Susan Tichy
George Mason

Bouncing Off Walls

D i c t i o n  /  I m a g e  /  M e t a p h o r


Graze for Words / Graze the Dictionary / Front-Load Your Ears / Graze the Phrase /
Swapping Words / Translation as Interpretation / Bounce Back /

Graze for Words
Choose a prose text with a specialized vocabulary: a technical journal or textbook, a set of instructions, a field guide, a cookbook, etc. List words you like, words you don’t understand, and words that have different meanings in this context than they might have somewhere else. (“Primaries,” for example, are a particular set of feathers on a bird’s wing, and a bridge on a guitar is not the same as it is on a road, or in your mouth--not to mention what you do with your hand when shooting pool.) ° Use this vocabulary to write a new poem or to revise an old one whose subject is
not the context from which you drew your vocabulary.

Graze the Dictionary
Browse through a dictionary, noting words you are unfamiliar with. Choose some for their meanings and some for their sounds. Read entire entries, including obsolete meanings and root words. If your dictionary has an appendix of word roots, read some of those, too. Follow up all “see also” references. ° If you use the OED for this step you may be at it for a month, but the rewards would be worth the time.

Now do the same for some familiar words: read all their definitions, including obsolete ones, and follow up the meanings of their roots.

Use the resulting word lists to write a new poem or to revise a poem you are stuck on. If the emotional force and/or intellectual nuance of your poem is sufficient, you should be able to make almost any word join in the project of expressing it. Exploit as many meanings of your words as possible.

To graze with your ears: find slant rhymes for your new words.

Front-Load Your Ears
Make a short list of consecutive entries in your dictionary. Study their meanings, including the etymologies, as described above.
° The result will be a lot of alliterating words, plus others you found while browsing the roots and definitions. You may want to generate slant rhyme or other phonetically related words to round out your list. ° Use all the words in a poem, paying attention to sound, sense, and intriguing nonsense.
Graze the Phrase
This is less of an exercise than a way of life. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, train yourself to hunt for phrases. They need not be unusual, though some will be. The main thing is the metaphoric/metonymic potential released when they are recontextualized in a poem. ° Keep lists of phrases, images, words, quotes. Periodically browse the list, setting different phrases side by side, or splicing parts of phrases together into new ones. What do you find? Metaphor? Irony? Puns? A conversation between different kinds of diction, different rhythms? ° This is the root of "collage writing" that is not reliant on pulling text.

<>Swapping Words
Write a description of some ornate, intricate, or complicated object. Be colorful, precise, and, if possible, technical in your description. Now, use the language you produced here to describe something else.
° <>For example, describe the inner machinery of your printer, then use that language to describe talking to someone on the phone. Or describe a fancy tablecloth, then use that language to describe a landscape.

Or, make a list of nouns that have to do with one subject--say, furniture or gardening. Make a list of verbs that have to do with a second subject--say, sports or horses. Make a list of adjectives that have to do with a particular sense--taste, touch or hearing are good choices. Now, shake well and see what happens when you crash them together in a poem.

Translation as Interpretation
Compare two or more translations of the same poem--Pablo Neruda, Yehuda Amichai, and Ranier Maria Rilke are good choices because they have been so widely translated. How do the details of diction make the translations, in effect, different poems?

Find a poem in any language other than English which you are able to read--moderate reading skills are sufficient. Translate individual lines or images from the poem--write two or three versions of each one, some very literal, some slangy, some exaggerated. Every translation is an interpretation of the original poem: how do each of your versions interpret the tone of the original? Can you write a poem using some of your lines, perhaps using more than one version of the same phrase?

See also
Portrait by Catalog & Metaphor on the Imitation & Homage page, & many operations for playing with diction and, assembling a lexicon on the Writing Operations page.