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I was visiting a creative writing class last week, and students were asking questions about craft, process, etc. A young woman raised her hand: “where do your words come from? Do you spend a long time figuring out what words you’ll use? Because they always seem so precise.”
Her question was both simple and complex, and I perhaps gave the simpler answer: words are the most fundamental tools of poetry. I spend hours putting words into poems and taking them back out. I gather words the way a landscaper might gather plants, and I look for the ways in which they can fit together, sustain one another, complement each other, create larger areas of meaning and image, be of use, be striking, be organic to the world they inhabit.


But what I didn’t say, which is key, is that a poet should also have a way of de-familiarizing herself or himself with the words. We should always be aware of them as tools, as objects, as the building blocks of the poem. Gary Snyder writes in “Riprap”:
Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
Language isn’t just an extension of the mind, the codification of ideas within a system that makes those ideas translatable from speaker to listener. It is also a supreme artifice. In poetry, language becomes a nuanced performance that shifts emphasis and meaning each time a new word is added or subtracted, and these colors are further varied by punctuation, typography, and lineation.
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To see how much a poem relies upon the exactness of its language, try translating the poem into another language and then translating it back into English. Note how much is lost when the words are changed.
I have made a few examples below, using lyrics from pop songs. I used song lyrics because I didn’t feel like bastardizing any poems and leaving the evidence on the net. Plus, I thought it might be fun to turn this into a guessing game. If you’re up for a challenge, you might see if you can figure out the original line in each example. They have been translated into Japanese and then back into English, using babelfish . Tune in next week for the correct answers.
I in order to sing in complete harmony, desire the fact that the world is taught. I keep that of the company my arm, desire the fact that it maintains.
I was born, the sea the person who navigates you having lived, town. And he said the land of that life our submarine.
This must be remembered: Kiss exactly is kiss. Sigh exactly is sigh.
You put the lime on the coconut, drink entirely. The lime is put on the coconut, the doctor is called.
Someone left the cake to the rain. I do not think that I can take that. It meaning that that takes so long in order to burn that. And I do not have the cooking method under any condition for the second time.
River of month, wide than mile. I am some day of intersection style.
We Manhattan, take Bronx, and the star ten island. It is that to be beautiful to the zoo and to go.
Today darkness my old friend. I came speaking with you for the second time.
It stacks the load in the ton of 16, obtains in something? Another day to be old and with deep debt.
As for stop, with name of love before you, my center is broken. Think of that.
That is the day when weather for white wedding is good. That is the day when the weather which should start for the second time is good.
As for memory the corner of my heart is attached. The fog of method it is deep, there were memory we who swimming wear color are done.
Is not at all is not always the pursuit dog which shouts, not to be exactly.
Me, because of Argentina you do not have to shout. Truth is not the left I never. Completely with my wild day, existence of my lunatic, I protected my promise. Your interval does not have to be maintained.
It is the mother, or is the father how, you have lived, it has been restricted. You have lived, be restricted.
The secure play intermediate pin ball of the blind boy where that ear is not audible, the thing cannot say.
Being caught between month and New York City, if it can, I am the insanity which has been known, but that being true. Being caught between month and New York City, if it can, can doing it is best it is to fall with love.
I write the song which makes the entire world sing. I write the song of love and special thing. I write the song which makes the girl shout it is young. I write song. I write song.
Does the bird appear why suddenly with you to be close certain everytime? Exactly, like me it is close to you, but it is, it is long them.
Isn’t that abundant? Isn’t that strange? My timing is lost my carrier remains slowly. But as for the buffoonery teacher it is somewhere? Be fast, send with the buffoonery teacher. The annoyance which my here is does not have to be applied.
Mommas to the cowboy where is your baby does not make that you are brought up possible.
The only boy who can teach me was the son of the preaching person person. Only boy who can reach to me was the son of the preaching person person. It was, there was he. There was he. Mmmm... it was, there was he.
Very it is wasteful. Perhaps you think of that this song it is attached to you. Very it is wasteful. Perhaps you think of that this song it is attached to you, so the shank? ?
Well, I the fire and looked at that I looked at the rain. I looked at the lonely day thing which I thought, it does not end under any condition. You looked at the lonely time when I me find the friend and is not possible. But I thought that always my oven it is it meets.
The bird does that. The bee does that. The chisel which has education does that. It will do that: It will fall with love.
You know that I am untruth. You know that I am the liar. If I should call to you, “the girl, we greatly may become higher.” You coming to the baby, apply my fire. Do to come to the baby, apply my fire. Try the fact that the night of fire is put in place.
At the point where the dog of society howls the way if, the yellow brick road. I of your penthouse am permitted is not possible. I have gone to my being less crowded.
When the light/write the city of the bay and shine of the sun and going with coming, Ohio state, I think that at my city we would like to be there. Well, Ohio state and Ohio state.
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Originally Published: May 26th, 2008

Born in Albany, Georgia, D. A. Powell earned an MA at Sonoma State University and an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first three collections of poetry, Tea, (1998), Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004), are considered by some to be a trilogy on the AIDS epidemic. Lunch was a...

