diction in poetryIntroduction

Can poetry employ any sort of language? An odd question, but workshop attendees will often find their diction called flat, obsolete, poetic, pretentious, gauche, genteel, tawdry, cliché, colourless, overspecialized and no doubt a host of other annoyances. What can poets say in defence? Are there overall principles to guide and justify word choice?

We might look at past practices, since what worked then should still work now. But an overwhelming difficulty is that fashions change. The concrete, vivid and unpretentious is often preferred today, but the eighteenth century excluded such words, producing manuals to good taste — as indeed did the sixteenth, though with different rules. Movements often start as a reaction to styles that have become flabby or overblown, but manifestos are not always followed through. Wordsworth, for example, championed everyday speech in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, but wrote the poetry in an educated tongue.

No doubt we're concerned with current writing, but even less agreement prevails today on aspirations, styles or content. An innocuous word like upon will pass unnoticed by many editorial boards, but bring automatic rejection from others. Diction shows allegiances and allegiances are what poetry editors and adjudicators are always concerned about. And beyond the infighting between poetry schools, there is the larger suspicion that many of our current literary celebrities are simply famous for being famous. We need the examples of the unassailably great, and they do not write in our manner.

But some larger observations are possible, and they come as much from critics and philosophers as practising poets. Etymology is important, since the Saxon, Norman or Latin root gives words their characters and dispositions. Too idiomatic an expression calls up the mundane, and is inappropriate in many instances. The poetic diction of the eighteenth century, though much derided today, was an attempt to remove contemporary and irrelevant associations of words and so release the full potential of their primary meanings. Greek classical verse contains hundreds of words, verbal forms and constructions that are not found in prose. {1} Homer's language is a mixture of dialects, and Dante wrote in a similarly eclectic vein.

Secondly, an abstract language is not necessarily a dead language. Our literacy programme will make Government more transparent, and bring opportunities to the many still disadvantaged in rural communities, says the political pamphlet. First remove screw-retaining devices E and G, says the workshop manual. Both are using language suited to their purposes, and conceptual and direct vocabularies are not easily interchanged, both standing on their intentions and their results. Distinctions between abstract and concrete tend to become hazy as etymologies are traced back, moreover. Abstractions may have their root in simple physical processes, but a wealth of rules and understandings underlies a phrase like Sky lowering over black rock — not least the grammar of its very expression, and the contexts unstated but not wholly removed.   

Words in Context

Lexicons are governed by social usage. The Elizabethans embroidered words with religious, courtly and pastoral associations, but these trappings were gradually dropped when the eighteenth century imposed a more correct and classical diction. The Romantics introduce a new inner world with cold, pale, grey, home, child, morning, memory, ear,  feel, hold, sleep, turn, weep, etc. Later came moon, stir, water, body, shadow, house. The mid-nineteenth century popularized dead, red, rain, stone. Nineteen thirties poetry was packed with references to industrial buildings and political change.

Vocabularies not only reflect interests and fashions, but must be broadly understood in their contemporary setting. Pound's literary borrowings are very wide — from the ancient world, from classical Chinese, the Renaissance and early USA history — but for many readers the Cantos remain an unconvincing patchwork.  William Carlos Williams stressed the sensory and the homely, but his shorter poems were often limited, verging on the banal. At the other end of the spectrum lies the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, where a Christian and guilt-saturated diction may be baffling to a readership lacking scholarship, or indeed the interest, in the western intellectual tradition.

Words do not possess wholly transparent meanings, and in the more affective poetry their latent associations, multiple meanings, textural suggestions and rhythmic power are naturally given freer rein. But the touchstone is always the audience, even the audience of one. Words too familiar, or too remote, defeat the purpose of a poet, said Samuel Johnson, and that observation remains  true, as much for traditionalists writing inside a poetic tradition as for others trying to kindle poetry out of naked experience.

