This’ll be my last word on Words, or rather, the “Words” chapter of the textbook (An Introduction to Poetry, 7th Ed., X.J. Kennedy).
At the end of the chapter, after speaking on denotation (the actual meaning of a word); connotation (the implied meaning of a word); whether a word is concrete (indicates something that is detectable by the five senses) or abstract (something that can be imagined but not perceived by the five senses); the various dictionary definitions of a word (be exact); allusions (a word or words that refers to other works, often Classical); and word order (whether to follow proper English word order rules i.e. he wore a blue hat, or mix it up a bit i.e. he wore a hat blue), he spoke on choice of language whether it is formal (follows a rigid set of rules that require a high education to understand properly) or vulgar, something that is spoken by the every day person, or rather, is spoken outside of formal settings. He set up three levels: formal English (think about this being spoken in polite company in the presence of important and powerful people), general English (the language that is spoken by all classes of people, but does have shared and learned rules) and, finally, colloquial English (English spoken in conversation).
The last category requires no knowledge of rules and can be further subdivided into different dialects, a type of a language, in this case a type of English, which depend upon geographical locations, setting, and class. There are some dialects that are so far from general English, such as the English spoken by the Creole or in the Northern Scottish Highlands, that very few native English speakers can understand them, yet it’s still English. I could further subdivide the category into idiolect which is a dialect of one speaker. If you are someone who makes up words for things (especially if those things already have a word assigned to them) and you use those words often to refer to those things (say, you call all cats “fuzzalls”), then those words are your idiolect – unless your friends start using your words, then it is no longer the dialect of one speaker.
Paradise Lost was used as an example of a comparison of two different poems using two different language styles, but pretty much telling the same story (if you don’t look too closely).
The first is from Mother Goose
Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack Fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.
The next is also a man and a woman experiencing a fall (a more serious type and the fall that might not even be physical but allegorical).
an Excerpt from Paradise Lost
by John Milton
Earth trembled from her entrails, as again
In pangs, and Nature gave a second groan;
Sky loured, and, muttering thunder, some sad drops
Wept at completing of the mortal sin
Original; while Adam took no thought
Eating his fill, nor Eve to iterate
Her former trespass feared, the more to soothe
Him with her loved society, that now
As with new wine intoxicated both
They swim in mirth, and fancy that they feel
Divinity within them breeding wings
Wherewith to scorn the Earth.
The point is that they use very different styles of language to describe very similar circumstances. The first uses simple language and is in general English. The choice for the style is because it’s a poem for children, so it’s simple, straight-forward and easy to read. And you probably feel pretty bad for Jack and Jill, but you never get the feeling that anything very serious has happened to them, so that might be another reason why the language is so simple, because the subject matter is as well.
Paradise Lost on the other hand is speaking about the fate of Humankind. That’s a little more serious. The language is more elevated and more dense. It can be read on different levels – a literal level or an allegorical level. We know that whatever is happening in this scene, it’s probably not actually as described. “Earth trembled from her entrails” isn’t really giant dirt intestines rumbling about, we know that the line implies that there is an earthquake emanating from deep below. It could also by an expression like “I felt the earth move”. The speaker didn’t actually feel the earth move, she feels wonderful and trembling with happiness, so much so that the entire world has changed for her. “Earth trembled” could mean that Adam and Eve were so shocked by their fall that it felt as if the earth were trembling, it knocked them off their feet, so to speak. And when the poem says “Divinity within them breeding wings”, they’re not growing wings inside their bodies, they’re looking to their divine natures within themselves to give them another chance at Eden (another chance to fly to heaven). I could sit here and break apart the lines all day, because they speak on a deep levels and about a deeper subject matter and therefore demands a higher level of language. It is not simple and straight-forward like Mother Goose, but they’re meant to be contemplated, not simply recited.
So, when you are reading or writing poetry, you’re not just looking for the right words, but also the right way in which to use them. Sometimes it depends on the context of the poem. Is it serious? Is it light and playful? Is it a parody? Or a political or social statement? Sometimes, it depends on the mood that the poet wanted to set. Light. Playful. Heavy. Horrific. The style of words chosen will tell as much about the poem as the words themselves.