The word “whale” was slipping out of the mouth of every other poet.
In a workshop a few days later, another whale swam into the room. After class, I flipped through a poetry collection only to find more blubber. There were blue whales, gray whales, humpbacks and orcas. Sperm whales, bottlenoses, delugas and fins.
What was up with poets and whales?
I was a newcomer to New York and to poetry, and like the village outsider, I saw the place with fresh eyes.
Yet the more readings I attended and the more poets I befriended, the more I felt the pull of poetry clichés. My vision grew cloudy. At the height of this blindness, I wrote a dreadful note to myself:
Write a poem about how when you first entered the poetry world, you found they were all obsessed with whales. Comical. End poem on a note about whales and their mysterious beauty.
Praise Whitman, I never wrote that poem.
I don't mean to pick on whales or anyone who has written about them, myself included! I mean to ask, how do we resist the poetry cliché? I'll tell you what I do, and I hope you'll share what works for you.
*Make a list of banned diction. This is a good bar game to play with poets--everyone shouts out words like moon and sycamore, someone makes a list, and you agree to exclude them from your next round of work. This is like when Top Chef contestants cook with one hand tied behind their backs and stun the judges with creative dishes.
*Take notes during your day job. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished to make a living just writing poetry. But if that wish came true, my poems would suffer. Working in another field gives you access to an orphanage of language just waiting to be adopted by poetic parents.
Rescue words wherever you can! While editing a business magazine, for example, I open a Word document and copy all of the unusual language I come across. I met the term hot-swappable that way.
*Use the language of your hobbies. David Lehman taps his knowledge of Jewish composers to lively effect in his poems. My friend Amanda Smeltz makes sonnets out of hip-hop lyrics. Julie Sheehan introduced us to the language of cocktails, and Louise Glück to the language of flowers. I'm thankful for them.
*Watch old films from the '40s and '50s. In The Philadelphia Story, Katharine Hepburn defines the archaic word “yare.” It’s wonderful. ("It means, oh what does it mean? Easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, bright -- everything a boat should be.")
The only time I’ve read this word is in The Tempest, and I can't find it in my Webster's dictionary. Classic films are time capsules for dated phrases, transatlantic accents and sing-songy cadences that no one, save Kelsey Grammer, uses anymore. Resurrecting old clichés is fair game.
*Lastly, read Middle and Old English. I know, I know, it sounds masochistic! But once you start, it’s intuitive, and you pick up all kinds of awesome words. A professor at Cambridge made our class perform an entire play in Old English, and I'm still grateful for the experience.
Along those lines, I use Forgotten English Knowledge Cards as prompts. Some gems include:
gimlet-eyed: A sharp-sighted, inquisitive person in the nineteenth century.
gander-moon: The month of recovery after a woman gives birth. A husband who took interest in other women during this time was called a gander-mooner, in reference to a gander who wanders off while his mate hatches eggs.
fixfax: A wooden device with holes for the necks and wrists of people accused of fortune-telling and sales fraud in Scotland and America. They were fixfaxed in the public square, where people pelted them with “humiliating projectiles.”
bankrupture: Variant of bankruptcy. Fourteenth-century Italian moneylenders worked outside on wooden benches called bancas. If a banker ran out of cash, his bench would be destroyed. Bankrupture = broken bench.
So go out! Go yarely! Leave the village to collect a pail of shiny words and bring them back for us to enjoy.
Your daily prompt: Find a word you’ve never written before, and use it in a poem.
Image by Brandon Cole via Encyclopedia Britannica.