June 18, 2020
DAY 4: MEAT VS. FLESH
Last fall, I spent three months in Panama City, Panama. During my stay, I developed a problem with my foot. If you want a truly memorable travel experience, try finding a podiatrist in a country where you don't speak the language.
I found one and ended up visiting her office regularly for the next several weeks. On appointment days, I Ubered to her office building, took an elevator to the twelfth floor, and sat in a cubicle with my foot in a bath.
The doctor was a young woman in her thirties, and she was teaching herself English. One morning, she asked me to a proofread a letter she needed to send to an English-speaking doctor. In the letter, she referred to the meat of a patient's toe. I explained that flesh might be a better choice of word and that meat was more likely to be used in the context of food.
This exchange reminded me how complex English can be. Some of its words carry multiple shades of meaning. Fortunately for us as poets, that's also where the music lies. Maybe we don't choose to use flesh even when the context calls for it. Perhaps we choose meat because it carries a darker connotation—the sense of something eating away at us.
Why do we choose one word over another? Our decision usually falls into one of two categories: meaning or music. (We could also call these categories ideas and language.) We tend to choose words either for the meaning they convey or for their musical qualities—or both.
When it comes to music in poetry, I tend to prefer the subtle music of alliteration and repetitive vowel sounds over the straightforward music of rhyme. In one of my recent poems, I wanted to say that I saw pieces of paper lying in the grass. Here's what I could have said, followed by what I ended up saying:
Before revision: I cross each morning, see pieces of paper caught in the grass.
After revision: I cross each morning, catch paper scraps flickering in grass.
You can hear how catch, paper, and grass carry the music of the A-sound without getting ridiculous with it. As a bonus, cross, catch, scraps, and flickering all carry that repetitive hard-C sound. It's snappy, supporting the image of something flickering in and out of my vision. (I also eliminated the article in front of grass, for reasons we discussed in "Pronouns, Articles & Socks" earlier this week.)
How do you choose whether to favor meaning over music, or vice versa? That's an ongoing decision we need to make as poets, and it's not always an easy one. Has your meaning already been delivered in other ways ? Then try leaning into the music. Does your meaning still need to be fleshed out? Then opt for words that support your meaning, trying not to let your poem's overall music fall flat in the process.
Ideally, search for a word that contributes both music and meaning—the unicorns of poetry. Consult a thesaurus if needed. Flip through different word options until you find the shades of meaning and music that best color your poem.
The choice is up to us. What matters is remembering that we do, often, have a choice.
by August Kleinzahler How much meat moves
Into the city each night
The decks of its bridges tremble
In the liquefaction of sodium light
And the moon a chemical orange
Semitrailers strain their axles
Shivering as they take the long curve
Over warehouses and lofts
The wilderness of streets below
The mesh of it
With Joe on the front stoop smoking
And Louise on the phone with her mother
Out of the haze of industrial meadows
They arrive, numberless
Hauling tons of dead lamb
Bone and flesh and offal
Miles to the ports and channels
Of the city's shimmering membrane
A giant breathing cell
Exhaling its waste
From the stacks by the river
And feeding through the night
I've had some unusual dreams during these weeks of quarantine. Perhaps you have, too.
If you remember one, use it as a starting point for a new poem. Say what happened in your dream. What colors were present? What animals or people? Were you present in the dream, or were you an observer? Which of your senses were engaged?
Now do the following:
From your rough draft, take four lines and forget momentarily about the rest.
Look at those four lines in relationship to one another. How do they make music together? How do they convey meaning together?
Consider whether there are opportunities for substitute word choices that amplify music or meaning in those four lines. Can you create some alliteration or replicate a vowel sound?
Repeat this process, working through the poem segment by segment.
The Banyan Review is an online, international journal promoting poetry, art, and the natural world. Four issues are published annually. Between issues, an "intervals" section features poets, artists, thinkers, and essayists. General and themed submissions are currently open on Submittable. Click here for submission and guideline information.
If you've never visited RelatedWords.org, I recommend heading there immediately. It's a useful and addictive tool for finding associated words and phrases. Check out RhymeZone.com to discover rhymes and near rhymes.