forbidden words

When I posted the poem returning, a while back, I’ll admit that it wasn’t because I think it’s particularly good. It just seemed to suit the mood and the weather.

One of the problems I see with it is the “poesy”: the self-conscious and unnecessary use of poetic words. I think that including the word gossamer and the phrase in her wake is pretty much unforgivable in so short a piece. The latter could easily be replaced by behind her without losing any of the meaning. After all, whoever “she” is, she’s almost certainly not a boat.

I’m really not sure about gossamer, either, although it is used in a potentially literal way. Chambers define it as “fine filmy spider-woven threads seen on hedges or floating in the air.” I know those threads that float in the air as “Devil’s spit”, and the scarves of evaporation early in the morning at this time of year certainly remind me of them. The poem was intended to be the first glimpse of spring, though and whether the spiders’ silk occurs now, I’m not sure. I suspect not, as it’d be far too cold most mornings for insects – or arachnids – to be out and about.

Even if it’s appropriate for the season, the fact remains that gossamer is a word that needs to be used with caution in poetry. There are many such “forbidden words” that are liable to make the piece sound like teenage angst or far too sugary sweet.

A usenet poetry group challenge years ago invited us to write a (reasonably good) poem using all of the following

love
soul (or spirit)
insane
shard
tendril
darkness

I’d extend that list to include death, anger, and many other abstract nouns, and also add gossamer, myriad, afterglow

I’m not saying these words should be completely avoided, but I’d recommend being very careful about how frequently they appear if you want to write good poetry.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

9 thoughts on “forbidden words”

  1. Perhaps it is not the words but rather how they used that makes them forbidden…if they are used in a trite manner then the poem becomes trite. But those words can be like the eyes in a photograph…they can reflect deep meaning if used appropriately.

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    1. Heh. I think you’ve been speaking Spanish for too long. I suspect you mean *carrying* a conjuring wand?! As for cleaning out the gossamer, I think not: it’s all additional insulation – and we need it again today. No snow, but frost still about at mid-day in the corners the sun didn’t get to.

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  2. I’ll grant you that “in her wake” is indefensible, but “gossamer” certainly has many potentially useful meanings and associations. The only problem I have with your use of the word in “returning,…” is that I associate gossamer with autumn, not spring, and that’s not a *big* problem.

    As for “love”, “soul”, “spirit”, “insane”, “shard”, “tendril” and “darkness”, using the plain words is often good. Obviously “shards of my soul” and “tendrils of love” are intolerable, but I can’t see anything wrong with “tendrils of ivy”, “shards of glass” and similar precise phrases except that they’re rather dull.

    But perhaps I only think this because of the insane shards of darkness in my soul.

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    1. Are you sure it isn’t because the dark shards of your insanity have torn your soul to tendrils?
      “In her wake” is a bit Joyce Grenfell, isn’t it? (“Stately as a galleon…”)
      There was Devil’s spit in the air here at lunchtime yesterday and I expect to return to gossamer in another post soon.
      I may even post the poem I wrote with all those forbidden words in it.

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