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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. surely it’s not a question of avoiding certain words,but more an issue of how you use them…it’s interesting how heaney and hughes do, and it doesn’t make you flinch…i guess they’re making words add up to more than the sum of their parts……..now someone with the right kind of conceit could easily smirk at me having just used the phrase ‘adding up to more than the sum of their parts’ ….it never ends…the language/punctuation police are out there,and as smug and knowing as they may be,it’s all good….they’re a force that’s at least poking us,and making us think…..but ultimately, all words,no matter how tired, can be put to good use in talented/intuitive hands.

  2. Excellent question. English, like all languages, is an evolution.

    Here’s a rule of three that keeps me grounded:

    1. How wide are you casting your net? If you assume your audience knows if they have some background in Shakespeare ,”Mamman” can have a more of a archetypal punch than “cash.”

    2. Frost says to avoid any “forced rhymes.” I’d extend it to words: never force antiquated, pentasyllabic words to impress a crowd.

    3. Intentionality: am I calling the field a steppe because I’m evoking Siberia? I am calling the field a steppe to engage in feckless snobbery?

  3. Coincidentally, last Saturday’s prompt on a lovely poetry website – Writers Island -was to write a poem using the word wondrous. This sparked in me a spirit of rebellion, since every writing tutor ever to have taught me has had a horror of such archaisms, and the word “shards” seems to be loathed in spades! I posted a bit of a rant and provoked a lively discussion, somewhat on the lines of your piece.

    This led me to dig out an old poem of mine – part pastiche, part joke on my then tutor, Bill Greenwell:

    Bored and blue, I looked for fun. I espied the list of archaisms to eschew, like seep and pheromones, heart and soul. Here is the dying splurge of these ill-fated words.

    Maundering reflections

    Myriad woes seep into my soul
    as languid I lie on my fevered couch.
    My skin, translucent, flushed with crimson,
    flinches from the shards of light
    percolating through shrouded windows
    with curlicues of swirling motes –
    evil to my flu-pent guilt.
    I rise to wield my sorrowful broom
    then stagger back in sufferance
    to the cloistered closeness of my room
    whence I refuse to emerge ere the crack of doom.

    ViV Blake

  4. I remember Colette Bryce advising us in a poetry group not to use ‘shards’ or ‘myriad’ as they were considered overworked and somewhat cliched (and therefore to be avoided like the plague). I also recollect such phrases as ‘broken dreams’ and ‘fading like a flower’ being frowned upon for the same reason. I therefore consciously avoid using ‘shards’, and consequently it leaps off the page whenever I see it in a poem. Nothing against it myself, but I can see that it is probably a word for which many more colourful and expressive synonyms could be found.

  5. Both Heaney and Hughes use ‘shards’ to mean what it means: broken pieces of pottery. Seems fine to me. I’ve used it myself . Who are (as in many other contexts) the ‘they’ who tell us what we can’t use? So much depends on context, tone – I’d be a bit worried by someone using ‘e’er’, but the rest….. I once had an acerbic correspondence with someone who told me off for using words he didn’t know the meaning of: he never did respond to my request for a list of those he did know – same problem, really. Would it be too hard to suggest that if you can’t tell which words you shouldn’t use in 2010 you perhaps shouldn’t be writing poetry?

  6. ‘Unsold-by-date’ words are also known as ‘dead metaphors’. A definition and partial list may be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_metaphor.

    American poet Donald Hall declares war against what he terms, ‘the DM’ — words like ‘trigger’ (to initiate a discussion), cradle (what babies have them now?), shield, plow, dart, taking their image from archaic sources. He calls them ‘zombies.’ Now, THAT is not a dead metaphor.

  7. For me, it’s simply whether or not such a word can be used in an interesting and/or surprising way in the context of the poem it’s being used in.

  8. Well well, this is the first time I have ever heard of the controversy over shards.
    As I am interested in archaeology, I see the word shards in a different, physical light, and not at all a cliche.
    How interesting.
    I don’t see why it should be avoided at all – maybe because I haven’t seen it in any bad poetry, only good, where the hard, sharp, incompleteness in its meaning is apt.
    Still, you have warned me now – I will beware.

    Gossamer? probably not, I do find that cliche, although again, in an unusual simile or metaphor, in a strong poem, I don’t see why not.

    I think it’s just important to avoid cliche, and for me, shards isn’t one – yet anyway!

  9. It really must be a matter of context, surely? I could imagine a poem about a tough council estate with bags of detritus and atmosphere, strewn with used condoms and so forth, making use of the word “gossamer”, which certainly used to be, and maybe still is, a well-known brand of Durex..

