Diction – Part Two

La création de poesie attire ceux qui adorent le langage. Writing poetry attracts those who find great interest in meanings, the look of words, their sounds and sometimes long and twisty history. Whatever I say about techniques in this second part of my blog about diction in poetry, do not forget that first and foremost, writing poems is an act of création.

A surprising positioning of two words can make a poem much richer. In this continuation of the theme of my previous blog, let us look at some specific techniques. But first a line from Clair de Lune by Paul Verlaine: Votre âme est un paysage choisi / Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques. Even if you don’t get the full meaning, just hearing it spoken aloud magically creates the fantastical atmosphere of the poem. The sounds of the words are generating this impression in concert with their meanings. If you want more help you could listen to the music Debussy was inspired to write on reading this poem.

A technique used frequently in workshops to generate ideas is to invest several minutes in free-association or doing “automatic writing”. Writing for several minutes without taking your pen off the paper to allow a spontaneous flow of words. When you read through this at the end you may find that interesting words have sprung up unbidden from your word store. Sometimes fascinating words come to mind during a walk. Whenever this happens to me, I write these down in my notebook even if I cannot see any use for them at the time. Otherwise when writing, you will make a conscious choice of word combinations.

One technique of conscious choice is where two nouns of Anglo-Saxon origin are combined to describe something else, this is known as kenning. An example from Seamus Heaney in “Beowulf” is “whale-road”. This is a combination of the two Old English words hwael and rad. Don’t overdo this though.

Another technique for word choice is to be guided by rhetorical figures. These deserve a whole blog or even a book to themselves. They should be used judiciously but may seem archaic in a modern poem if you are not careful. Since I’m trying to write blog-sized blogs, I’ll instead refer you to an excellent book on these from Mark Forsyth called “The Elements of Eloquence”, ISBN 978-184831-733-8. Having reviewed all my early poems, I found I was using rhetorical figures quite naturally although infrequently. Learning more about them helped enormously in thinking about the construction of phrases in later poems.

There are many levels of language usage possible: from colloquial to ordinary to heightened. This is called register. Before you start writing you should have an idea of who your readership is. Pick a register that works, with your readers and with the message. Much modern poetry is written in the language you’ll hear on the streets, la langue de boulevards, but there have been effective poems written in dialects too. Try to be consistent in your use of register. Avoid being twee. Avoid unintentionally mixing up registers, since just one word can jar the reader and break the spell of a poem.

Once you have a draft of some sort then comes the editing stage. During editing, you may parse your poem many times looking for different aspects. And that’s excluding the occasions you read it through aloud. Looking for diction is just one aspect, along with grammar, punctuation, sense, metre, line endings, use of tropes etc. Remember to consider not just nouns and verbs but all parts of speech. For example, review your first draft to see how many “the” and “a” articles you have used. Too many? Poems may be made more immediate and less prosaic by removing superfluous articles.

Every word in a good poem is essential and its purpose needs examining. In a sonnet you may only have a hundred or so words. Be cruel with these words appearing in your draft, demand of them: why are you here, what good are you doing? Edit, edit and edit, reviewing the diction until it’s just right. Dedicate yourself to getting it perfect, so that you can demonstrate that you are one of those: ceux qui adorent le langage.

Untitled-07 Diction

© Copyright Clifford Liles, June 2020

One thought on “Diction – Part Two

  1. Your comment about cutting out unnecessary uses of “the” and “a”. I come at this from the perspective of journalism, rather than poetry — but it is so true. You rarely get those two words in news story headlines for the reasons you explain. And every word must be justifiable in a news story (which can be as short as twice the length of a sonnet). You should be able to defend your choice of every single world in an article (as in a poem). Thank you for your stimulating explanation.


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