Sometimes, when writing a poem, I will spend an hour or more experimenting with a single word. Should the word be “powerful” or “forceful” or “sturdy?” Which word sounds better in the line? Which words best says what I’m trying to convey? Which word brings the best rhythmic element to the line?
Beyond the rain splattered window
the powerful/forceful/sturdy storm rages…
In poetry every word matters. In poetry, every word brings (or takes) something from the meaning, the feeling, and the dramatic impact of the poem. And, because there is a musical element to poetry, each word should support the rhythm of the poem. Just like a sour note in a song, a sour word in a poem, changes the impact the poem will have on us.
When teaching poetry, I’ve always told my students to be word wizards and word misers. Word wizards will spend as long as it takes to construct a line using exactly the right words, the best words, the most impactful words, and a word miser will use as few words as possible. If prose is an open hand, then the poem is a closed fist. A poem is tight and compact and flows like a river from one image to the next, one precisely placed rhyme to the next, one dramatic line break to the next.
In poetry, every word matters! In poetry, extraneous words detract from the power and purpose of the poem. I know famous poets who, when presenting their poems at a poetry reading, will change a word that is part of a well-known, well-loved poem, already published. I’ve laughed with them over the fact that, a poet is also, always, a critic of his/her own work. And a poem, like a living, breathing thing, is never quite finished, it’s always in motion.
Which word would I have chosen for my poem from the three I tried? I chose “sturdy” because I thought it had the right meaning, the right sound, and the right rhythm and, it also offered me a chance to use alliteration. And so, the line read: Beyond the rain splattered window/the sturdy storm rages…
If a poem is worth writing, it is worth taking the time to choose each word with care and precision. So, go ahead, be a word wizard and a word miser and write poems that touch us, to our very soul.