  10. I think this might originate in Peter Sansom’s “Writing Poems” where he is quite vehement about shards – and also seagulls. As this book has been so very influential, an aspiring poet who nonetheless uses the word is possibly showing that he or she hasn’t read it – and may be judged by that. I am quite interested to see that the idea has become such a taboo – I would have thought poets were less superstitious than that!

  11. Shard/Sherd? As one of your older readers I was always taught the latter spelling. Chambers Dictionary has several definitions of the word, some of which could even provoke a poem!

  12. The most overused word I come across in student work when I am teaching poetry is ‘shroud’. When teaching prose, I feel weary when I see ‘smirked’ instead of ‘said’. If a smirk is a smug smile, then it seems impossible that anyone can smirk anything. I think ‘shards’ is awful when used metaphorically e.g. ‘shards of light’ – quite common (and I’ve done it myself in earlier days – oh yuk). But ‘shards’ is fine when used precisely as mentioned in the previous posts. If gossamer were used technically of a floating spider’s web, I think that would be o.k. It’s when it becomes synonymous for anything fine and translucent that the word becomes tiring. I won’t repeat here the huge argument in my MA class about the use of semi-colons…when I recommended not using them for interior thought.

  13. “Shard” or “Sherd” does come from Old English, sceard and MLG, skart meaning crack or chink (See OED) …

    There is absolutely no reason to avoid apparent archaisms especially when this is the advice given by neo-illiterate instructosr whose knowledge of poetry is probably mono lingual and barely extends back into the nineteenth century. May I suggest that the anxious read Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading (his fish tale, in particular) and Frank O’Hara’s Manifesto. Read poetry, see the world in a grain of sand and then try to describe it and go on doing that. Avoid creative writing classes not words!

  14. If I have to be judged by not reading Peter Sansom (no quarrel with him) then I’m happy to be judged: I haven’t read it and have no intention of doing so. On the other hand, what is ‘aspring’? I’m not, even if I haven’t got a book to my name.

  15. My feeling was that editors were thinking ‘if this poet hasn’t read the basic textbook on the subject, how serious is s/he?’
    But the fact that the shards thing seems to be floating about quite independently of its source seems to indicate something rather less rational!

  16. I have to say, I’m stunned really, I’ve come up against enough rules, restrictions, regulations, guidelines and recommendations in my life, but considered the world of poetry to be above such restrictive or prescriptive regimes! ‘Shards’, I love the word, ‘flux’ – a four letter word that shouldn’t shock, but perhaps that’s it’s downfall. But come on, haven’t we got better things to do than bicker over words? Are painters to be restricted to certain colour ranges? Musicians to certain melodic sequences or chord arrangements? I think not. I’m tempted to write a poem composed completely of outmoded, passe, anachronistic words – do we want evolution to be formulaic and prescribed? I should hope not.
    Roy Exley

  17. Workshopping about in the early nineties, I several times came across the warning against ‘shards’ and ‘gossamer’, as well as a suggestion that poets might do well to ration their use of words ending in -ing. All it really amounts to as far as I’m concerned is a recommendation to be alert to the kind of raw material we use in our writing and how & why we use it.

  18. It’s not about rules, it’s about finding the most apt words to carry the sound and sense of the poem. Sometimes these are archaisms.

  19. Apologies to Elizabeth Rimmer: when I was first published Peter Sansom hadn’t written his book and I guess I didn’t feel like going backwards. I’m still very doubtful about the concept of editors not taking a poem because they think someone hasn’t read a particular title – I had read an awful lot of others.

  20. Yes I have a few words I wouldn’t use, though ‘shards’ isn’t one of them. ‘Lovely’ is. A lovely person … a lovely poem … lovely writing … Yuch! But everything depends on context. You could put new life into an ‘old’ word by using it in an unfamiliar way. Thusly.. A lovely econonomic recession… Well, maybe not…

  21. This was a good subject for Roberta James to raise. The only time I’ve delighted to read that word horrid “shards” was when I read Peter Sansom saying don’t use it. The trouble is, even if “shards” is used non-figuratively it’s still standing for some kind of brokenness, hence it’s still acting as metaphor, and as a metaphor it’s as dead as can be. Sansom says, “This appeared as long ago as Goldsmith (1730-1774) and is still going strong. What is annoying about a shard is that you can go months and not see one anywhere – until you pick up a poetry magazine and suddenly the place is littered with them. One of the ways of positively identifying a poet, in fact, is if s/he’s heard of shards … to use old-hat devices and “poetry words” is to grasp for an easy effect. At its worst it is like painting by numbers.” (Why did Sansom say “old-hat”? Hm.) To me it makes no difference whether it’s in Hughes and Heaney: it’s still naff. I can’t imagine it being used for anything other than what Sansom says, “an easy effect”. If we’re creative writers, original writers, we ought to be able to create much better diction than centuries-old dead stuff.

