Saturday, December 7, 2013

Finding the Right Words by Guest Blogger Diane Lockward

This week’s guest blogger, Diane Lockward, will be familiar to many of you from previous posts.  Diane shares craft tip #5, which she wrote for her book The Crafty Poet. This tip for poets focuses on language and the process of finding the right words for your poems.

Note: The Crafty Poet is a poetry tutorial designed to inform and inspire poets. It contains model poems with prompts, writing tips, and interviews contributed by fifty-six poets, including thirteen former and current state Poets Laureate. There are also sample poems from an additional forty-five poets. The book has been named a Best Book for Writers by Poets & Writers (Poets & Writers Best Booksand is geared to both experienced and aspiring poets. I recommend it highly as a perfect present for the poets on your holiday gift list.

From Diane Lockward

One of the qualities that distinguishes an outstanding poem from a merely competent one is language that sizzles, sings, and surprises. And yet too many of us settle for ordinary language when extraordinary language is available and free to everyone.

Consider the diction of John Donne in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." The poet startles us by using mathematical language to describe two lovers: If they be two they are two so / As stiff twin compasses are two; / Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show / To move, but doth, if th’ other do. In another love poem, "The Good-Morrow," Donne pulls diction from the field of cartography: Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone; / Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown; / Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one. Donne often fused together language from two seemingly unrelated fields. If you haven’t tried this yet, why not?

Consider, too, the diction of Gerard Manley Hopkins in "Pied Beauty" where the speaker gives thanks for dappled things— / For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; / For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim… Such language is delicious in our mouths and a joy to speak aloud.

For a more contemporary voice, listen to Sharon Olds in "One Year" as the speaker describes a visit to her father’s grave: I saw the speedwell on the ground with its horns, / the coiled ferns, copper-beech blossoms, each / petal like that disc of matter which / swayed, on the last day, on his tongue. / Tamarack, Western hemlock, / manzanita, water birch / with its scored bark… Notice the precision of the language. No vague tree for this poet but rather the specific names of trees, each one of them adding more music, interest, and imagery to the poem. Olds, like her predecessors, never settles for easy language.

Nor should you settle for the first words that come to you; go in search of the best words. But where to find those best words? You might start with the catalogs, unordered and unwanted, that fill up your mailbox. Don’t be so fast to toss them out. Some of them may contain new vocabulary for your poems. Hang on to that flower brochure, the Harry and David catalog, the circular full of ads for local restaurants.

A simple Google search will often lead you to specialized websites where you can find a feast of language. Let’s say you’re writing a poem about blueberries. Googling just might lead you to the website for the Gierke Blueberry Farm in Michigan and then to esoteric information about blueberries, some tasty recipes, and words like cultivars, domesticated, antioxidant, and these lovely names of different kinds of blueberries: Rabbiteye, Primadonna, Sapphire, and Snowchaser.

Wikipedia is a great online source for new diction. Let’s say you’re writing a poem about a frog. Take a piece of paper with you to the computer and search Wikipedia for “frog.” As you read through relevant articles, jot down words such as carnivorous, amphibian, proto-frog, vertebrate, glandular, and planktivorous. Use some of those words in your poem.

Keep your eyes and ears open. And, of course, keep a notebook where you store words you’ve discovered in catalogs, articles, and books, as well as words you’ve heard on the street, on TV, in a speech. You never know when you might need those words. They might generate a new poem or they might reinvigorate a failed draft.

Example Poem:

Diane notes that her poem “Blueberry” was written with the assistance of the kind of diction search she described in this craft tip. Click Here to Read "Blueberry" by Diane Lockward

(I'm giving this book to several poet and teacher friends this Christmas.)

Thank you, Diane!


  1. It's always a pleasure to read anything by Diane Lockward! I have three collections of her poems and recently got a copy of The Crafty Poet. Thanks to Diane and to you, Adele.

  2. A great craft tip. Thank Diane and Adele.

  3. Wonderful suggestions on diction, Diane. The poet should always be listening and looking around for new words.

    Like many poets, words alone can inspire me to write a poem. Just browsing dictionaries, encyclopedias, random books on archaic words or how to paint or plant can be inspiring. When my wife got into quilting, I became fascinated by the words used in it and pulled them into a few poems--the names of fabrics, the names of certain processes.

    Thank you, Diane.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Michael! "Found' words are everywhere, waiting for us to notice them.

  4. Wonderful ideas! Thanks Diane Lockward. Thanks, Adele Kenny.

    I found The Crafty Poet on eBay for a great price ... other readers may want to check there.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Carol. I've gotten some great deals on books via eBay too! I'm glad you found The Crafty Poet!

  5. Keeping a notebook as Diane suggests is always a good idea. You never know when a word or phrase, idly noted sometime prior, may become part of a key image in a poem you had no idea you were going to write.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Janice! I agree that a notebook is a great "tool of the trade."

  6. Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)December 12, 2013 at 8:41 AM

    Congratulations, Diane, on your book's success and thanks for this guest post.

    Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)

  7. Maire, I've sent Diane an email so she can see your comments, for which my thanks!