  1. May 26, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    I can guess a few of the easy ones (this was done with no googling):
    Someone left the cake out in the rain. I don't think that I can take it, cause it took so long to bake it, and I'll never have that recipe again....
    Someone left the cake to the rain. I do not think that I can take that. It meaning that that takes so long in order to burn that. And I do not have the cooking method under any condition for the second time.
    Hello darkness my old friend. I've come to talk to you again.
    Today darkness my old friend. I came speaking with you for the second time.
    Stop in the name of love, before you break my heart.
    As for stop, with name of love before you, my center is broken. Think of that.
    Mothers, don't bring your boys up to be cowboys.
    Mommas to the cowboy where is your baby does not make that you are brought up possible.
    The only boy who could ever reach me was the son of the preacher man.
    The only boy who can teach me was the son of the preaching person person. Only boy who can reach to me was the son of the preaching person person. It was, there was he. There was he. Mmmm... it was, there was he.
    Well, I've seen fire and I've seen rain. I've seen lonely days when I could not ....dum de dum.
    Well, I the fire and looked at that I looked at the rain. I looked at the lonely day thing which I thought, it does not end under any condition. You looked at the lonely time when I me find the friend and is not possible. But I thought that always my oven it is it meets.
    You know that I would be untrue. You know that I would be a liar. If I was to say to you, girl, we couldn't get much higher. Come on, baby, light my fire. Try to set the night on fire.
    You know that I am untruth. You know that I am the liar. If I should call to you, “the girl, we greatly may become higher.” You coming to the baby, apply my fire. Do to come to the baby, apply my fire. Try the fact that the night of fire is put in place.
    "apply my fire" -- lol.

  2. May 27, 2008
     dylan

    The chisel which has education does that.
    Wow! There's a metamorphosis! From a flea to a chisel!

  3. May 27, 2008
     Anne Haines

    I think I got them all except for the "pursuit dog" one (and "Ohio state" threw me at first) ... but maybe I shouldn't be admitting in public just how many pop lyrics I have in my head, eh?
    How about this one:
    At day as for us, we passing by the large residence of glory of the suicide machine, ride at the night when you sweat that of sort of American dream of escape
    (I've done this with a few poems when I've been stuck. If nothing else, it usually kicks me out of the rut of taking my own words too damn seriously!)

  4. June 1, 2008
     Lucas Klein

    A cute guessing game to remind us of what we all know, that word choice is important to poetry. But in achieving this destination, where did we pass through? The same tired refrain that translation constitutes loss. What's really lost, in my mind, is the opportunity to understand translation itself as a poetic practice (enough poets have been translators that I'd have thought this was common sense by now). Babelfish and Chinese menus, on the other hand, could teach us by negative example how important and difficult good translation is, and how human translators succeed by paying at least as much attention to their word choice as human poets do to theirs. Instead, we get a vision of all translation as machine translation, and a dismissal, as I see it, of the work involved in translation. All so we can smile in smugness at figuring out what Yellow Submarine might sound like in Japanese.
    A better question might be how word choice does and does not contribute to the meaning of poems, as seen through translations into other languages. I had a German friend of mine quote me his recollection of a Dylan lyric, in English: "Everybody must smoke pot!" Well, not exactly. Why did that change happen in the mind of a fluent English-speaker from Germany? Why does language do that?

  5. June 1, 2008
     D. A. Powell

    Hi Lucas Klein,
    I wasn't trying to be cute or smug, and I wasn't trying to tell people what they already should know. I'm sorry if it came off that way. I was trying to say that poetry, at its best, is unparaphraseable, and that it's okay to spend hours revising. I guess I was operating under the assumption that some of the readers of this site are coming here to learn about poetry, or to remind themselves or their students of certain principles of writing. If this is a site for people who already know all of these "tired" refrains, then I can imagine it's not just me who's coming off as smug.
    In any case, I was using the idea of translation as a metaphor for poetry's reliance upon exact diction. But I didn't want to say "hey, this is a metaphor." I was also trying to keep the conversation entertaining, so I leaned heavily upon irony, since that's the mode du jour for so much poetry of late. And isn't it odd that your response included an example that was similarly ironic? Mine were translations generated through an "artificial" intelligence, and yours was an example that seemed to rely, at least in part, on a human intelligence. So much more fascinating, really, in your example.
    Well, but that's a whole other discussion that I wasn't really intending: impossibility of translation. I should have just said "unparaphraseable" and chosen, if any, a less ornate comparison than translation. From now on, I'll leave any discussion of translation to the real experts.
    Thanks!

  6. June 1, 2008
     D. A. Powell

    Hi Lucas Klein,
    I wasn't trying to be cute or smug, and I wasn't trying to tell people what they already should know. I'm sorry if it came off that way. I was trying to say that poetry, at its best, is unparaphraseable, and that it's okay to spend hours revising. I guess I was operating under the assumption that some of the readers of this site are coming here to learn about poetry, or to remind themselves or their students of certain principles of writing. If this is a site for people who already know all of these "tired" refrains, then I can imagine it's not just me who's coming off as smug.
    In any case, I was using the idea of translation as a metaphor for poetry's reliance upon exact diction. But I didn't want to say "hey, this is a metaphor." I was also trying to keep the conversation entertaining, so I leaned heavily upon irony, since that's the mode du jour for so much poetry of late. And isn't it odd that your response included an example that was similarly ironic? Mine were translations generated through an "artificial" intelligence, and yours was an example that seemed to rely, at least in part, on a human intelligence. So much more fascinating, really, in your example.
    Well, but that's a whole other discussion that I wasn't really intending: impossibility of translation. I should have just said "unparaphraseable" and chosen, if any, a less ornate comparison than translation. From now on, I'll leave any discussion of translation to the real experts.
    Thanks!

  7. June 1, 2008
     Lucas Klein

    Thank you, D. A. Powell, for your response. I don't imagine that you were trying to be cute or smug, though I do think that certain aspects of your entry enable smugness, especially in regards to translation. Nor do I think that discussion of translation should be left to the experts; just like poetry, it (and we) could benefit from a broader discussion. Still, that broader discussion will only really be beneficial if we understand that translation is about something beyond loss and paraphrasing, just as we need to remember that poetry is about more than what you say, it's at least as much about how you say it.

  8. June 17, 2008
     Suzanne

    I'm all for translating translations, but I can't be OK with babelfish! The computer aspect is way too absurd for me... though it does make for fun new lines!