5 Words to NEVER Use in Poetry

Another in the JBAC series–this time, gearing up for NaPoWriMo. I’m still considering if I will participate, but I’m leaning yes. I need something to rev my poetry into high gear, and last time I participated (in 2012), I ended up with half of my creative writing thesis.

There are many things worthy of a poem: the weather, an especially delicious cupcake, the erotic whoosh of a freshly laundered cotton dress, dreams. In truth, the realm of the poetic is wide open to discovery and exploration (of the non-colonizing variety, please).

However, there do remain things that should never be touched by the long fingers of poetry. These things may be tantalizing, omnipresent, and even inescapable; yet this does not mean that they belong in a poem. This is a list of five words that should never under any circumstances find their way into a poem.

1) Love

Take a look at any pre-20th century canonic poem (see: John DonneWilliam WordsworthJohn Keats) and you may begin to understand why this word mustn’t be used in poetic material in the 21st century. The aforementioned writers, along with many others, did a bang-up job of beating love to death, attempting to revive it through Romantic, Blake-ian mysticism, and then parading it around, propped up in some creepy ritual pose, arms and tongue wagging. Love is dead, friends. (I’ll think we’ll give Keats a pass on this one, just since he had tuberculosis, which sounds, by all accounts, pretty damn awful.)

Anyway, if you love something or someone enough to write about them, you’d be doing them a gross disservice by reducing them to the trite birthday-card tackiness of the term. What do you even think of when you think “love?” Come on folks, we all know it’s cheesy pink hearts and rainbows and flowers and gross boxes of processed chocolates swathed in plastic wrap and plastic ribbons. No thanks. If you love something enough to write a poem about it, you want to make your audience love them too. (This is an example of something that does not work.) Think: how does this thing look in a slanted sunlit room with yellow walls? How does the smell of home remind you of the thing, or vice versa? What is that smell? What are their colors, their shapes, their sensations? How do you fit into them, how does it feel in your hands? These other questions do the work of the “why?”

These sensory details do the hard work for you. It’s the most evocative for a reader to get transported to the experience with the poet, not told a secondhand story about how the poet feltThis brings us to our next word:

2) Feel

This one’s a toughie. Feeling has long been the driving force behind much poetry. Feeling blue after a breakup? Write a poem! Feeling slighted by the cute girl in your Fiction Workshop? Write her a poem! Feeling aroused by the sensual encounter in your latest romance novel/crime thriller? Write a poem! However, feeling does not have value within a poem itself. It instead acts as a replacement for an actual experience.

“She felt warm after escaping from the burning house.” SO NEUTRAL. Likely, she actually was warm, or rather, hot. An alternative: “Her skin blossomed red with the heat after escaping from the burning house.” Isn’t this a bit more evocative? Can our reader not connect a bit more with the active, detail-oriented language of the latter clause?  feel is a problem faced by writers of all genres: active voice. The use of strong, motivated, even “muscular” verbs do wonders to the momentum and fleshiness of a piece of poetry. Especially within poetry, every single word makes an enormous impact on the overall feel of the piece. Choose verbs that are muscular, active, invigorating; thicker, more passive verbs can be glossed over in prose, but in poetry, where every word carries immense weight, the right word choice is crucial.

Further traps of feeling include talking about your (shudder) feelings: “He left me standing under the awning in the rain. I felt more alone than I’d ever felt in my life.” Yawn. Boo-hoo. Cry me a river. Here’s the world’s tiniest violin, etc etc. How about something like, “as his red jacket faded away into the wet streetlights, I tightened my scarf around my neck, tight as a rope, and waited alone for the midnight bus.” We know from this latter passage how the speaker felt, because you’ve done the work to show us. The noose, the rainy street, the midnight bus. Come on. That’s working!

3) Seem

The most succinct way to deal with “seem” is to ask “well, is it or isn’t it?” This is a valid question in a vast world of seem2) Feel is a LOT like “seem.” It implies a lack of commitment to a truth, to making a claim and going forth with confidence and concrete examples. If my tenure as a writing center employee has taught me anything, it’s that all good writing has some base characteristics: specificity, detail, flow, and a warrant (i.e. why you’re writing the damn thing). Not that poems are just essays suffering an identity crisis, but the tenets of strong & effective language remain.

4) Fear

This is just shorthand for what you’re actually experiencing that you’ve been told to call “fear.” In truth, we feel sweaty palms, blood thudding behind our eyes, bright flashes of scenes from our worst nightmares: guts flying, scraggly-haired pre-pubescent girls creeping out of a stone well, a monster with daggers for teeth, whatever. To say, “I fear you leaving me,” doesn’t create a sensation. It sounds like a teenager’s journal entry. What will happen if this “you” leaves? Will the walls tumble down in an avalanche of plaster? Will the stovetop swelter into a lava monster and gulp the breakfast nook down for a snack? Will the swimming pool birth its own slimy frog monster that eats babies like flies?

When talking to linguistics nerd Amy about this, she said something about the “signifier-signified” relationship, wherein we relate abstract groups of letters (our old pals words) to complex, multi-dimensional concepts and experiences of the world. We all have similar ideas of the abstract experience of “fear.” Take us somewhere new.

5) Freedom 

I blame the Beat poets for this one. Thousands of teenaged record collectors and Young Democrats organizers flock to Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, and other white dudes-cum-poets sitting around the suburbs wanderlusting. This is OK. We like wanderlust. We don’t like reading the same regurgitated version of Howl for over 50 years at open mics around the world.

Freedom is perhaps the most worthy of the topics listed here to write a poem about. The trap is falling into something we’ve all read a bazillion times in our hippie-dippy poetry intro course. Ask instead: what does freedom smell like? How do you dress for freedom? Who gets freedom? Get political! Get concrete! Make us feel freedom when we close our eyes, wind whipping around us like Thelma & Louise!

Epilogue

The other day in Rosetta’s, the punk-vegetarian-casual-kitchen in Asheville, Amy, Chett, and I were getting a post-writing group snack (writers ❤ vegetarian food). On the specials board behind the register, there hung a sticker proclaiming: “FEAR is the enemy of LOVE and  FREEDOM” (or something equally meaningless). These abstractions are everywhere, even in the punk-DIY veg*n restaurant. If poetry makes the familiar strange, problematize vague allusions; spice up the mundane; challenge your reader to go beyond the page!

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