Words that cast shadows

I am reading a lot of poetry and poetry handbooks these days to prepare for my  new course that begins Tuesday night.

My most recent handbook is Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. The book is full of practical, down-to-earth advice about the importance of practice and the need to mimic poems you admire if you want to improve your craft. A section in the chapter on diction, tone and voice resonated with me.

She describes informational language in this way:

It is the language one would use if one were writing a paragraph on how to operate a can opener. It is a language that means to be crisp and accurate. Its words are exact. They do not ever desire to throw two shadows. The language is cold. It does not reach for any territory beyond the functional.

Oliver does not believe informational language should ever find its way into a poem. I love her reasoning here: words must cast more than one shadow to be in a poem. In the section on reading poetry, she speaks of the importance of reading a poem more than once, and in this one brief sentence about words casting shadows, I understand now why poems deserve a second reading.

Not because we must analyze them and tear them apart.

Not because all poems are so difficult to understand.

We should read poems more than once because in poems, words cast more than one shadow. The word choice in a poem is so important because even when we use straightforward nouns (as in the famous poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”  by William Carlos Williams), the arrangement of words makes us read again, to dwell on the images, to consider the meaning, to see the shadows left by the words on the page.

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