  22. If you read poetry widely, you’ll be aware of current trends and hence which words are becoming over-used (any if you don’t read poetry widely, why are you trying to write it?)

    It’s not a case of avoiding certain words, but rather becoming aware of our own laziness in grasping the first phrase or metaphor that comes to mind and using it instead of stretching for something more appropriate or more striking that also fits within the context and rhythm of the poem.

    I don’t object to the use of shards (or gossamer, lozenge, lambent, shimmering, etc), specifically but object to writers thinking “good enough” is enough, when it rarely is.

  23. Yes, I think there are cliche’s particular to poetry not just words but ideas and symbols ie hares and herons keep popping up everywhere!

  24. If the word is right for the poem and the poem is right for the world then surely it is the right word.
    It is rather like saying you must not use particular forms – although I understand that some forms have also passed their sell-by date – even though a particular form may strengthen the force of the message (or are poems with messages also past their sell-by date).
    Where is Nancy Mitford when you need her with a definitive explanation as to what is and is not acceptable?

  25. I dont think it has anything to do with taste – horrible word – or sell-by date – do
    words have a shelf life? – anyone with a feel for the language they write in would know instinctively when a particular word is knocking on the wrong or right door.

  26. I like any word starts with letter s
    Shard!… knowing many language…I like it. In Arabic language means confused can’t concentrate or thinking somewhere else…Pronounced Shar`d
    Almost gives the same meaning…Fragmented.
    There is many proverbs about poets in the three languages I know.
    “The poets are allowed to use any word they like…That’s not allowed for others.”
    So to say, The Poets freedom stays limitless; otherwise…they will stop poeting*.

    Sylva Portoian
    ________________
    *I have written poem about poeting…

  27. It is surely dependent on context.

    Philip Rush once told me that certain words I had used within a specific poem, reeked somewhat of the study, and it is maybe this that should be avoided.

  28. There is no such thing as an over-used word if the context is right and appropriate. This is the sort of Debate where good writing and reading time can be lost to that terrible thing the analytical mind. A Poet whites from the Soul and Spirit but arranges lines metaphors ambiguities from the mind. The Organising Principle is in the Mind, the logical Organising Principle that is. The underlying Poetic Organiser will always tell me via gut instinct when a word is not quite right. Continuous repetition of the same words except in the case of Chant is usually a sign of the Poet being concerned with getting to the end of the Poem rather than at the central power of the Poem, Call and Response Poetry and forms such as the villanelle are perfectly acceptable, It smells of Production over Inspiration usually.

  29. How funny (and also disturbing) that certain words should be written off or disqualified for being archaic, clichéd or past their sell-by date… Surely, as many of you have pointed out, it all depends on how you use these words and whether you can give them a special inflection or meaning… and this actually applies to all words, even if you have to try harder with the ones that are more clichéd…

    It may be interesting to consider the completely different approach to vocabulary displayed in the Spanish-language website ‘Reserva de Palabras’ (‘Word Reserve’), http://www.reservadepalabras.org/, where archaic or quaint words, or words ‘threatened by linguistical poverty, foreign terms or euphemisms’, are ‘sponsored’ by users of the website. The list of words ‘in danger of extinction’ makes wonderful reading and is witness to the richness and beauty of the Spanish language.

    This is not to say, of course, that we should entrench ourselves against change and resist the natural dynamics of language — just that dismissing words because some group of ‘arbiters’ (who, exactly?) think they’ve seen too much of them is both snobbish and authoritarian.

    Rather than presuming to disqualify words ‘ab initio’, without bothering to assess the way they work (or fail to) in the context of a specific literary text, the creators of the Spanish website are trying to revive and cherish old words against the overwhelming facilism of our times.

  30. What a lot of sound and fury signifying not much. I read once that the most beautiful words in French were “ciel a d’or” (with accent, obviously) but phonetically, in English, this comes out as “cellar door” which is not the same thing at all. Poetry, like all art forms, suffers from too many would-be rule makers. When a poem works, it works – that hair-raising moment of recognition has very little to do with rules.

  31. It was suggested at a workshop with Selima Hill a few years back that butterflies were now considered to be the equivalent of shards. There’s a couple of butterflies in my own poems but no shards.

