Here are seven ways I know of drawing upon words and languages, the tools of our craft, to ignite the spark which inspires the creation of poetry.
On this map ‘what3words’, the whole world is divided into some 57 trillion 3m x 3m squares and each one is assigned a unique address made up of three dictionary words. Naturally the site was not designed for the writing of poetry, but I emailed to ask if they minded my using it thus, and they told me to go ahead. Some of the three-word combinations, or two-word segments from them, can instantly ‘click’ and begin to turn into poems. Consider ‘cashew.blueberry.reveal’ or ‘curving.answers.frogs’; ‘naively.silent.loaf’, or ‘measure.throat.fonts’. Meander through the map for a while, and you may just find something to set your brain whirring.
Shiritori is a game in which each player is required to say a word which begins with the final sound of the previous word. After watching a Tedx talk in which the inventor explained how he uses shiritori to come up with creative children’s toys, I wondered if it might also work for poetry. The simplest variant is to pick a word at random out of a dictionary, then another with the last sound or letter, and another, until a thread begins to emerge that turns into an idea for a poem. You can add extra rules: if the first word is a noun the second must be a verb, and so on, or fix a metre or line-length. If you are multilingual (or even if you are not) you can play in several languages at once. You do not have to use the word-strings, but they can become the core of a poem you never knew you had inside you.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows
This is a ‘dictionary’ full of names for feelings and states of the soul we all recognise, but for which English (and most other languages) have no precise words. Here we have ambedo: ‘a kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details’; vemödalen: ‘the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist’, and – my favourite so far – altschmerz: ‘weariness with the same old issues, the same boring flaws and anxieties you’ve been gnawing on for years’. Borrow them, or make up your own. If you love a word and put it in a poem, your readers may begin to use it too, until slowly it becomes more ‘real’ … and what you have chosen or invented could enrich your language as a whole.
E-grazing to Eureka
Mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, Twitter etc. is one classic way most of us procrastinate, right? Let us turn this ‘e-grazing’ to account. When you see something that you want to comment on or share – a meme, a line in a message, a snippet, a poem or a quote – do that, but also screen-shot it and save it. That word or line that made you go ‘wow, cool!’, ‘lol, that’s hilarious’, ‘that’s so me/us’, ‘ugh, what an idiot!’, etc. – it made you think and feel, however fleetingly. A few hours or days later, go over these fragments that found echoes within you, and you may just see new poems taking shape from and around them.
Poetry in Foreign Languages
One way to reconnect with the form and sound of language is to listen to a poem or a folk song in a language you do not know, or one you know just a little, so you can connect to its rhythms but block out the meaning at will. You can go for a softly chanted poem, like biya o josh e tamanna, where you can immerse yourself in the melody, but in one’s more restless humours a faster tempo can also be welcome ex. Laila O Laila. Free-write to the song on infinite loop, just listen to it and brainstorm, or write your own ‘imaginary translation’, etc.
Exquisite Corpse and Opposites
The Dada and surrealist poets developed a number of awesome writing games. One of the best-known is ‘Exquisite Corpse’, supposedly named for the first line it produced: “The exquisite corpse shall drink the new wine”. In the original form of the game, each poet comes up with a random word: one comes up with an adjective, the next a noun, the next a verb, and so on, and then the words are put together to create sentences. Another surrealist game is ‘Opposites’, in which the first player writes down a sentence or a question and the second has to write the ‘opposite’ of the statement, and so on. In itself, each sentence could become the inspiration for a poem, or the group could refine the whole into a single collective work. They can also just be a fun way to relax with one’s friends, and to come up with absurd new memes.
The Said and The Unsaid
Every language has peculiarities within its lexical and syntactic structures that ineluctably shape our writing, often without our realizing their impact on what we can and cannot say. For instance, in English, we have ‘to lie’ and ‘to tell the truth’, but no verb ‘to truth’. Arabic has, in addition to the singular and plural, a dual form for every noun, verb and adjective. Some languages, like Urdu, have no ‘a/an’ or ‘the’ at all. Farsi has no gender pronouns, even for people, so the ‘beloved’ is in essence genderless. English has ‘he/she’ for people and ‘it’ for things, but in French, ‘il’ and ‘elle’ apply equally to animate and inanimate objects, and every single noun has a gender. Exploring how nuances of meaning are created or suppressed as you move between languages can help you to a deeper understanding of the silences and eloquences of your own.
I hope you enjoy discovering these facets of language as much as I did. May they inspire you to write many wonderful poems!
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Hibah Shabkhez is a writer of the half-yo literary tradition, an erratic language-learning enthusiast, a teacher of French as a foreign language and a happily eccentric blogger from Lahore, Pakistan. Studying life, languages and literature from a comparative perspective across linguistic and cultural boundaries holds a particular fascination for her. You can read more from Shabkhez on her blogs here: https://hibahshabkhezxicc.wordpress.com/ and http://languedouche.blogspot.fr/