he is thinking that she is someone who is powerful, one with nature, fierce and independent – maybe he even thinks of them as cute and cuddly and chooses adjectives to indicate that. He forgets that most people see wolves as evil and unlovable, or at the very least, too independent to form any real bond with. Most people will read this poem and think, “Whoah! Does this guy hate his girlfriend?” Some people may read the adjectives “cute” and “cuddly” associated with the wolf image and simply laugh – that doesn’t even exist in the dictionary definition of a wolf.
It reminds me of an episode from the series “Better Off Ted” a short lived sitcom about life in a huge corporation. One of the workers, Linda, asks to be allowed to decorate her cubical and in response they decorate it with cat paraphernalia. (By the way, I love that despite the fact that word “paraphernalia” always brings out a chuckle in pot smokers. If you look it up in the dictionary, it simply means equipment – it’s used to indicate the things associated with a particular object. But because of the secret code language that drug users have been forced to use, it has become indelibly associated with drugs and means I can never use it without people thinking that I’m referring to drug habits. Some connotations are irksome!!) Linda takes one look at her cubical and says: “Does this mean that the company thinks that I’m going to die alone and surrounded by kitty liter.” The company has given other people the same decorative theme (because they thought it was too dangerous to allow everyone to decorate their own cubicals) and her fellow cat-mate says, “Yeah, I thought that at first, but then I realized cats are smart, fierce and independent. That’s what the company thinks we are.”
It makes you realize that there are very different ways of looking at a word. “Cat” can connotate crazy-cat lady in her slippers and dirty bathrobe or someone who is smart, fierce and independent (like a favorite anti-hero of mine in the Batman series). But if something as simple as the word “cat” can imply so much think of what a minefield more complicate words, or series of words can be.
Here is a poem that uses it’s words to make very strong connotations. If you only look at the superficial definition of them, the poem doesn’t say very much, but there is definitely a message – the poet has very strong feelings about his subject matter. See if you can catch it.
by John Masefield
Quinquireme* of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.
Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidres**.
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.
*Quinquireme: an ancient Assyrian vessel propelled by sails and oars.
**Moidores: Portuguese coins.
The book asks you to notice of the ancient connections given by the first half of the poem (i.e. Ophir, an Arabian city that vanished was where King Solomon sent for gold, ivory, apes, peacocks and other luxuries). Whereas everything from the second half is “dirty” and new, but commonplace. And the word “pig” in is deliberately placed there for all the disparaging connotation (of which there is so much) you can place in a stanza.