Shard, daffodil, palimpsest: should some words be banned in poetry?

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A list of words which should not be included in poems, or used only with caution, was apparently put together some years ago by a group of UK poets. (Acknowledgement for this list to The Far Near Blog written by Sally Reid). 

Here is the list: shard; daffodil; ziggurat; epiphany; fester; blob; palimpsest; soul; plethora; gossamer; ammonite; hark; destiny; rectal; candyfloss; sunset; frond; prayer; milt; sapient; tesserae; loo; snedder; poised; shriek; lambent; snot; Jesus; humdinger; shimmer; golden; heartbreak; mango; harbinger; myriad. 

I notice that shard comes first on the list.  When a new, tall, tapering building arrived in London called the ‘S’ word,  I thought of all the poets falling about laughing because of the poetic in-joke that architects and builders were not party to. The building exudes a majestic symbolism, I feel, with or without its silly name. But how to describe it?

I have to put my hand up and admit to having used the word “palimpsest” in one of my poems.  I rather like it.  What does it mean, I’m sometimes asked.  The only reason I am able to casually wave my hand and say “Oh, it means such and such”, is because I’ve looked it up several times. The shorter OED says it’s a paper or parchment that has been written upon twice, the original having been rubbed out.  What a wonderful image of second chances; of the ability to get things wrong and try again.  Of not having to be perfect the first time.   So I’m putting in a plea to be allowed to keep palimpsests.

Daffodils?  What’s wrong with a few clumps of lovely, cheery daffodils waving in the blooming breeze, just because old Wordsworth came along and spoiled it for the rest of us?  I can’t quite bring myself to press the delete button on those myriad … er … harbingers of spring!

We know that many words have been overused in poems. The reason they get overused is because they form instantly recognisable metaphors for the thing we are really trying to write about but don’t have the words for.  What is a shimmer but a quality of light, that is best described by the word “‘shimmer”?.  There’s a “glimmer”, just as overused.  And a quick look at Roget’s Thesaurus produces: glitter, twinkle, blink, sparkle, spark; scintillation, coruscation.   Mmm.  Looks like our quality of light still doesn’t have a name.  But if cliches are born of all the things for which man (and woman) have no adequate name, then so too is a Rembrandt painting.

It is not that we tire of the “gossamer sunset”, but of the poet’s limited way of describing it.  The banality of the words cannot match the glory of the evening sky that presents itself to us and dares us to find the words.  Most of us cannot, but the point is to keep trying. If we had only the temporal, physical, measurable realm, we wouldn’t need those spun silk clouds or the moon over the orange grove, nor the shimmering golden tesserae. We could manage fine without them.  But even the most ardent rationalist suspects that the world consists of more than the things you can physically drop on your toe.  It is in our enthusiasm to describe this non-temporal realm that most of us start babbling irrational stuff about epiphanies and candyfloss destinies.  It takes a Lorca to get it right.  But the rest of us can still have the adventure.



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M.C. Newberry

Mon 10th Nov 2014 12:44

Jan Dean is right. Context is everything.
If a word works that is all it need do.
There is no reason to comply with someone's
idea of what is not accceptable.

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Anthony Emmerson

Sun 9th Nov 2014 13:59

No one can really ban a word, just as no one can ban a thought. However, I have seen so many instances of the words mentioned (especially shard/shards) used almost plagiaristically, as if to give writers some kudos for including them in a poem. Poets should be able to use whatever words are appropriate - with one small caveat - that they first and foremost consider their originality.


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Graham Sherwood

Sun 9th Nov 2014 12:59

In my experience, as soon as the word ban is mentioned, the world goes out of its way to do just the opposite. Let it be!

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Cynthia Buell Thomas

Sun 9th Nov 2014 12:51

The verb 'to ban' is surely one of the vilest aspects of snarky, one-up-man-ship' academia. Beware the plebeian populace who will defy the experts by coining a fresh, even inspired, way to use a hackneyed word (which wouldn't be so trite if it were not rightly revered for its suggestive power.)

I so HATE smug people! And especially those in positions of power, to dictate or eliminate.

My word, this almost sounds like a rant, sort of; it might make a poem, sort of.

WOL is NOT smug.

kevin bamford

Sat 8th Nov 2014 21:49

It's not particular words that are a problem, but how they are used. Poets and poetry lovers should be the most open minded of people. Sad to say, many of them are anything but.

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Andy Humphrey

Thu 6th Nov 2014 22:40

I want to know what gives the people who wrote this list the right to think that they can dictate what words can and can't be used in poetry? It's fascism of language, pure and simple.

Yes, some words are overused, some are cliched, and some get used without the writer quite understanding what they mean. Most of us, as readers, recognise these. We generally smile, we make a mental note not to fall into the same trap in our next poem, we move on. But that's a far, far different thing to having someone decree that poetry using these words is intrinsically inferior (or rejecting the poem for publication out of hand, simply because they don't like the word). Language, and poetry, always have the power to surprise us. Even the most overused word can still slip in in unexpected ways, in the hands of a particularly talented or inspired writer (hang on, I bet "inspired" was one of those banned words too...). To deny the possibility of oneself (or one's readers) being surprised by these words is to take the colour out of poetry. And it's belittling to those who are on the receiving end of the language fascists' ire.

For an even longer rant on this subject, see my post on the Poet's Soapbox:

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Jan Dean

Thu 6th Nov 2014 18:37

No. I suspect we all have our tics and pet hates here. But context is everything.

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Julian (Admin)

Thu 6th Nov 2014 15:33

One was warned several times by poetry editors about use of the word 'I'; so much so that many editors, one is informed, refer to such versification as 'I' poetry. Not to be confused with phone, pad or Claudius, one suspects.
And adverbs, one was further advised, are similarly terribly tabu.
Those are the words we can't use, so let's see which ones are left...

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Greg Freeman

Thu 6th Nov 2014 15:12

I plead guilty too, Frances, having used the word "daffodils" seven times in a sestina ...

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