I have been thinking about diction lately—the quandaries of word choice. Maybe it is partly to do with my 3-and-a-half–year old son’s vocabulary becoming richer and more sophisticated, and one finds oneself pushing him gently towards one word choice over another, though both might be more or less intelligible in context. Diction is often what makes or breaks a poem, though it can seem one of the least important of its mechanisms. Perhaps since John Ashbery made jarring registers of diction—from Elizabethan to contemporary slang and pop references--so much a part of his style, it has become a common-place of contemporary American poetry. Well-handled, mixed registers of diction can be playful, rousing, provocative; though it seems to me mixing registers is often adopted by poets as a postmodern tic, and that when it is applied glibly, the effect is of a poem channel-surfing, or too busy talking to itself to listen.

Poets so concerned with getting these different registers into a poem may think that keeping a poem consistent in register (whether the classical purity of a Thomas Grey or the rough-hewn carpentry of a Thomas Hardy) is easy—surprisingly, though, it ain't: a single wrong word can shake us out of a poem as fast as a bad rhyme or clichéd simile. So while I think shifts in register can be playful and thought-provoking when well-handled, I am more interested in poems that either use an accumulation of diction to press a poem in a certain direction, or poems that use a shift in register to a specific purpose, to indicate a larger shift in the poem.
These famous lines from Whitman always delight me with the exactness of their word-choices:
WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
The tension between scientific and poetic/empirical knowledge is set up even if one were to change half a dozen words, but these words charge the lines to the full. The Greek polysyllabic word “astronomer” in the first line will be balanced by the monosyllabic “stars” in the last. (Stars—the actual subject of the lecture-- is in fact held back to the last word of the poem.) The figures are “ranged in columns” as if a hostile army. And then “unaccountable”! Yes, he is unaccountably tired and sick, but also mind-boggled with numbers, unable to count. “Rising and gliding” and even “wander” are from classical descriptions of the movements of heavenly bodies (their Latin equivalents—orior, labor, meo--feature often in Lucretius and Manilius)—it is as if the narrator has actually become a star, rising and gliding, wandering into the night sky. Because of all this care in word-choice, even the potentially sentimental “mystical” becomes more charged. With moist it suggests “mist,” perhaps, as well as “mystery”—but one is tempted to check back into the dictionary, and discovers that “mystical” knowledge is immediate rather than mediated—observation, hunch, experience over deduction, diagrams and charts.
A very different poem, and one I love to discuss when talking about the sonnet, is Marilyn Nelson’s “Balance,” from Fields of Praise. A virtuosic display of slant rhyme, narrative and structure, it is among my favorite contemporary sonnets. Part of a series of poems about a woman named Diverne (an ancestor?) born into slavery, who bears a child by her master, it nonetheless is able to stand alone, a whole short story in fourteen lines. It is also fascinating as a study in diction and register:
He watch her like a coonhound watch a tree
What might explain the metamorphosis
he underwent when she paraded by
with tea-cakes, in her fresh and shabby dress?
(As one would carry water from a well—
straight-backed, high-headed, like a diadem,
with careful grace so that no drop will spill—
she balanced, almost brimming, her one name.)
She think she something, stuck-up island bitch.
Chopping wood, hanging laundry on the line,
and tantalizingly within his reach,
she honed his body’s yearning to a keen,
sharp point. And on that point she balanced life.
That hoe Diverne think she Marse Tyler’s wife.
The italicized lines, in the vernacular of Diverne’s fellow slaves, contrast abruptly with the decorous, literary language of the poem’s narration. (These italicized lines in fact almost serve as a chorus to the action of the poem—the simmering undercurrent of “public” opinion.) The contrast of register is driven home right away in the first two lines, not just by grammar but word choice—coonhound versus metamorphosis. A single poem contains “coonhound” “bitch” and “hoe” as well as “metamorphosis”, “diadem,” and “tantalizingly”—these lat three words not even Latinate but, more arcanely, Greek. The violently different registers of diction suggest the two worlds Diverne is balancing her life between. The relentless offness of the rhymes until the very last couplet (where life/wife also triangulate to hint at "knife"--the keen point), and the off-balance of the sonnet structure itself with its top-heavy 8/6 division, all contribute to the performance of this high-wire act, that has me, as a reader, holding my breath, speechless.

Originally Published: February 22nd, 2008

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. February 24, 2008
     Susan McLean

    I agree that wild swings in diction are overused in contemporary poetry. Nothing gets an easy laugh faster than downshifting from polysyllabic or "poetic" diction to slang, dialect, or an obscenity. It's showy, but often empty. Berryman pulled it off, yet in some of his imitators it looks too calculated, just one more trick from the bag. On the other hand, more subtle effects, as in your examples, really contribute to the meaning of the poem. A shift from polysyllabic words to simple words of one or two syllables, as in Whitman's poem, slows down the final line and often lends it an emotional power that maintaining the same level of diction would not.

  2. February 24, 2008
     Don Share

    About those jarring registers of diction, I'm reminded of Housman's complaint about late-17th century poets (the ones Johnson called "metaphysical"): "Their object was to startle by novelty and amuse by ingenuity a public whose one wish was to be so startled and amused."

  3. February 26, 2008
     Robin Kemp

    "Balance" is exactly the right title for a poem that shows exacty how to walk the diction wire.