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Writing Free Verse: Word Choice

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The diction of the poem is the language selected by the poet to construct a poem. A poet has a dictionary filled with word choices and a thesaurus with different shades of meaning. Traditional poetry tends to be composed of lofty language, grandiloquent language, pompous language. Modern and contemporary poetry tends to crafted with ordinary language, conversational language everyday language—diction associated with the common man, the ordinary person.  Here ‘s an example of a contemporary poem, constructed with simple language by Ted Kooser:

A Spiral Notebook

by Ted Kooser

The bright wire rolls like a porpoise
in and out of the calm blue sea
of the cover, or perhaps like a sleeper
twisting in and out of his dreams,
for it could hold a record of dreams
if you wanted to buy it for that
though it seems to be meant for
more serious work, with its
college-ruled lines and its cover
that states in emphatic white letters,
5 SUBJECT NOTEBOOK. It seems
a part of growing old is no longer
to have five subjects, each
demanding an equal share of attention,
set apart by brown cardboard dividers,
but instead to stand in a drugstore
and hang on to one subject
a little too long, like this notebook
you weigh in your hands, passing
your fingers over its surfaces
as if it were some kind of wonder.

In this article, I discuss word choice or diction as it applies to  writing a free verse poem.

The Language of Free Verse

How does a poet select words for a free poem? There are many things to consider:

  • Literal meaning or dictionary meaning of the word. The poet considers a word’s denotation, its literal meaning.
  • Implied meaning of a word or connotation of the word.
  • Sound of  the word. The poet considers alliteration, assonance, rhyme.
  • Number of syllables in the word.
  • Whether the word rhymes or not.
  • Whether the word is closely associated with another word
  • Whether the word or words provide the best simile or metaphor
  • Whether the word is a cliché.

The dictionary is full of words, which the poet can select to write a poem. The thesaurus provides an additional source of  synonyms. The task of the poet is to select words that express the intended meaning and the desired emotional response from readers. The poet should aspire to use language in a fresh way. 

Word play can be important device to convert the ordinary word or phrase into something new and fresh and original. The poet manipulates language with the intent of amusing.

Sometimes poets surprise readers by using unknown words, and so the reader must turn to the dictionary to understand the word’s meaning.  Other times the poet combines familiar words in a new way to express a different meaning. Example: Dying for love.

Poets select words so they can be used as figurative language, such as simile or metaphor, with the intent of converting an abstract idea into a concrete and particular image.

Poets select words for their alliteration. It refers to a line of a poem in which two or more words begin with the same letter or have the same sound. Example: The boy sipped the soda, then smiled and screamed.

Poets choose words because they rhyme. The rhyme might be an end rhyme, in which the words of  two words at the end of the line rhyme. Example: He dug the hole/ for the flag pole/.. The rhyme might be an internal rhyme. Two or more words on the same line rhyme. Example: The “fog blanketed the bog”….”the blight of night.”

The best way to write a poem is to use concrete nouns and action verbs. As well, use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Why? adjectives and adverbs often create wordiness. Furthermore, often a noun or verb that includes the meaning of the adjective or adverb can be found in the dictionary or thesaurus. Poet, Louis Jenkins, does all of this with the following poem:

Diner

by Louis Jenkins

The time has come to say goodbye, our plates empty except
for our greasy napkins. Comrades, you on my left, balding,
middle-aged guy with a ponytail, and you, Lefty, there on my
right, though we barely spoke I feel our kinship. You were
steadfast in passing the ketchup, the salt and pepper, no man
could ask for better companions. Lunch is over, the cheese-
burger and fries, the Denver sandwich, the counter nearly
empty. Now we must go our separate ways. Not a fond embrace,
but perhaps a hearty handshake. No? Well then, farewell. It is
unlikely I’ll pass this way again. Unlikely we will all meet again
on this earth, to sit together beneath the neon and fluorescent
calmly sipping our coffee, like the sages sipping their tea
underneath the willow, sitting quietly, saying nothing.

In crafting a poem, the poet must also be concise, use the fewest words possible to express meaning and invoke an emotional response. Wordiness creates boredom, creates an ordinary poem. A poem is a compression of meaning and emotion. Poet Langston Hughes relied on simplicity and conciseness to create this memorable poem:

Dreams

by Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Suggestions for Word Choice

Consider the following when selecting words for a free verse poem:

  • Is the word part of everyday language, or is it graniloquent? Use plain language, everyday language, simple language to compose a poem.
  • What does the word mean? (Denotation) Use a dictionary be sure of a word’s meaning. And use the best word, the exact word to express the desired meaning.
  • What does the word suggest or imply? (Connotation) Use a thesaurus to be sure that you have selected the word the best conveys the desired meaning.
  • What emotion does the word express? Select the word that best reflects the desired emotional tone of the poem. Example: Sad, sorrowful, despondent, depressed, downcast, melancholic….
  • What is the sound of the word? Select words for both their meaning and their sound. Frequently, poets use the technique of alliteration to choose words.
  • Is the word a cliché? If so, don’t use it. These are words that have lost their freshness and surprise, and have become worn out, dull, boring.
  • Is the word jargon? Avoid using this type of language. Only those who know the jargon will understand it’s meaning. Furthermore, this type of language is “worn out”, not fresh and original.
  • Select words for their conciseness. Less is often more. The poet should try to make the point with the fewest words. The poet should make every word count.
  • Be careful when using slang or profanity. Often there is a negative connotation. Always consider the intended audience.
  • Prefer familiar instead of foreign words. Most contemporary poets use a conversational tone, which is expressed through everyday language, plain language. However, it is acceptable to use a foreign word to add surprise.

Summary

A free verse poem is composed word by word, line by line.  As the poem is composed, the poet must consider both the literal meaning of each word (denotation) and the suggested meaning of each word (connotation). The poet must also avoid using clichés–words that are worn out because of overuse. And the poet must strive to use words in a fresh and surprising way, with the goal of creating an original, entertaining, memorable poem. The wrong word choice will convey the wrong meaning and invoke the wrong emotional response—or no response at all.

Resources

  • The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
  • Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read & Write Poetry by Sage Cohen
  • The Poet Laureates Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Hun SchmidtThe Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems by Frances Mayers
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