Diction

La création de la poésie attire ceux qui adorent le langage. The writing of poetry attracts those who find great interest in the meaning of words, the look of them, their sounds, and their sometimes long and twisty history. I am once again faced with a blank page in my own writing and am led to think about what I will write about next and how I will say it.

When I’m between writing projects there is a good opportunity to read. Reading books feeds your store of words. So that in your poetry, you can then open that storehouse of words to express your feelings or to bring that personal experience to life. Like a picker in a warehouse you must take care to choose the best words from a huge choice. Sometimes there is an excitement in running along the aisles and discovering resonant or apposite words. Dictionaries will then illuminate their use.

As words are formed from combinations of letters drawn from the alphabet, so dictionaries are the alphabet of poetry. Poetry’s magic really begins with the combination of words. How words stand in relation to others. There are allegedly over 100000 words in the English language. In the same way that words are combinations of letters, this is equally true for poetry at the level of words. A surprising positioning of two words can make a poem much richer. The most memorable poems are those that have word choices and juxtapositions that resonate. For example, in Louis MacNeice’s poem “Snow”: … “spawning snow and pink roses”. I wish I had written that.

Given the number of possible permutations of over 100000 words, you can see the huge variety of possible poems. To unlock this potential, you should understand the rule of these permutations, such as grammar and style, even if only to usurp them. Modern poetry makes no restriction on the selection of words. That choice of words in poetry is called diction.

In choosing the right word for your work, it is useful also to understand the history of words, their etymology. For example, in English, whether words are of Latinate or Germanic origin. Anglo-Saxon words entered the language from Germanic languages, like house from Haus. And there are the Latinate words that came with the Normans, like attract or attirer. An etymological dictionary can give you much pleasure in the discovery of where words originate.

You should consider not just the meaning of words but also their characteristics, such as the sound of those words: looking for effect such as assonance, consonance or the length of vowels sounds. I’ve already dealt with prosody in a former blog.

There are many layers of language usage possible: from colloquial to ordinary to heightened, and across the ages from archaic to the modern. Use of ordinary language will bring immediacy and intimacy. “My love is true, but all my verse is rotten” [Wendy Cope, Strugnells Sonnets]. Heightened language may make the poem more memorable. It is your choice. However, one example of archaic usage to be avoided these days in contemporary poetry is the inversion. “A bitter year it was” [Robert Graves, The Wreath].

In my next blog I will look in more detail at some of these themes. In the meantime, after writing something: you should edit, edit and edit, reviewing the diction of your poem until just right. Dedicate yourself to getting it perfect, so that you demonstrate that you are one of those: ceux qui adorent le langage.

Untitled-07 Diction

Copyright Clifford Liles, 24/05/2020.

One thought on “Diction

  1. Thanks, Cliff. You make it sound possible to find the right diction and write poetry. That’s encouraging. I think I have had some underlying assumption that most of us could not do it.

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