Friday, May 25, 2018

To the Lighthouse: Word Choice, the Center of the Practice of Writing

                                                                                                         morning shower --
                                                                                                         finding just the word
                                                                                                         I was looking for

                                                                                                         Carolyn Hall
One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.
-- Jack Kerouac

In "Word Choice in English-Language Haiku: The Uses of Roots" (Frogpond, 36:1, 2013, pp. 72-76), David Grayson emphasizes that

Word choice stands at the center of the practice of writing. This is particularly true for poetry, and even more so for haiku. Simply put, the choice of a word can make or break a poem... (p. 72)

I agree with David Grayson completely: the choice of a word can make or break a [haiku.] Like Cid Corman, I believe that 

... words have color, form, character; they have faces, ports, manners, gesticulations; they are mood, humors, eccentricities; -- they have tints, tones, personalities ... (Cid Corman, At Their Word, p. 156).

There is little room for lengthy description in writing haiku; therefore, haiku relies on strict simplicity of phrasing and careful word choice. Writing haiku is a good exercise in concise, purposeful word choice. Haiku practitioners can hone their haiku by "improving word choice, re-drafting for maximum precision and concreteness, choosing details and imagery that 'show'  the particular mood, sensations and/or ideas they perceive in their subject image." (Caroline Smith,"Reading and Writing Haiku Based on Traditional Japanese Criteria")

Take the following haiku for example:

the front porch
filled with childhood laughter
moving day

When I workshopped this haiku in a poetry forum, several poets suggested that it might be better to change "childhood laughter" to "children's laughter" or leave out "childhood."

Case 1: changing "childhood laughter" to "children's laughter"

Evaluated in the thematic and emotional context of my haiku, there is a BIG difference between childhood laughter and children's laughter. childhood laughter is used to describe a memory of how the porch used to be used as children's playground many years ago. Its succeeding line, moving day, is in the present, when the narrator's has left childhood behind. A sense of sadness is subtly conveyed through the poignant juxtaposition of "childhood laughter" (in the past) and "moving day" (in the present).

If I had children's laughter instead, I would read this new phrase, "filled with children's laughter," as in the present, and interpret the scene described in revised haiku completely different from the one portrayed in my original: as a family is moving out (or in), the children have time to play and laugh on the porch while the parents/adults attend to  the more serious matter of doing or supervising the moving.

Case 2: leaving out "childhood"

I would read this revised line, "filled with laughter" as in the present, and  interpret the revised haiku as a family happily moving in to their new home or moving out of their old house.

One word can make such a BIG difference to a haiku.

And each word is a matter of life and death -- Cid Corman

Note: You can the full text of David Grayso's article here. The haiku below are fine examples used in his article.

first frost
the echo in the caw
of the crow

Mark Hollingsworth’s poem (which won Frogpond’s best of the Fall 2009 issue) contains the Old English-derived words “first”, “frost” and “crow”. These words produce an austere and spare feeling that underscores the scene....

the sack of kittens
sinking in the icy creek,
increases the cold

In this classic by Nick Virgilio, the Old English words- “sack”, “sink”, “creek” and “cold” – paint a sharp picture that is multi-sensory. The reader can feel the cold and the wet, and imagine the muffled cries of the kittens...

... Sometimes a word can surprise you, as in Gary Snyder’s poem:





Without resorting to the dictionary, we might reasonably expect that “piss” (vs “urinate”) would be of older lineage in English. It denotes a basic bodily function, is one syllable, and is of common (even vulgar) usage. But it’s of Latin (French) origin. So, there are exceptions....

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