Poetic Diction

Words create mood and context, and for this purpose old-sounding, old-fashioned, or obsolete words have often been employed, even by the greatest of poets — Virgil, Ronsard, Spenser. Also by Pound and Eliot, for all their stress on the new. {2} Nonetheless, in its cultivation of an egalitarian, conversational style, contemporary poetry avoids what it terms a "poetic diction" as something that harks back to earlier traditions, especially those of "fine writing". But the utilitarian can be overdone. Prose is extraordinarily difficult to recast in forms that give the satisfaction of poetry, and the application of immense skill and experience may create things that are neither fish nor fowl. Consider, for example:

1. in a look until dropped like an egg on the floor
let slop, crashed to slide and run, yolk yellow
for the live, the dead who worked through me

(Wherever You Are, Be Somewhere Else: Denise Riley)

2. Or is it the pentagram
Hidden in a bed the conversation of bodies

(The prose of walking back to China: Christopher Middleton)

3. Still, as one of us said into his beard,
"Without your intellectual and spiritual
Values, man, you are sunk." No one but squared
The shoulders of his own unloveliness.

(Charles on Fire: James Merrill).

Would these fit seamlessly into a conventional article or film script? Do they not, in their different ways, constitute a modern, if inverted poetic diction? And unloveliness in the last example seems even to offend the cardinal rule of word choice: consistency in intellectual and social registers.

Hyperbaton or Inversion

Aristotle stipulated that there should be a mixture of ordinary and unfamiliar words in the language of poetry. Ordinary words made for clarity. Unfamiliar words (which included metaphors but not obscure technicalities) made the language shine, and avoided the appearance of meanness and the prosaic. {3} And of course language should be appropriate to context.

So arose the understanding that words were not good or bad in themselves, but only by virtue of their placing in a line. Languages like English allow considerable variety. Into He said shortly that she was not to go. the word however can be inserted correctly, if a little awkwardly, into all positions, giving not only rhythmic flexibility but nuances of meaning. But poets have generally wanted more. If the standard word order in English is subject, verb object, that order is not followed in these percentages of lines overall: Pope 32%, Milton 19%, Shelley 15%, Shakespeare and Tennyson 12%. Perhaps the commonest variation was hyperbaton, inversion of noun and adjective. {4} Milton could write:

I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forced fingers rude

And Pope:

What dire offence from amorous causes springs
(The Rape of the Lock)

Contemporary verse dislikes such inversions, but is not above pointing line endings in its own way — and perhaps less effectively, because line breaks are less apparent in spoken poetry:

so much depends

a red wheel

(The Red Wheelbarrow: William Carlos Williams)

In short, the arrangement or juxtaposition of words creates its own poetic diction, and reflects society as much as anything else in the arts.


Amateur poets, it is said, commonly write like their poetic grandfathers, a jibe that seems borne out by offerings at the more popular internet sites. But the truth behind F.L. Lucas's observation that while poetry can certainly be written without poetic diction, it is immeasurably the poorer for it {5} calls for some deeper understanding. Bakhtin argued that speech and writing came with the viewpoints and intentions of its authors preserved in the multi-layered nature of language. {6} And for poems to achieve autonomy and artistic unity, these polyglot social contexts (heteroglossia) had to be fused together, losing their worlds of reference.

Many Postmodernist works have rejected such autonomy, poems being often no more than a space in which intriguing notions are floated before the reader. Words with a long history of use in (traditional) poetry need to be avoided, as they inevitably refer to a narrow canon of poetic excellence, and are heard with their accompanying rhetoric, metre, assonance, alliteration, metaphor, etc. And if one of art's functions was once to give order and significance to our lives, these ennobling views Postmodernism will flatly deny.