  32. “As this book has been so very influential, an aspiring poet who nonetheless uses the word is possibly showing that he or she hasn’t read it”

    Or possibly that he/she is independent-minded enough to think “if this blighter tells me not to use it, I damn well will.” (Anyway, why should aspiring poets have to have read how-to books? What they need to have read is lots of poetry.)

    As someone said, it depends on context. If you want to describe broken bits of pot, it happens to be the word. It might also be right elsewhere; I would not personally advise a student to use 4 adjectives in one line, but “Sweet day: so cool, so calm, so bright” works ok, no? So the advice should be, don’t use 4 adjectives in one line unless you’re George Herbert….

    I can live without shards and gossamer myself, but I draw the line when Sansom objects to seagulls; that’s just silly. I have lately seen a few reviews in which a critic accuses a poet of using a cliché and then quotes a word or phrase that doesn’t sound at all clichéd to me. I sometimes think they are so used to determinedly quirky, eccentric use of language, looking at all things with a sort of mental squint, as Lewis Carroll put it, that plain English looks dull to them, rather as honest bread might look dull to an eclair addict.

    Surely a dead metaphor is something slightly different: a metaphor which no longer makes its point because the field of activity it came from is no longer well known to us. E.g. people now talk happily of having exceeded their targets, as if this were an achievement, because not being archers, it doesn’t occur to them that to shoot beyond the target is as little use as shooting short of it. Shard isn’t dead yet; leastways not to those of us who refuse to miss an episode of Time Team…

  33. Interesting comments all. Of course we can’t ban words, but if we could, or wanted to I’d get rid of:

    Alabaster

    Moon

    Shards

    Cocoon

    Eggshells (unless actually referring to the shell of an egg)

    Hieroglyphs (unless it actually refers to the written pictoral language of an ancient civilistation- this word in poems makes me want to scream into a pillow)

    and finally any poem which gratuitously compares things like birds or fish to punctuation marks.

    In my poetry austerity cuts, these things would go.

  34. For Maggie Sawkins — Dylan Thomas once said ‘All trees are oak trees, except pine trees’. He was arguing for specificity. Butterflies are cabbage whites, or monarchs, or fritillaries (59 species of butterfly in the UK) — depending on sound and close observation. Keep those butterflies coming!

  35. It’s a joke, I’ll write what I want whenever I want with all the words that I want and I’ll read whoever I want, whether they use ‘shards’ or anything else that isn’t part of the poetry establishment. No wonder poetry is sometimes described as ‘in a cage’ and in decline.
    Do some poets or editors have the right to define what poetry is? In my medicority and naff-ness I protest!
    What are poets for if not to bleed on those shards, oops I’ve been naff again.
    No one owns poetry, the people that write it and the people that appreciat it own it. Songs are often thought as not poetry, but most are, yet they sell millions on naff words used in naff ways. To the rest of the world, elitist poets are naff.
    naff said.

  36. Michael Machmin invited a previous debate in the Rialto on this very subject about 6 years ago or more, he also ran a competition for poems that included the taboo words – it being cold and my back copies being stored in the garage I have only a faulty memory to rely on but I think seagulls, myriad, mote and shard were amongst those taboo words – I remember my competition entry started, ‘myriad a little lamb…’ I’ll get my poetic cloak, season’s greetings folk!

  37. I live on the coast. I love wildlife, birds included. If I’m not allowed to use ‘seagulls’, I’m packing up and going back to London.

  38. What a beautiful debate. I’ve read through the lot, and am tempted to write another cliché poem (the original of which contained nothing but, and was published in two magazines!)

  39. I used ‘shards’ in a poem when referring to splinters of wood that emanated from a blown-up effigy, but when I workshopped the poem I was told very quickly about the ‘shards’ taboo of which I was ignorant. I changed it to ‘splinters’ because I want to see it published, but wasn’t very happy about the substitution.

    Now, for me ‘soul’ is the most overused/abused word in poetry.

  40. Shard London Bridge, previously known as London Bridge Tower,[1][2] and also known as the Shard of Glass,[3][4] 32 London Bridge and The Shard, is a skyscraper under construction in Southwark, London, United Kingdom. When completed in 2012, it will be the tallest building in the European Union. It will be used for offices, residential apartments and a hotel.
    Ref: From Wikipedia not WikiLeak

    “Shard”:The archetect are buiding their tower,
    While you are abolishing shard from our poetic dictionary…!

