Poetry: Four examples of the power of precise word choice
Published: July 1, 2008
|In August's Poet to Poet column, Marilyn Taylor uses an excerpt from Jane Gentry's "Washing sheets in July" to illustrate how word choice can elicit an emotional response from readers. Here is the full poem:|
Washing sheets in July
by Jane Gentry
Thin clouds work the sheet of sky-
jays cry, flat and starchy.
Against the white garage,
The sheets, wet, adhesive
as I hang them, smell
of soap and bee-filled air.
Flags of order in the palpable sun,
how they snap in the new breeze!
Watching them balloon on the line,
I swell with an old satisfaction:
I beat them clean in the Euphrates.
Poems half-conceived drift off-
unwritten essays muddle, fade.
The white sheets crack in the wind,
fat bellies of sails,
sweet as round stomachs of children.
Tonight they'll carry me to sleep
in joy, in peace,
muscles unknotting, tired eyes clearing
in the dark under their lids.
The sheets, fragrant as summer,
carry me into realms of cleanliness
deep dreams of order.
And here are three more poems by contemporary poets that demonstrate how carefully selected diction can create unmistakable "emotional landscapes":
Still life with fire escape
by Amy Lemmon
The fire escape's an ugly shade of red
instead of its old, unobtrusive white.
I see it every time I look outside-
the color of old brick or dried blood square
in my line of vision. Yesterday,
the painters woke us much too early
for a Sunday-their words a holy gibberish.
This neighborhood we love sometimes dispirits
with its car-horns, alarms, and screeching brakes,
the trucks that bark and snort, the soot that grays
our sills, our woodwork, every cursèd corner.
And now this brick-red paint, mixture
of blood and iron, totemic, created nearly of flesh.
I eat small meals these days, respectful
of my small son growing inside me.
As my belly swells, blood multiplies, my body's
a binding for the book of him, a factory,
a crucible, a smelter, and a furnace.
He grows not of my own will or accord,
blood of my blood, but not entirely.
Chapel Hill Road
by Kathrine Varnes
What could prepare you for it?
The dark night, your car coming down off the hill
into an icy curve
guiding traffic through a rural
curtain breezing the edge of town
say nothing to thump your heart.
But the doe, hobbling in the shoulder, shimmers
Every Particle of Light from the tan of her coat,
the shallow pans of her
blinded and blinding eyes.
Gasp if you must, at her hardened confusion,
the way she has too many knees
but demands that they work for her
though nothing under her hooves will make sense,
not the clatter or gravity tugging her down.
Why is it now so clear, her startling beauty?
The weeping-set off in car after car
filled with girl scouts and farmers,
accountants, professors, musicians
and gardeners, architects, and real estate agents,
brokers and hunters who call out
repeatedly to their gods-
how this doe hammers
hope back down in the spreading
marrow of each buckling leg!
by Karla Huston
We clutched together in a screen tent,
nine of us lurching between
tent poles and gusts, watching
clouds gather up in the west,
the angry wave of them
hovered over the Mississippi River
bluffs like a black wall.
Then the wind huffed down the face
of the limestone, threw clay
and trees onto highways
and shorelines. We shivered
and while the sky slung bullets,
the old man reared back, spit mud
and clams and weeds.
The rain made sodden debris
of tents and sleeping bags
while under the plastic canopy
we passed the bourbon-an amber torch,
the burning liquor the only thing
that quenched the quarrel outside.
--Posted July 1, 2008