Thursday Thoughts on Word Choice in Poetry

08 Sep

9:12 a.m. — Atlanta

Goodday! Today’s thought is brought to you by ViV and Paula. They were having a discussion on the difference between the way the English define a word, and the way an American might. As the definitions of a particular word are opposite, the question arises, what’s a writer to do?

Word choice is probably the most important of all the choices a writer must make and I would say that is especially so for poetry, because it is so condensed. In times before the Internet, most writers knew the audience for whom they were writing and chose their words accordingly, both to convey the poem’s truth and to make the truth accessible. But now? A poet’s intended audience and actual audience are two different animals.

I am going to reproduce for you the conversation between Paula and ViV and what I would like is for everyone to chime in with their thoughts and experiences.


Paula, I have to ask this – I have so often wanted to ask on blogs – if there is a difference in meaning between American and English interpretation of the word ‘quite’ when used as an adverb? In English English, to say something is quite good is to damn it with faint praise; to say I am quite pleased, means that I am mildly interested. But I have a sneaking feeling that ‘quite’ to an American means ‘absolutely, or superlatively. Am I wrong?


“Quite.” Yes…generally I think of it as “extremely.” I looked it up just now at and found this entry:

1. completely, wholly, or entirely: quite the reverse; not quite finished.
2. actually, really, or truly: quite a sudden change.
3. to a considerable extent or degree: quite small; quite objectionable.


What a can of worms I have opened!

I looked in my Chambers dictionary, which gave roughly the same definition as yours. But I was unconvinced, and looked elsewhere, to the Word dictionary of synonyms, which was enlightening in the extreme, giving these two interpretations:

1.    fairly, rather, pretty (in the sense of fairly rather than good looking), moderately, relatively, reasonably, somewhat, to a certain extent; extremely (antonym)
2.    very, completely, entirely, totally, utterly, absolutely, extremely, fully, wholly, slightly (antonym)
The same word – depending on context –can be diametrically opposed! Naturally, I was aware of the “very” definition, as in “He is quite cured of his illness” = totally; though colloquially “fairly” is far more common in British English – so to say someone is quite pretty means that they are not actually ugly!

Margo joins:

I loved reading the conversation in these emails and, having gone to a British school up through fourth form, have the same definition of ‘quite’ as ViV, so was fascinated to read your take, Paula. To me, as with ViV, ‘quite’ damns with faint praise: ‘She’s quite pretty’. It’s like saying she has a wonderful personality. Everyone knows she’s not anything to look at particularly.


Faux amis can be a cause of embarrassment if not downright offence! I know many French/English ones – eg exposition in French translates as exhibition in English. Exhibition in French translates as to the action of exposing oneself, or flashing in colloquial English. Miserable in English means sad, down in the dumps. In French it is used for a state of extreme poverty. But my knowledge of American usage is insufficient to think of examples off the top of my head.

Paula’s suggestion of adding differences in accents is a good one. The many different accents in the United Kingdom, particularly in vowel sounds, can make a critical difference to the way rhymes are heard in different places. Tillybud had some examples, being a Northerner, where I and other Southerners were mystified.

I think that once the topic is launched, international blogger poets will be quick to find examples.


Back to my narrative. You will all have noticed that not just word choice from the point of view of meaning needs to be considered, but how the word sounds, from the point of view of both aural and pace, has been added. So, all of you international writers, what are your thoughts?

I will see you tomorrow for the usual roundup of prompts; I may or may not see you next week, depending on computer access in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. If you don’t see me Tuesday, then plan on the following week. Either way the Tuesday exercise will be an open prompt.

Happy writing and thinking!


Posted by on 08/09/2011 in poetry, writing


Tags: , , ,

18 responses to “Thursday Thoughts on Word Choice in Poetry

  1. anl4

    08/09/2011 at 10:24 am

    I like the idea that words can have wide meaning… this is good for the writer… especially for the poet.

