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