Diction Suggestions for Writing
The language of poetry is sometimes different from the language of everyday life. Poets may set their language apart by choosing archaic words, or they may use Latinate diction ("Propitious Heaven," "ethereal plain") rather than more familiar Anglo-Saxon words. They may employ devices such as "periphrasis," in which a simple term is avoided by constructing a more roundabout alternative (one of the most famous is "the finny tribe" instead of "fish"). In the eighteenth century, in particular, it was felt that poems that dealt with lofty or solemn subject matter should employ a suitably lofty "poetic" diction. Consider these lines from William Collins's "Ode to Evening":
If aught of oaten stop, or pastoral song, May hope, chaste Eve, to soothe thy modest ear, Like thy own solemn springs, Thy springs and dying gales, O nymph reserved, while now the bright-haired sun Sits in yon western tent, whose cloudy skirts, With brede ethereal wove, O'erhang his wavy bed ...
The first line means something like "if a song played on a shepherd's simple flute"; together with the mention of "pastoral" and "nymph," it recalls a poetic tradition going back to the ancients. What does the poet mean by "western tent," "cloudy skirts," and "wavy bed"?
QuickTime Required Anna Letitia Barbauld
Anna Letitia Barbauld begins one of her poems by referring to the Muses, the classical goddesses of art. Invoking the Muses is a traditional way of signaling that the poet is about to undertake a lofty poetic project, and Barbauld is explicit about how such projects are expected to use the "high-sounding phrase" and to aspire to the "language of gods." Does she do this sort of thing in "The Rights of Woman"? How would you describe the kind of language she chooses? How does her diction suit the subject of her poem?
Marianne Moore´s "Poetry"
The idea of "poetic diction" was most important to the poets of the eighteenth century, such as Barbauld. But diction is an important issue for poets in every period. Consider Marianne Moore's "Poetry." What if you were asked to substitute some other word for "fiddle" in the first line? What word would you choose? Read through "Poetry" and see if there are other words that seem odd or surprising. Could you replace them? How would the poem be different if you did?
"This Is Just to Say"
In addition to looking at individual words in a poem, it is possible to examine the larger patterns of diction that poets adopt for particular poems. William Carlos Williams's "This Is Just to Say," for example, employs simple, familiar words and sets them into brief, informal sentences. The poem sounds like something any of us might have said. "Sunday Morning," by Wallace Stevens, sounds quite different. Its language is varied and complex, and so are its sentences. Words like "complacencies," "mythy," "serafin," and "undulations" appear in formal sentences that may continue for eight or ten lines. Could the language of these two poems be reversed? Try rewriting "This Is Just to Say" using the kind of diction Stevens employs in "Sunday Morning."
"The Weary Blues"
Poets may also employ more than one kind of diction in a poem, perhaps setting one speech pattern off against another to achieve a particular effect. Consider Langston Hughes's "The Weary Blues." Twice in the course of the poem, Hughes quotes a blues song; when he does, he uses words like "I's," "gwine," "ma," and "mo." But dialect words such as these do not appear in the rest of the poem, which is composed in standard written English. What difference does it make that the persona who observes the blues singer in the poem uses more formal, educated language than the singer himself does? Is there anything else in the poem that seems to suggest that the speaker is not fully a part of the scene he describes?
Poets may draw their words from more than one category of language use, contrasting colloquial street talk with formal academic language in a single poem, for example. When Ezra Pound is describing a rather stately scene of philosophical discussion in ancient China, he suddenly shakes up our sense that this is all long ago and far away by yanking us back to the America of Mark Twain with the following lines: "The old swimming hole, / And the boys flopping off the planks." Two very different cultures are forced to occupy the same space for a moment, and the reader may take a second look at a distant culture that might otherwise have seemed utterly foreign; likewise, the reader may look again at the familiar, seeing in it some new dimension or nuance because it is juxtaposed with something strange.
Sometimes the words that disturb a reader's expectations because they seem out of keeping with the rest of the poem's language may be, quite literally, words of another language. In "Parsley," Rita Dove includes a word and a whole line in Spanish: perejil, and mi madle, mi amol en muelte. The words are translated within the poem itself, but would the poem have been different if she had simply used the English in the first place? What is the effect of coming upon these unfamiliar words embedded in the poem's familiar English? What is the effect on you as a reader of some of the unfamiliar words themselves being mispronounced within the poem's narrative?
- Look through the poems here and in The Norton Anthology of Poetry and The Norton Introduction to Literature, and see if you can find other examples in which the poet's choice of words seems particularly important to the poem's effect. Why did you choose the examples you did?
- Are there other poems in which more than one level or kind of diction is used? What is the result?
- Choose a poem and find within it one line that seems to depend on a single word. Substitute for that word several words that mean roughly the same thing, and explain what difference such substitutions make both to the line and to the poem as a whole. Does changing a single word seem to force or suggest changes elsewhere in the poem?
"Easter 1916" Find half a dozen lines in which a word is used in a way that, at first glance at least, seems inappropriate (for example, Yeats speaks of a "terrible beauty," which is not how most of us think of beauty). How do these oxymorons function effectively? Copy the lines to your notebook, and then write a short essay in which you show that the "wrong" word can sometimes be exactly right.
"London" Often a single word takes on particular importance in a poem because it carries multiple meanings or associations. Ezra Pound (in his usual colorful way) said that such words are "like blood-stained battle-flags to an old campaigner." A good example would be the word "charter'd" in William Blake's "London," or the word "ban" in the same poem. Look through the poems on the website and find other words that might be read in more than one way. How many possible readings can you list for each word?
Diction Suggestions for Writing