    • margo roby

      08/09/2011 at 10:31 am

      It does open things up, doesn’t it, Annell? Funny. I have been thinking of you with Tuesday’s prompt and now, with today’s thoughts. When you commented on Tuesday, I thought right away of how the prompt would suit an art interpretation, as well. And, with today, an artist’s ‘words’ [perhaps more with paint than other media] can also have wide meaning. Artists of all sorts work to convey a truth that they see or have experienced. Might make an interesting post 🙂


  2. ladynimue

    08/09/2011 at 12:15 pm

    firstly ,, I too follow viv’s definition of quite !
    second .. you got me a bit concious about my writing now …
    Often I notice that even when we use same language , we do leave a faint mark of our geographical area ,, there is a way about words to tell you where they talk from .. and i think its fun .. any poem, even if read by people of same understanding , feels different to each other .. so let words mean anything .. point is , what do you understand out of them ??

    • margo roby

      08/09/2011 at 12:24 pm

      Lady N: I am grinning as I read the first part of your response. As a former teacher, having anyone more conscious of their writing, you might say is an unspoken goal of mine.
      I like your point that from a reader’s point of view, understanding does not have to follow along with the poet’s intent, although I might argue that if the poet is good, what a reader takes from a poem will align itself to a degree with the poet’s intent. But as readers we certainly bring along our own experiences to the table.
      I also like your point about each of us leaving a geographic footprint.
      This is a topic where I would love to have us all in a room together discussing. It is endlessly fascinating.


      • ladynimue

        08/09/2011 at 12:31 pm

        Margo … You talk just like my English teacher .. God she would be stunned to see i can really write poetry 😉
        And yes , any writer is measured often by the extent his/her thoughts leave impression on the reader .. If one can not remember the core idea , there is no way to remember the whole write .. And yet , what I read and understand depends upon the thought that arose in ym head .. not the writer .. I agree words do mean differently but only in level of feeling … not the whole feeling.. so I can be quite glad with what I read where as some one would think I am very much more .. 😀

      • Teri

        09/09/2011 at 5:51 pm

        In a room all discussing this topic would be so good! I will bring some of my canned peach preserves!! I am loving this discussion- Now I need to go read the rest of the comments.

  3. Mike Patrick

    08/09/2011 at 12:41 pm

    Oh boy! How do I keep this from turning into a dissertation? I may slip off topic a bit, but I’ll try to stay relevant.

    For a poet, word selection is EVERYTHING! I’m not multilingual so I don’t know if other languages have the same degree of nuance as English does. Not ever visiting England, I was unaware of the different ‘quite’ interpretations, but trying to understand nuance and use it correctly has been a passion of mine for years—but not for poetry.

    As a cop, I thrived on interview and interrogation. The days of slapping someone around to get a confession were gone before I was born . . . well, at least before I became a cop, but science stepped in to take the place of torture devices. First, there were kinesics: the study of body language. As it turns out, people are not very good liars. They indicate deception by countless body movements and changes (obviously, I loved the TV series “Lie to me;”) but that doesn’t help a writer.

    Another wave was in the words people actually speak. We are still not good liars. This is where word selection and nuance come into play. Let’s take for instance, my beautiful wife, Sandy. There is a huge difference in meaning within something as simple as how I introduce her. “This is my wife,” has an entirely different meaning than, “This is my wife, Sandy;” (leaving off the name indicates distance), as does “This is my woman (significant other, old lady, ball and chain, bride, etc.). Each has a differently shaded meaning indicating the strength and type of relationship. Of course, a suspect using the past tense when speaking of a missing person is a dead (pun intended) giveaway.

    The present wave, which is improving every year, is in document evaluation. Oddly enough, even with unlimited time and access to a dictionary and a thesaurus, we still don’t lie well. One reason why is because the investigator has just as much time to study the document as the writer had writing it. The only school I’m familiar with is the LSI Laboratory for SCientific ANalysis (SCAN),, and while this might be dry as toast to many, I love it. If one goes from the SCAN home page, and to the Reports button, some brief reports on notorious past documents are given. Using the technique is tedious, but the results are amazing.

