friday roundup: opposites, diction, and “Then you can return”

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Reader, the weeks fly by. Since the last roundup (or lack thereof) there has been one batch of houseguests, one trip to North Beach / Chinatown, one almost-finished book review, one pool closure (one distressing moment of realizing how disappointed I was about the pool closure — swim practice = time to read), one birthday party hosted, two rounds of laser tag, one pool reopening, one-half of a cousin sleepover in the tent in the back yard, two out of three cousins deciding they’d rather sleep in their own beds, untold numbers of arguments settled, one trip to Costco (and I am still alive), one electrical problem in the Wee, Small House, many meals, two trips to the library, many loads of laundry, many conscious avertings of eyes from my To Do list. There have been some narrow rooms of time for poetry — quite narrow, but quiet and with a lamp softly lit. I’ll take it. Now on to the roundup:

opposites Having recently spent most of my creative time revising my manuscript, and having finished revising it (at least for now), I’ve found myself in a lull of creative weariness and lack of focus. The general feeling is What can I possibly work on now? And also I am tired. The answer yet unknown, I’ve fallen back onto tricks that keep the juices flowing without having to think too hard. Yes, I’ve been writing opposite poems.

The trick is thus: Find a poem (I prefer short-ish ones, being tired and the one who others look to for their meals) by another poet, and then write its opposite. You don’t have to think about what to write — their language is your map. An example:

A line from Rick Barot’s poem “Like a Fire That Consumes All Before It”: “the sky has all these beginnings.”

The opposite line: “The earth has all these endings”

You get the idea. When you are stuck or tired or don’t know what to write about, I recommend trying an opposite poem or two. Already I have seen hints of new themes and obsessions come out in my drafts. Thank you, opposite poems, for doing my work for me.

diction n. Choice of words to express ideas; the use of language with regard to clearness, accuracy, variety, etc.; mode of expression; as poetic diction

A recent Writer’s Chronicle contains an article on diction by Tony Hoagland. Hoagland points out that, because it’s a mishmash of many other languages, English is a rich linguistic landscape: “We American poets are millionaires… we can write checks with our mouths all day.”

He goes on to talk about diction as a focusing device — as a way of directing your reader’s attention. He says:

“To use any interesting word is not just to pinpoint one meaning, but also to invoke a whole resonating web of vocabularies, contexts, and ideas… . (D)iction is very much an instrument of associative imagination, and one of the many modes of intellect which collaborates in the making of the poem.”

Diction — the choice of a particular word over another — as a means of focusing your reader can

“operate on both conceptual and emotive levels.”

This is why writers lie awake at night wondering what they will do in the Grim Times when it becomes necessary to leave on foot in search of water and safety, and there is no way, really, to bring along the Enormous Dictionary Which Should’ve Come with an Altar Boy, the Fairly Large Thesaurus, and the Exhaustive Dictionary of Etymology. This is why every word choice matters. Choose on.

“Then you can return” On one of the trips to the library this week, I was looking for anything by Lynn Emanuel. Nada, Reader, nada. But I did find an anthology called Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems in which she recommends a poem. I did not fall in love with that poem, but another: “Water Lilies” by Sara Teasdale. Here it is:

*

Water Lilies by Sara Teasdale

If you have forgotten water lilies floating
On a dark lake among mountains in the afternoon shade,
If you have forgotten their wet, sleepy fragrance,
Then you can return and not be afraid.

But if you remember, then turn away forever
to the plains and prairies where pools are far apart.
Then you will come at dusk on the closing water lilies,
an the shadow of mountains will not fall on your heart.

*

(Excuse me while I pull the dagger from my heart).

So much to love here, but there are two things I love most: One is that the poem delays the “then” clause for a few lines. We are left to wonder what the resolution of that “If you have forgotten” is for most of a stanza. Tension, emotion building — the syntax does it. The other is that this poem turns our expectations upside down. There are one zillion poems that remember home or another important place. Often remembering a place is an invitation to return there (literally or figuratively). But this poem says, “if you remember, then turn away forever.” Then the closing water lilies, then the shadow falling, the dagger in your heart.

(I also think this poem would be a good poem for which to write the opposite).

And now. It is still summer vacation. The pool is open. The children are hungry. The poet must leave her desk. Happy weekend, Reader.

2 thoughts on “friday roundup: opposites, diction, and “Then you can return”

  1. I do opposite poems too! (Did I get this idea from you?) I love how it tricks the mind into a poem’s established rhythm; just when I think I’ve got nothing in me, I find new things spring forth. Thanks for the reminder Molly.

    • I don’t think you got the idea from me — I’m pretty sure I got the idea from someone else, although I can no longer remember who. A great tool for dry spells!

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