Celebrating the sounds of words, without losing meaning

Since June 2011, I’ve been working on a manuscript of new poems titled ‘Knitting Time: a journey through loss’ There is one bit of feedback that I’ve resisted; a criticism that I often use words that are ‘difficult’ that are not in common usage and therefore often make the work inaccessible. I’m the first person to back away from ‘elitist’ poetry. I agree wholeheartedly with Nicole Fordham-Hodges, who says in her DAO blog “Being real is more important than poetry. Poetry with a big P is an empty plate carried by a waiter with a neat white coat and no face.”

Poetry has to be rooted in lived experience for it to carry weight or have purpose. But I don’t believe that excluding a word because it isn’t in current usage makes a poem elitist or inaccessible. When Monty Python first came on tv they had a silly sketch about ‘woody’ and ‘tinny’ words. Woody words led Michael Palin into a sonorous calm, whilst tinny words words had him leaping about hysterically. It was a comic way of giving an appreciation of the sounds of words.

According to a rough estimate is that 20 per cent of words in the Oxford English Dictionary are no longer in current use. There seems to be an idea that for poetry to be accessible those words should stay obsolete because the reader shouldn’t be expected to have to pick up a dictionary. What rubbish!

The English language is rich with sound. Poetry should celebrate the language, not be afraid of it. Each generation invents new takes on words and their meanings which are outside of the understanding of older generations. It’s exciting and is how it should be. It represents the dynamic nature of the way that language evolves. But if, as wordsmiths or poets we refuse to accept the value of older words as valid, just because people don’t use them any more, then we really are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

I’ll leave you with an example. Knitting time is a poem about how my mother used to try to calm herself and ward of the excesses of psychosis through the act of knitting with wool. It’s one of a series I’ve written on that theme. In the second stanza I use the word ‘tenebrous’. It is an adjective meaning dark or ominous. It comes from the latin word Tenebrae meaning ‘shadows’ or ‘darkness’)

The word has been questioned by more than one poet for the ‘difficulty’ it represents, yet I hang on to it vehemently. I used the word, not to be clever or pompous – but because it has a great sound to it. Repeat it aloud and you’ll hear monks chanting in underground caves or you’ll see the roots of trees moving secretly and silently down into the depths of the earth. It has the feel of something that branches out and clings at the same time. And I think it strikes as a great counterpoint in the poem to the sense of illusions protruding; sticking out to alienate and confuse.

I’d be very interested to know what others feel about the use of language in poetry? You can leave a comment at the end of this blog or get back to me via colin.hambrook[at]btinternet.com

Knitting time
© Colin Hambrook

She could sing those star-garments into shape
in her sleep and does so readily on nights
when there is light enough to give birth
to a new universe. But her thoughts won’t settle.
Like Lot’s wife, she looks back, at glass dripping upwards
the pane slipping slowly into sand.

Inhabiting a raw time, of all tomorrows, yesterdays;
she breathes, but nothing will hold,
and once the terror takes, there’s hell to pay
for all those illusions, tenebrous protrusions
moving under the belly of self-belief.

And so back to the knitting vessel
carrier of her soul into the living land
the safe place of cross stitch, a stitch in time
where the breath can be measured
just one step, one small step, beyond the fear.

About Knitting Time: art and poetry on the theme of psychosis

'Knitting Time: a journey through loss' is a poetry and visual arts project reflecting on the theme of art and psychosis. A book and exhibition of the work is due to be launched at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex on 10 October 2013 to celebrate World Mental Health Day. During this research and development phase I want to gather responses, thoughts, recollections and comments, so please fill in my surveymonkey at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/F2MN2MT and add your let me know what you think? Or feel free to email me via knitting-time [at] btinternet.com
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2 Responses to Celebrating the sounds of words, without losing meaning

  1. Julie Waterman says:

    its a wonderful evocative poem Colin, and I feel its important to use words that come to mind or ones we find that fit both into poetry but into every day life too. It really worries me how .”difficult” words are seen as the enemy, and that Im being difficult for using them.

    • Thanks Julie. I’m a great believer in the advice I’ve often heard in poetry workshops that “you must kill your babies.” There is often a tendency to cling to words or images that don’t necessarily add to the meaning in a poem. So whilst I love to use ‘difficult’ words for the sound they evoke, it’s important not to use them for the sake of it

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