    Sylva-MD-Poetry

  41. Sorry I have two mistakes…as I’m always passionate…Please remove above and read this one.

    This is from Wikipedia and not WikiLeak:

    Shard London Bridge, previously known as London Bridge Tower,[1][2] and also known as the Shard of Glass,[3][4] 32 London Bridge and The Shard, is a skyscraper under construction in Southwark, London, United Kingdom. When completed in 2012, it will be the tallest building in the European Union. It will be used for offices, residential apartments and a hotel.

    The Architect are building a new London Bridge by replacing the name from Tower to Shard… At the time you’re arguing to vanish word ‘Shard” from poetic dictionary…
    So, Start you poetic imagination that you’re viewing the “Shard London Bridge” to write stanzas on SHARD after stanza, till the Shard is completed in 1012.

  42. One publication I review for offers me a list of ‘review clichés’ to avoid – words which appear just that bit too regularly in reviews and resemble blurb-material or represent ways of avoiding serious engagement with a text e.g. ‘risky’, ‘sui generis’, ‘eagerly awaited’, ‘one to watch’. Nothing wrong with the words in themselves, but when you read them in a review for the hundredth time used in a similar way…

    It’s similar with poems. Those words we’re discussing – ‘shards’ or whatever – can of course be used in poems, as there is no poem-blueprint. But their use often betrays laziness on the part of a poet, as there may be stronger, more imaginative alternatives. They are sometimes used badly to offer an impression of Poetry – they say, ‘This is a Poem’ – rather than really being part of the ‘best words in the best order.’

    I was thinking of sunsets and sunrises today, which are very difficult to describe in a fresh way. Suns rising or falling are quite often like ‘lozenges’, or ‘bleed’ from the sky! Then, this morning, I read this from Edwin Morgan (from poem 21 of his ‘The New Divan’ sequence) – the sun is the ‘ghost’, which has looked moonlike in the mist:

    the mist wheelchaired the ghost into dusk
    and dissolved it there. White change,
    grey fires, the veiled king. A torrent
    of bracing stars poured suddenly
    on our tilted heads
    as we walked watching the real moon rise.

    You can always find words to make the familiar seem different. Good poems offer lenses and angles that haven’t quite been used before and that will often mean avoiding overused words and expressions. However, sometimes even a shard can breathe life into a poem, usually when (as others have said) it is a literal shard, but if a figurative or metaphorical shard makes readers think, “Never seen it quite that way before,” rather than, “Oh no, not another shard!” then it’s been worth trying. But this happens very rarely.

  43. I’ve used shards when I’m writing about bits of broken pottery, such as the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’An. I wouldn’t use it as a metaphor, but just as a plural noun which means exactly what it means: no more, no less. There are no taboo words in my lexicon.

  44. Why is everyone focusing on shards as being a definition of broken pottery only? The following is the OED:

    a piece of broken ceramic, metal, glass, or rock, typically having sharp edges:shards of glass flew in all directions

  45. I don’t think Peter Sansom ever banned any words, nor, so far as I know, did anyone ever think less of someone for not having read Peter’s book.

    For myself I found Sansom on seagulls/teapot enormously entertaining. I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that he said anything about shards.

    However, I couldn’t use the word ‘shards’.

    Not because anyone has banned it but because if you judge a poetry competition, or regularly read poetry submissions, you would be AMAZED how often this one little word recurs, often in painfully weak poems.

    Many innocent writers don’t know anything about this heated discussion of ‘banned’ terms. They think ‘shards’ is a fine poetic word – fine enough to use all too frequently.

    In fact, perhaps they picked up a liking for shards from Heaney or Hughes, or some other worthy writer who once used the word in an original context, before it became poetically popular.

    Unfortunately, some words do begin to be associated with bad writing, and this is one of them. It is hard on shards. But things change. In another fifty years or so, it may sound interestingly archaic, or funny, or wildly outré.

    Shards hasn’t (haven’t?) been banned. Nothing has been banned. It’s just sometimes as well to be aware that a lot of wouldbe poets use shards regardless of sense or seagulls.

    I am not keen on seagulls because they are vague. I’m not a birder, but even I know that gull or seagull is a generic term, like tree. Precision tells. Give me an East Siberian Herring Gull any day of the week, or a Canadian Redwood.

    I have never come across a poem which had both seagulls and shards in it. I must look out for that, now I think about it.

  46. Funny that. The last poetry competition I judged was htis year, and I don’t recall a single shard. Nor, in fact, have I seen one in any poem I’ve read or judged for years.

    I take the point about precision but it can be overdone and it can also look fake. Let’s face it, most of us hear a gull or see a tree; we may go home and look it up in a book if we’re conscientious but if you then carefully put the “proper” designation in a poem it smells of the lamp and doesn’t really recreate the experience (if that’s what you’re after).

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