By Sage Cohen
In poetry, what you say is important. How you say it is equally important. Word choice can dramatically impact the tone and experience of a poem. The poet’s job is to choose language that best expresses the feeling and context of the poem.
For example, you might choose “endure” to describe a cancer patient making it through a rough day, and use “wait” to describe someone stopped at a traffic light. “Abide” feels a bit formal to me and has a flair of romance. I picture a young man at the feed shop a century ago. He knows instantly that he loves the young woman at the cash register, goes home to change into his Sunday suit, and returns to the store to propose marriage to her. As the woman blushes and fumbles in surprise, the man abides, awaiting an answer. What does “abide” conjure for you?
When selecting language in a poem, you may want to ask yourself:
Where and in what time period is the poem set? How do people speak? Are there any cultural or geographical influences on the way language is used there? (Language spoken on the street in L.A. in the 1980s is different than that used in a Victorian parlor.)
What is the natural world doing? Are there seasonal, lighting, or weather influences on the poem that affect its language? (How might smog words differ from thunderstorm words? What language would sunrise conjure compared to sunset?)
What is the emotional tone of the poem? Is it angry? Peaceful? Excited? Remorseful?
What happens in the poem, and how might language best buoy this action?
Using language that is typically associated with a certain place, time, or emotion can viscerally evoke a subject or theme. Other times, predictably appropriate language can feel uninspired or clichéd. In this case, it could be interesting to play against expectations by finding surprising language that is out of sync with the typical associations. The best way to find the language that will be most successful in any poem is to experiment, and then experiment some more.
When you become conscious of the words you are choosing, you are likely to discover fresh new ways of using language that surprise and delight you and your readers.
Sage Cohen is the author of Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read and Write Poetry, forthcoming from Writer’s Digest Books, and the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World. Her poetry and essays appear in journals and anthologies including Cup of Comfort for Writers, Oregon Literary Review, Greater Good and VoiceCatcher. Sage holds an MA in creative writing from New York University and teaches the email class Poetry for the People.