What is the purpose of its poetry, then? To amuse, to jolt us out of our sleepwalking state, to make us think beyond conventional categories. Again, possibly so. But the obstacle are serious. Poetry is not particularly effective as a shock-treatment, not in comparison to the cinema, TV or even multimedia. Secondly, far from wrapping us in thoughtless somnolence, words and phrases interpenetrate life, and are kept up because they continue to serve some vital need. It is society which supports such needs that requires to change, not the other way about. Linguistics and metaphor research both suggest that words are far from arbitrary signs, and the world's four thousand, often isolated, languages do not carve up nature so differently that translation is impossible. Metaphors are active in our understanding because they enable us to function in ways inherent in our natures. We know if something is the case, and even the terrors of Stalinist Russia could not turn lies into truth.


Poets must understand the consequences of their diction, which go far beyond getting their work published. Diction shows allegiances, and each of these open up new areas of opportunity as they close down others. If poetry is to be largely "a slice of life", then that poetry needs to defend itself against the stronger claims of films and novels. If poetry is to be something else, then that purpose needs to be thought through, which includes attention to diction.


1. FL Lucas's Style (1958).
2. Archaisms entry in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. (1993).
3. Lexis entry in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. (1993).
4. Hyberbaton entry in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. (1993).
5. Lucas 1958.
6. pp. 1-4 of David Lodge's After Bakhtin: Essays on Fiction and Criticism (1990). and Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist's Mikhail Bakhtin (1984).

Internet Resources

1. Elements of Poetry: Definition of Diction. http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/virtualit/poetry/diction_def.html. Definition, exercises and examples of its importance in two poems.
2. A Roots in Our Throats: A Case for Using Etymology. Natasha Sajé. May 2003. http://awpwriter.org/magazine/artindex01.htm. Word choice and etymology: an AWP article.
3. Translating Poetry: The Works of Arthur Rimbaud from French to English. Michael C. Walker. May 2003. http://accurapid.com/journal/06liter.htm NNA. Difficulties of etymology, illustrated by Fowlie's translations of Rimbaud.
4. Teaching in the School of Donne: Metaphysical Poetry and English Composition. Steven Marx. http://cla.calpoly.edu/%7Esmarx/Publications/teaching_donne.html. How study of metaphysical poets helps students understand the finer points of word use.
5. Translating Vietnamese Poetry. John Balaban. 1999. http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/manoa/v011/11.2balaban.html. Article in Translating Asian Poetry: A Symposium discusses tones, symbols and verbal play.
6. Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975). Sandy Kao, Ally Chang and Kate Lui. http://www.eng.fju.edu.tw/Literary_Criticism/marxism/Bakhtin.html. Key terms and related links.
7. Hypersign. Andres Luco. 1999. http://www.cyberartsweb.org/cpace/theory/luco/
. Short treatments of several aspects of heteroglossia and other matters in modern fiction.
8. The Bakhtin Circle. Craig Brandist. 2002. http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/b/bakhtin.htm. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry.
9. Wordphiles. http://www.wordphiles.info/. English words derived from Latin and Greek elements.
10. Fun with Words. 2004. http://www.fun-with-words.com/site_index_p.html. Vast online listings of words in their various guises.
11. Etymology. Jan. 2004. http://www.webenglishteacher.com/etymology.html. Good listing by Web English Teacher.
12. Online etymological dictionary. Douglas Harper. Nov. 2001. http://www.etymonline.com/. Excellent compilation from many sources.
13. English Usage in the News. Jan. 2004. http://www.yaelf.com/index.shtml. Interesting snapshots of English usage: searchable archive.
14. World Wide Words. Michael Quinion. Jan 2004. http://www.worldwidewords.org/. 1400 pages on international English from a British viewpoint.
15. LanguageHat. http://languagehat.com/. Brief linguistic postings and select listings.
16. Glosses. Renee Perelmutter. 2003. http://www.glosses.net/. Online notebook of journeyman linguist, with eclectic listings.
17. HumanityQuest. http://www.humanityquest.com/. Five hundred words listed, each with extensive listings.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if properly referenced.