By Mel Sherrer
What makes a poem captivating? Creating concrete imagery using descriptive language can decidedly make a poem beautiful, but for poetry to be captivating it must do more than make the reader see through the eyes of the poet, it must also manipulate the reader to feel as the poet intends them to feel. Essentially, the question is how can a poem be written to not only entertain, but to affect a reader? The answer lies in diction.
Word choice amplifies descriptive language by adding emotional connotation and context for the imagery presented in a poem. For example, a writer can present the image of a rose to the reader in a poem, which is typically a pleasant image, evoking pleasant sensory experiences, like the sight or smell of roses. A writer can also make choices about the context built around an image using emotive diction. The poet could call it a putrid rose, a woeful rose, or a haunted rose, consequently altering the connotation of a widely recognized symbol.
One notable progression toward emotive diction in poetry happened during the Romantic period of literature, during which poets sought new ways to intrigue both scholars and laymen. Romantics rejected the use of lofty language in poetry, because it created too much distance between the poet and reader for the poems to be relatable and understandable. The solution was to attach human emotions to everyday images. An image or symbol may be singular to a specific place, society, or culture; however, emotions are universal. Crafting poems with careful word choice can bridge the gap between concrete images and emotional experiences.
So how does one go about making a poem both relatable and captivating? The construction of awe, or captivation, evolves from constructing relatable emotional circumstances. As a human race, we may not have concrete experiences in common, but it can be assumed that we have the range of human emotions in common, which is a fount of relatable content.
A great example lies in Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” in which the image of a cloud is paired with the emotional context of loneliness. Imagery that includes clouds may typically represent symbols such as, sky, lightness, freedom, and tranquility, but with the addition of the adjective “lonely” a cloud becomes a vehicle for more complex emotional representations, in this way a poet can reinvent meaning for images and symbols which have become trite or cliché.
Emotive diction is a safe tactic for the poet to indulge in abstractions in ways that do not risk convoluting the meaning of a poem for the reader. Word choice, rather than imagery, might also be safe a method for poets to experiment with rhetoric, without inadvertently writing a piece that is lofty, or pretentious. Poets can play with phrases like, a miserable sunrise, or a gleeful dumpster, and rely on the emotional connotations of the words misery and glee to ensure the poem is still comprehensible on some level, to the reader.
Every word counts! The extra effort put towards connotation and context is the fundamental difference between a poem which is meant to be spectacle, as with a painting, and a poem which is meant to be experienced. A beautiful poem can transport a reader to a destination, but a captivating poem can make them celebrate, mourn, laugh, weep, or scream upon arrival.
Suggested writing exercise:
Try writing a poem that uses emotive diction to make a concrete image emotionally provocative.
“I wandered lonely as a cloud.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. Vol. 2. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 186-187.