Today, I’m back to talking about Words. I’m doing a lot of talking about words lately; it’s as if words were important to writing. They are! But just as important as choosing which words you want to use is, so is fully understanding what those words mean. If you want your work to reach any sort of depth and you don’t want to appear, well, stupid, make the dictionary your best friend.
Beware of your words, chose well.
I had once used the word “drone” for a female factory worker character to refer to herself as a sort of mindlessly working insect inside of a hive (or the idea of someone becoming a part of the “hive mind”). But when I looked the word up, I found that I was far from using its accurate definition. Yes, it’s a mindless insect, but it is always a male bee whose only purpose was to mate with the Queen Bee, otherwise they do no work at all. Well, there went that metaphor.
In Richard Wilbur’s “In the Elegy Season” he carefully used words to paint a grim picture of the season of Fall. In the line, “Leaves cast in casual potpourris/Whisper their scents from pits and cellar-holes.” We think, “Oh, potpourris, how nice, a beautiful rose or gardenia scent, right?” But the smell from pits and cellar-holes is not a nice one, instead of flowers it’s must and mold. But the secret to that passage is in the word “potpourris”. When you look up the French for “pot” and “pourris”, you get the words “container” and “rotting”, so he’s actually saying that the leaves are gathered together rotting, perhaps even moldering. How very clever.
In the two Emily Dickinson poems I have picked, words were used carefully, but in one the words were well chosen and in the other… not so much. For instance, in “Lightning” instead of saying she saw a fork of lightning (that old hackneyed cliche), she says that it is a fork – a yellow fork. And when you think about it, it’s true lightning often takes the shape of a fork. But the clever part is where she uses that metaphor to drive the images of her poem forward, “(falling) From Tables in the sky/By inadvertent fingers dropt.” The clumsy gods are dropping their forks from flat table like clouds down to the ground. Prometheus does not need to steal their fire, not when they’re accidentally dropping it everywhere.
As for “Tiger”, this one is not quite as successful. The second stanza made me sigh and shout out, “beware your words.” It’s not strange enough that she made a tiger sound like an alcoholic (a dying tiger – moaned for Drink, not a drink, and we all know what Drink with a capital D means). And because she refers to it as “Drink” every mention of water, conjures of the words “fire water” and “dripping stone” makes me think of an archaic version of a still. It’s as if that one word infected the rest of the poem and made it something that it was not – a tiger looking for a drink of water, not liquor. Too late, the meaning is ruined.
But then in the second stanza she refers to his “Mighty Balls – in death were thick.” Now the reader is imagining a tiger lying on the ground and large testicles rolling about which are apparently also quite wide. If you read further, you find that the “balls” she is referring to are the orbs of his eyes which are almost white (I’m guessing) and losing their capacity for sight, but it’s too late the other image is already burned onto my brain and the poor creature is addled both in sight and sex. If she had meant it to be a funny poem, it would have been successful, but if not… she needed to beware her words!
The Lightning is a Yellow Fork
by Emily Dickinson
The Lightning is a yellow Fork
From Tables in the sky
By inadvertent fingers dropt
The awful Cutlery
Of mansions never quite disclosed
And never quite concealed
The Apparatus of the Dark
To ignorance revealed.
The Dying Tiger – Moaned For Drink
by Emily Dickinson
A Dying Tiger – moaned for Drink –
I hunted all the Sand –
I caught the Dripping of a Rock
And bore it in my Hand –
His Mighty Balls – in death were thick –
But searching – I could see
A Vision on the Retina
Of Water – and of me –
‘Twas not my blame – who sped too slow –
‘Twas not his blame – who died
While I was reaching him –
But ’twas – the fact that He was dead –