Auld Lang Syne

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Diction and Drama

I've been "off blog" for a few days due to prepping for the writing workshop that took place last Saturday. We also had company over the holiday weekend. All in all a very busy time!

What's on my mind today is words (and how, you're probably asking, is this different from any other day?).

I am specifically thinking about diction in poetry. What word fits? What is exactly the right word to convey what the poem wants to say? OK, you are probably scratching your head right now and wondering how the poem can want something... believe me, every poem wants something, or several somethings. Great and proper diction is one of these things.

I see many many poems every week, sent to me for Pulse my online literary zine. What's usually wrong with poems I reject is that they contain flat, inappropriate , or overly amped-up diction. Poems that are filled with cliché abound. Some poems are "thesauri-poems," obviously constructed by poets who use the thesaurus as their diction machine. While these poems are more interesting than those with obvious cliché, they are often heavy-handed, with "big words" that don't do much for the musicality or nuance of the poem. I can tell that the poets who do this have very little going on in the world of vocabulary building and are unaware of how to use sound devices to electrify the choices they make. While some readers may be fascinated by the words chosen, the words themselves are not at all in the normal usage of the poet... and it shows. This kind of writing is posturing and showing off. It rarely produces much in terms of adding to the poem's levels of meaning. In fact, it is my experience that this kind of showmanship flattens out the poems by making them more about words and less about meaning. Where is the clean, clear, fresh diction here? Rarely will such a thick word as "plethora" fit into a poem without the poem seeming to be stiff and academic, an exercise in dictionary-itis.

So what's a poet to do about word choice? How is one going to increase her/his vocabulary other than to try out new and unusual words? And without experimentation in diction, won't the poet fall into the trap of writing the same basic poem over and over? I view diction as my key to the magic of poetry. Words are my friends. I spend loads of time figuring out what word(s) need and want to be where in a poem. In revision, it is diction that gains my time and attention. I don't worry so much about content as about HOW to express that content.

Let's approach our concerns about diction with a bit of basic info on line endings (just to show how important word choice is there). It is, in this poet's opinion, critical to know how to create great endings for lines, crisp line breaks, and to use words that move the poem along from line to line, stanza to stanza. I know there are poets out there who think it is good to use what I call "throwaway words" at line ends: prepositions, conjunctions, etc. As an editor and reader, I spot these like little neon flares, and they distract immediately. Generally, I do not think "of" or "and" at the end of a line does anything other than break up syntax. UGH. When I get poems with these bits at the ends of lines, I judge the poet as not well-schooled in the details of writing. Amateurish is my immediate reaction. There is so much more the poet might have done to make the lines move. So much more.

We will begin by looking at some kinds of endings that may influence your word choices, which will most definitely influence the tone and direction of the poem.

1. Emotional to Physical change:

Transform emotion to the physical by choosing a word at the end of the line that connects to both realms:

He left me in tears, and I went down
to the cellar to bait the mouse traps.

There is plenty of natural drama here as the line moves from a simple statement of grief to another stance on the part of the "speaker" of the poem, a hint at vengefulness or a movement to a symbolic act against the "he" who left.

2. Grammatical shift

Look at making end words do double duty, nouns that transform into verbs, nouns that become adjectives as the next line unfolds:

She feels blue
velvet fabric her mother sewed

It is easy to see the shift here from a feeling to the adjectival description of cloth. This certainly creates a dramatic shift from line one to line two.

3. Synesthetic shift

Look to make use of the senses as a way to move the line along, shifting from one sense to another

The wind blew loud (sound)
whispers that traced (touch)
her face with dread.

Bells rang
in the hallway, pounding
my ears like hammers.

4. Ambiguous shift

When a poet can get the reader to think she/he is understanding one way and then turn that understanding over at the next line, it adds another level of meaning. This is a powerful tool of diction.

She felt his hands
were his best feature, a touch
of lineage from carpenters
five hundred years behind him.

She made salsa
her dance of choice.

5. Metaphorical shift

Breaking the line so as to delay the appearance of the metaphor:

He brought five yellow roses, kissed her
heart with his kindness.

She was mired in quicksand
of obsession over him.

6. Fusing syntax to create a shift or movement:

They buried Leon and Mary
cried all day.

Although these are a few ways to look at the diction of your line endings, there are other considerations. If you have made the decision to enjamb lines, the choice of end words is critical to the movement of one line into the next. In this case, ask whether a strong concrete image might be the way to create this movement or whether a strong verb might work instead. Look at the following examples:

1. Image ending

This is my ship, my sails
furled, the air dead, the moon
paused in her wandering.

2. Verb ending

This is my ship, floated
on a silent sea, blocked
from passage.

Both endings have the power to push the lines along, to create tension. Look at how this same scenario stalls when throwaway words inhabit the ends of lines:

This is my ship, a mess of
wood that won't move off
the bar to sail the night sky.

You might say that having of and off at the ends of lines 1 and 2 makes the reader want to find out the rest of the prepositional phrase. But that is a weak way to progress a poem's meaning and may be seen as rendering the line just a broken bit of prose.

If your choice is not to enjamb a particular set of lines, instead to use end-stopped lines, then consider the end words to be places for great drama. Notice that some of the choices are not strong images but rather strong adjectives or adverbs. After reading these, try changing the lines to enjambed ones and see how there is more or less power engendered by the use of punctuation at ends of lines. It is always your choice, but a choice that should be a conscious one.

He wants his prayers to work. Desperately.
Crying out to his God, swallowing his pride.
He puts his hands out and shouts.

She calls herself a failure. A loser. Her life broken.

Take one pill for every ailment.
Swallow your anger.

The lines above as enjambed lines:

he wants his prayers
to work, desperately
crying out to his God,
swallowing his pride.

She calls herself
a failure, a loser.
Her life broken

Take one pill. For every ailment
swallow your anger.

How are these different, the same? Which seem to have more power to push the lines along? Try a few yourself.
Which is stronger in terms of melopoetics (rhythm and sonic effect)? In free verse we must rely upon these devices to carry the lines and stanzas along. In formal poetry, we can rely upon the structure of the poem and its rhyme scheme to do this. So endings become the free versifier's best friends, and diction is ultra-important to carry endings and create the mood and tone of the poem. Line endings and the diction therein are conscious choices the poet makes.

You cannot rely upon a thesaurus to supply good crisp diction for your poems. You must build your vocabulary so that the line ends do not seem contrived. When the thesaurus method is utilized, some words may seem out of place with the tone of the rest of the poem. One of the reasons I balk when I see "big words" in poems is that often the rest of the words are not of the same caliber. It (the big word) seems not to have earned its place in the poem. My advice is this: keep building a vocabulary of MEANING not just of WORDS. Then you will become instinctive in your choices. Certain words like to be together. Others are interlopers. Keep your diction clean and fresh. Make the words you choose work hard but don't put them in jobs they cannot handle.

Remember that you create the best drama in your poems by way of surprise not contrivance. Fresh eggs always taste better than chemically engineered ones.