    What this boils down to is words matter—exact words matter. When one reads a poem, either it rings true or it doesn’t. You might not be able to articulate why it strikes you in a particular way, but subliminally you picked up on those nuanced words. I might add this is especially true if the poem is in free verse. We tend to write as we speak, and free verse lends itself to a true interpretation. Using rhyme and meter will muddy the water a bit, but word selection is still word selection. We are stuck with being who we are, and who we are comes through in our writing.

    • vivinfrance

      10/09/2011 at 4:40 am

      Oh Mike, so much wisdom here. Sometimes I stretch the truth when writing to a prompt which is not within my field of experience. It shows in the writing. I must look at your Isiscan site, and perhaps will discover why!

      Oh yes, how words do matter, but the tricky part is the different inference different people place on the same words.

      • margo roby

        20/09/2011 at 10:07 am

        I’m thinking that poets have a rough time of it. They’ll have their own intent for the poem, but they also know that “the tricky part is the different inference different people place on the same words”. Balancing the two must offer the occasional agony.


  4. margo roby

    08/09/2011 at 1:47 pm

    Thank you, Mike! I will consider your response Thursday Thoughts, Part 2 🙂 As Twain says: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Says it all.

    Now I am not sure I fully agree with your last sentiment, that who we are comes through in our writing. It might, if we are writing about ourselves, but very few of your tier four, or even tier three, poets do that. Even when they write about something they believe in or have experienced, we don’t know what they had to tweak for the poem’s integrity [thus the creation of the speaker and the mantra: the speaker is never the poet (I feel Neil’s rebellious hackles rising). But, I am referring to the top tier poets, and also to poems that have been revised.].

    I was ‘talking’ with Paula a couple of days ago and mentioned that maybe 1% of my poems are about me, and when I revise that is irrelevant. So, if you read a poem of mine you know how the speaker feels about what the poem is about, but not me.

    Tricky, huh?

    I am reading my husband’s collection of Spenser novels, as I ran out of my own books to read, and was surprised to find I enjoyed them, and even more to find that Parker is a joy to read from the point of view of word choice. I’m not sure I have ever read anyone who does descriptions as well as he does. I see each person as if I had a photograph. And that is no mean feat. But also, the main character is aware of the words he speaks and their effect, so that it’s fun to see how he feels about anything given how he speaks about it, like your example of speaking of Sandy.

    Some day we are going to have to find a geographic mid-point and arrange a convention for all of us.


    Can’t wait to check out the site you gave.

    • R.Ross

      09/09/2011 at 4:01 am

      Dear Margo, I have found you here and just want to say you are greatly missed on Daily Gathering. Will you return? I hope so. If not, I shall follow you on Wordgathering. Ros

      • R.Ross

        09/09/2011 at 4:03 am

        I meant Daily Thread. Life is hectic and I am still gathering the threads.

        • margo roby

          09/09/2011 at 7:51 am

          Dearest Ros, Jules, who has been my tenuous line to the threads, told me yesterday that I must explain to you what is going on with me, as you were worrying, and I don’t want that. One of my other tenuous lines has been watching all of you take care of the threads. That has been a light.

          I am not quite sure why, but I appear to have slipped a little into the depression pit and have been fighting it. I was away from the computer completely for a month and came back on when my emails reached 500 or so. It took me another few days before I tried a blog entry and I have that going again. I haven’t seen my Facebook in weeks, and, as you know, WOWH. One of the main problems is lethargy. I am much slower to do things and I am tired, so that I have to choose what I do.

          I would like to appear again at the threads, but when I think about taking that on again [even though it was not a burden and did not take that much time], my mind withdraws.

          I am so sorry to have worried people. Will you be so kind as to convey my fond regards and maybe explain a little why my benign neglect became neglect?

