‘The crown of literature is poetry. It is its end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind. It is the achievement of beauty and delicacy.’ ~W. Somerset Maugham
What powers does the poet wield to create this sublimity? To infuse poetry with nuanced meaning and gorgeous vistas? One of the fiercest must surely be language itself. Words, in all their grand, melodic, rending, shaping, and intensifying character entwining to form entire worlds on a page, allow poets to achieve feats of transportation and transformation.
Let’s take an expedition into the wilds of language. We’ll roam through the thickets of texture, the landscapes of sound, and oceans of meaning they embody. It may seem basic but the diction we employ as poets has enormous power. It reveals an aesthetic sensibility, can induce laughter, sharpen tone, create characterization, refine nuance, sing with rhyme, seduce with beauty, soothe with rhythm, introduce the reader to new ideas, help their visualization, entice with foreign words, or even merrily confound them with nonsense. Looking through the lens of virtuosic diction, neologisms, nonsense words, colloquialisms, foreign languages, and specialized diction I’ll illuminate some of the ways poets accomplish their artistic aims.
While what constitutes virtuosity in poetry is rightly contested, somewhat a matter of aesthetic taste, one sonnet widely recognized for its remarkable diction is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias. In this poem that speaks of the ephemerality of political power he creates texture, irony, and a sense of the passage of time through imaginative and specific word choices.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
Diction may also be enhanced though the creation of new words. As many of you know, Shakespeare regularly coined neologisms. He lived through a golden era of culture when the English language was becoming more expressive and mutable. Some marvelous words we owe to Shakespeare’s writing include: auspicious, castigate, courtship, disheartened, fitful, gnarled, invulnerable, lonely, multitudinous, obscene, pious, radiance, and sanctimonious to credit just a few. His contribution to the English language could be favorably compared to Italian’s historic debt of gratitude to Dante Alighieri.
For fun with neologisms we can turn to comedian Rich Hall who calls them Sniglets, words that should exist but don’t. Cinemuck: The sticky substance on the floor of a movie theater. Lactomangulation: Manhandling the ‘open here’ spout on a milk carton so badly that one has to resort to using the ‘illegal side’. Here are a couple of my own that I use at home now that I’ve adopted two puppies from a shelter. Dogzilla: When a normal, sweet puppy transmogrifies into a rampaging monster embarking on a reign of terror (really just a good bit of fun and mischief involving shoes). Scamperskritch: Various hops, contortions, turnabouts, and frantic scratching accomplished by a puppy when she learns why she shouldn’t stand on an ant hill.
Not all made up words make it into the lexicon, nor are they intended to and this is where nonsense words come into play. Dr. Seuss and Lewis Carroll were famous for making up words, marvelously strange ones at that. Some of the Dr’s: wocket, squitsch, midwinter jicker, zlock, jertain, whisper-ma-phone, diffendoofer, and bippo-no-bungus. Carroll’s Jabberwocky (appearing in Alice in Wonderland) contains some great phrases: slithy toves, gyre and gimble, vorpal blade, and snicker-snack. Reading Jabberwocky causes Alice to exclaim: “’It seems very pretty’ she said when she had finished it, ‘but it’s rather hard to understand!’ (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) ‘Sometimes it seems to fill my head with ideas – only I don’t exactly know what they are!’”
When unique words or changes in pronunciation make it into the collective conversation of a region they can be considered colloquialisms. While we frequently associate them with the pages of novels they do appear in poetry. Colloquialisms can strengthen characterization and are used to excellent effect in narrative or persona poems.
One poet that used the contrast of more formal language and colloquial speech well was Langston Hughes. His poem The Weary Blues weaves the two seamlessly as the singer intones:
‘Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’,
And put ma troubles on the shelf.’
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more -
One of my favorite parts of writing is creating a mini-lexicon for each poem. For me, specificity in language is a source of joy. A reader asked me after reading Hinba’s Imaginative Invention where I find my words to which I replied: ‘Sometimes I find them lonely and neglected in the far reaches of my inner landscape, sometimes they fly by in jet planes demanding attention, and other times I have to mount an expedition to the Himalayas but what a glorious adventure!’ In less poetic terms some tools I use include brainstorming, the Oxford English Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, foreign language dictionaries and phrase books, The Word Menu, a Reverse Dictionary, Thesaurus, Lexicons, conversations, search engines, and reading research articles, art books, poetry, and novels. Just as strangers are friends you haven’t met yet, new to you words may soon become favored artistic tools opening up new possibilities of expression.
To illustrate the use of foreign language and specialized terms within a discipline I’ll use one of my own pieces as an example. Rage to Master was written for Maria Anna Mozart, Wolfgang’s older sister. She was also a child prodigy and paraded through and admired throughout the high society and courts of 18th century Europe. She too dreamed of composing but was thwarted by her father’s refusal to teach her predicated on the prevailing thought that women were incapable of understanding the complexity of composition. Here I use Viennese German and Italian musical terms to craft diction, connecting the poem to the person it is intended to honor. These were her intimate languages.
The definitions of the Viennese German: si ohgfrettn (to struggle); freiheit (liberty); gusta (appetite for something); selbstverstümmelung (self-mutilation). The musical terminology: bravura (a musical passage requiring technical skill and masterful agility); maestoso (play in a majestic fashion); vivace (lively); accelerando (gradually accelerating tempo); con fuoco (with fire); ma non troppo (but not too much); sforzando (play a note with marked and sudden emphasis, then immediately soft); diminuendo (becoming softer); dolce (sweet, gentle); maestro (title of extreme respect given to a master musician).
Rage to Master
Virtuosic musical obsession
aesthetic grace, bravura elegance
harpsichord, voice, and violin
maestoso harmony of liberty
Fall from the vertiginous heights
composition immured within society’s
circumfluent atmosphere of misogyny
Sophistical arguments internalize, si ohgfrettn,
deference becomes a form of self-mutilation
impeding precocious melodies
denying life giving freiheit
Vivace swirls of cascading notes
accelerando of primary drives, gusta,
drowning in the noise of a distorted reflection
Convex mirrors cede self-possession
to the obliterating reign of man
inspired scores, con fuoco, reduce to ash
Abandoning creation ma non troppo
deaf to internal pleas, grief consumes
assents to spiritual suicide
diminuendo dolce maestro
pyrotechnics detonate internally
Sometimes a foreign language is useful in poetry because there is no English equivalent to the word. Some highlights include Layogenic (Tagalog): Remember in Clueless when Cher describes Amber as ‘a full on Monet…from far away, it’s OK, but up close it’s a big old mess’? That’s exactly what this word means. Rhwe (Tsonga): College kids, relax. There’s actually a word for ‘to sleep on the floor without a mat, while drunk and naked.’ Zeg (Georgian): It means ‘ the day after tomorrow’. Seriously, why don’t we have a word for that in English? Cafune (Brazilian Portuguese): Leave it to the Brazilians to come up with a word for ‘tenderly running your fingers through your lover’s hair’. Yuputka (Ulwa): A word made for walking in the woods at night. It’s the phantom sensation of something crawling on your skin. Gumusservi (Turkish): Meteorologists can be poets in Turkey with words like this at their disposal. It means moonlight shining on water.
All this to say I encourage you to be creative, curious, mindful, willing to use your tools, and courageous when writing or encountering poetry. There are about a quarter of a million distinct words in the English language, giving you lots of opportunities to learn and remember the observation of W.H. Auden:
‘A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.’
Notes: This post is a modified version of prompts I wrote for dVerse Poets Pub.