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Have Some Words Passed Their Sell-by Date for Poetry?

I am surprised by the passion in the poetry community about the word “shards”. Having heard from two reputable poets / teachers of creative writing whose opinions I value that “shards” is a no no, and having read on the website of another poetry magazine that the word “shards” should be avoided, I said on twitter that it was pretty clear the word should not be used.

But opinion is divided. There was support for the view that such, what I shall I call them, old-fashioned or twee words should not be written into poems, with people volunteering other words such as “gossamer” and “flux” that should also not be used. But I was reminded that luminaries such as Heaney with “In ash-pits, oxides, shards and chlorophylls”, Hughes with “Then you smashed it/Into shards, crude stars/And gave them to your mother”, and Khalvati with “our algebra of shards” clearly have no such qualms.

Is it then a matter of taste? Or is it rather than some words should not be misused? If the latter, then what of poetic metaphor?

The jury is out for me. I would not use “gossamer wings” because it is far too familiar. But do I completely dismiss the idea of using gossamer? Probably. Similarly, it is unlikely I would use “flux capacitor” because it does not strike me as an immediately useful metaphor. But might I use ‘flux’? Actually I might if it fitted the poem. I like the sound of it.

Is it a question of taste? Or is it truly valid to say that some words have passed their sell-by date?

This Post Has 60 Comments
  1. Ps – just want to stress, i don’t think precision ALWAYS smells of the lamp. In someone like R S Thomas, for instance, who was a mad keen birder, it just sounds as if he knew what he was doing. But so many times one reads an over-precise description and thinks: nah, s/he just got that out of a book. Whether that’s true or not is not altogether the point; the point is that it’s the impression it can make on a reader.

  2. And Shards regardless…who wanted to be named…convincing others his way…
    His explanation amazed my mixed confused sense.
    If he has time I shall be grateful if he can read my poems…as I breathe in three languages relentingly always.

  3. I’m pretty sure ‘Shards Regardless’ is a ‘she’, by the way, Sylva. I agree with both SR and with Sheenagh – sometimes it’s one way and sometimes the other.

  4. Thanks Bob,
    I find problem for writing She/He, I like to use ‘thy…thee’
    which I find it easy…Medically speaking some people have the both…
    So probably ‘thy’ or ‘thee’ can replace both
    Can we hear our friends opinion on this site and yours ?

  5. I’ve just come back and I notice the points made by ‘Shards regardless’ and ‘Sheenagh’ about specificity of terms, especially with seagulls. As I said, I’m a wildlife fanatic but not specifically a twitcher. So I’ll notice a ‘seagull’, and not know exactly what kind it is. I’ll be interested to find out, but I wouldn’t say ‘Oh look, a Black-Backed Gull!’

    In terms of my own poems, two things decide whether I’d use a specific gull species name or not. One is that poetry is often about the single moment, the moment of revelation; the ‘aha!’ moment. Because of that, if my poem suddenly have a gull appear in it, that gull better just be a gull, or the ‘sudden flash’ becomes comical. The ‘moment’ might be about this animal suddenly flying into your everyday experience, and not about the seagull itself or its species designation. On the other hand, if I wanted to write in more detail, a poem which is very interested in the animal, the species would be essential to me.

    The second thing is, who is the ‘speaker’ of the poem? Every poem requires a different voice. Would the speaker of my poem know what species the seagull is? Would the speaker of my poem know what tree he’s looking at? Sometimes yes, sometimes definitely no. It’s a similar concern that a novelist has; not what kind of vocabulary the writer can command, but what kind of vocabulary his characters have.

  6. Shards and seagulls, good discussion!

    My OED informs that ‘shard’ has several specific meanings, including a ‘gap in an enclosure’, and ‘cow-dung’! among others. A quote from Ursula Le Guin shows its lively and imagistic use: ‘Shards of splintered bone stuck out like toothpicks.’ Life in that old word yet.

    As for seagull, that’s a specific kind of bird seen on shore, and over landfills, doing characteristic seagully movements, emitting seagully sounds. ‘Bird’ and ‘tree’ are the general categories that feel limp alone: ‘I went to Borneo and saw trees. There were multi-coloured birds in the trees.’

  7. I wrote a poem involving a glass bench which [unsurprisingly] got shattered when some nasty people threw stones. Thus:
    “She sprawls amidst glass ……”
    What am I supposed to put? If I’d written “rubble” The sophisticated reader would have thought “Ah ha! He’s trying to avoid using “sherds” !!

  8. Thanks..that’s true but I prefer the assonance of “glass shards”. Also my vision is of glass lumps not dangerous splinters..I want her undignified but alive.

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