          I shall be traveling for the next ten days and may not have computer access, so if I seem to disappear even from my blog next week, I will be back this time.

          love — margo

    • vivinfrance

      10/09/2011 at 4:50 am

      Margo, I replied to Mike’s post before reading yours, so you will see that I do not entirely agree with your second paragraph.

      Only 1% about you? That tells me that you are an experienced poet, and have grown away from that confessional phase. But for the most part, I think many more of us write about ourselves/our feelings/our opinions that is entirely seemly! When looking back on my early poetry, I find a lot of personal stuff that could usefully be cut to leave a better poem. This week I was at a poetry reading where there was quite a discussion about this kind of poetry – someone quoted from an article decrying the poetry of women as too confessional, provoking an outcry and many more quotes from male poets just as guilty! But why not, I ask myself (!). We only know what WE know, and when diverging from this, sometimes insincerity, ignorance or misinterpretation is the result.

  5. anjum wasim dar

    08/09/2011 at 1:59 pm

    What a deeply interesting discussion! Made me laugh smile and laugh again, as language is so diverse and full of variations.We in Asia learnt excellent standard English while in school where the teachers were native speakers. Later with other teachers we learnt that ”English is a stress based language’ where meaning changes with stress on every word”
    Coming to the word’ quite’ as a teacher I discovered that it was never spelt correctly’ the meaning never understood–it would always be ‘quiet’ where it should be ”quite” and ”quite” where it should be ‘quiet”
    This led to the development of a strategy of teaching spellings:
    ‘Keep the ‘e’ inside, before the ‘t’ …sshhh-be silent
    Let the ‘e’ outside the ‘t’ its fair enough to see.
    I wonder if anyone is teaching the meaning or the usage of ‘quite” in ESL in my land. I have my doubts.

  6. pmwanken

    09/09/2011 at 9:41 pm


    thank you for taking my discussion with ViV to a broader discussion group…what fun!!

    all the best to you as you travel during the days ahead and we will look forward to your return to gather more words

    * hugs *


  7. neil reid

    20/09/2011 at 3:11 am

    Hopelessly late? So I’ll be brief.

    I’d tempted to say otherwise, but no, the inertia of my life is about balance (a teeter tooter is seems).

    Don’t think we need look even so far as across national boundaries to find altered meanings for words. Much as we might try, everything we say also reflects something of personal history. Granted too, that may be clear as fog. Somedays I find it utterly amazing we are able to speak meaningfully to each other at all. Really! How many dear relationships are challenged by a combination of nuance and context, each person carting off their meanings in divergent directions?

    Is this both charm and agony of poems too?

    Wm. Stafford too said, you may come to know my poem words, but don’t confuse that with knowing me. That’s meaning no criticism but just what is so. While I can appreciate someone understand what I meant in some poem, Stafford also suggested that what’s most participative is not that backward glance, but how that threaded image grows into the reader’s life, how they relate, how they carry it forward for themselves. (As a parent to a child, what’s given, what’s received. And it is not for the parent/poet to demand how a poem is received and understood. Is that willingness perhaps akin to love?)

    But still, I’ll stand with one foot on either side. (especially if it pleases you!)

    And my life/work schedule has me topsy-turvey of late, so apologies all around for being sparse.

    • margo roby

      20/09/2011 at 10:16 am

      Straddling, huh? And, there is not late, not here.

      I agree with what you say, Neil, about we people and communication. It’s a wonder the whole world doesn’t bicker, and fight, and war. People seem intent on misreading others intentions.

      I love the Stafford quote! Thank you for that. That is what I believe. When teaching poetry analysis and criticism, I found that it was best to approach a poem with how it worked to convey a truth to them, not to approach a poem with what it means [which is different for everyone…although if a poet has done her job, everyone’s means should connect.]

      May your life soon see some relaxation. Do remember to breathe here and there.



Join the discussion and feel free to critique, or suggest an idea for any poem I post.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: