The (competely and totally optional) prompt for Poetry Thursday this week was to think about words you love or words you hate, and try to make a poem using them. It's interesting to think about my favourite words. On the whole, I believe words are team players. I think of great prose and poetry -
"In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God" from the gospel of John, or Seamus Heaney's "Red beef, white string/ Brown paper ripped straight off for parcelling/Along the counter edge" whose music so captivated me on the Poetry Daily website (May 30th). There are few words in there which I would choose for a list of "stars", and yet together the sound is wonderful. And if someone were to choose a word like "God", or "beginning" for a list of favourites, it would probably be for the meaning attached to it rather than for the sound of the word itself. For words do have meanings in a way that musical notes don't. (This confuses small children. On the whole, a small child will identify "big" as a "big word", not as a "small word". The meaning gets in the way of the concept of the word itself as a separate thing. So perhaps choosing words we like or hate is easily entangled with the idea of things we like or hate).
Back to the musical notes - would we ask a musician "what are your favourite notes?" I can't imagine saying "Oh, the A above middle C is the most beautiful note of all time." Well, perhaps notes are more like individual letters than words, and yet even individual letters lend themselves more easily to having favourites than notes do - I myself am partial to "o" "m" and "z". The instrument that plays the notes adds needed colour - but a word is perhaps more like a motif - a group of notes too short to be called a phrase. The opening notes of Beethoven's fifth symphony is one that springs to mind - instantly recognisable. And yet there are few enough memorable motifs, that the question "what is your favourite motif?" still strikes us as strange.
Back to words. Despite the fact that the best music is made by words in teams, I do have a list of words I like, tucked away in the back of a writing notebook. Mostly they are multisyllabic - archipelago, horizon, meniscus, Cadillac. It is the rhythm that attracts me to these. A few are shorter - ocean, hover. Very occasionally they are one-syllable words - soar, bones. I do have some favourite letters - o, m, z, soft sounds like l and v and sh find their way into my list more often than the law of averages would suggest. On the whole though, my favourite words are prima donnas, difficult to work into a poem. I can imagine imitating the sound of a train travelling along the track and whistling as it comes to a level crossing by reciting "Cadillac, Cadillac, Cadillac, Cadillac...meniscus!" But my better poems are the result of thinking of images, or of the music of whole phrases, rather than individual words.
Nevertheless here is one poem from a while back in which I tried to use some words I hadn't found a use for elsewhere:
Poetry is Painting with Words
These are my raw materials
stored in tubes and sorted by sound.
These three, for instance, “sorted” “stored” and “sound”
are kept alliteratively in a bright yellow tube with sand, sea and sun.
Alliterative itself is elsewhere, with the l’s in a bluegreen tube
with a slight brown undertone
that reminds me of forest pools – languid and limpid
Here is a large tube full of “o” words
ocean, open, bones
When I squeeze them onto the page, they invite me
to walk right in to their circular embrace
I have a large tube full of nothing but “the” – basic black
My friends tell me not to use it so much
This tiny gilt tube contains only a few of my favourite words
See how clean it is around the cap
Until today, I hadn’t found a use for them
And here is one from another poet, the only other poem I have ever seen that used the word "Cadillac"
The Cadillac in the Attic
After the tenant moved out, died, disappeared -
the stories vary - the landlord
walked downstairs, bemused, and told his wife,
"There's a Cadillac in the attic,"
and there was. An old one, sure, and one
with sloppy paint, bald tires,
and orange rust chewing at the rocker panels,
but still and all, a Cadillac in the attic.
He'd battled transmission, chassis, engine block,
even the huge bench seats,
up the folding stairs, heaved them through the trapdoor,
and rebuilt a Cadillac in the attic.
Why'd he do it? we asked. But we know why.
For the reasons we would do it: for the looks
of astonishment he'd never see but could imagine.
For the joke. A Cadillac in the attic!
And for the meaning, though we aren't sure what it means.
And of course he did it for pleasure,
the pleasure on his lips of all those short vowels
and three hard clicks: the Cadillac in the attic.
- Andrew Hudgins
More favourite words and poems here