The dictionary and poetry

Frank O'Hara
Frank O’Hara, 1926–1966, was in the habit of tossing around scraps of poetry. Some were found in his chest of drawers after his death.

Got a message from a friend who was having trouble with the poems in my 2nd volume, Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around. He appeared to question why he had to consult the dictionary and look up words. Like most people who don’t read much poetry and are not practiced at reading it, he would probably not consider consulting a dictionary to be a lot of fun.

In a recent book, Why Poetry, however, Matthew Zapruder suggests that the dictionary is exactly what you should consult when you read poetry. If you don’t know a word, look it up, he says, for what you need in poetry first of all is the literal sense of the word. When you understand the individual words, the poem will make more sense, at first a literal sense, then perhaps something more. Only then will you be able to connect the denotations of words with connotations or connections.

The more of the surface of the poem you understand, and perhaps discuss with others, the more of the depths of the poem and the interconnectedness of the parts of a poem you will understand. And not just understand but feel and be affected by.

Let’s look at a few unusual words from a sample poem in Lost & Found,            and see how this poem may model how poetry makes more sense when you understand the individual words and how they work together.

Poem I’ve Been Hoarding in a Drawer
Thinking of Frank O’Hara

Sure, socks, tees, and bikini briefs cohabit
in this fine and private place, grave of a sere
and obscure drawer. And when scraps of poetry
also, stray spraints or scats, pack of street mutts,
anoesis of barks, sniffs, scratches, are found here
one day, after I am gone, stuff I hid away, a dusty
cluster of what might have been, and perhaps was,
back in the day: okay, okay, okay.

The title, first, makes use of the operative verb hoard. Is this a pirate’s treasure we’re talking about? Whoa, now! Before we jump to metaphoric conclusions, let’s define hoard in its most familiar, literal sense. To hoard is to stow or hide something away, yes? To store something up and save it from consumption, maybe against a rainy day, maybe against our fears that sooner or later we’ll have nothing at all left in our hands.

If we hoard something in a drawer, we’re saving or keeping it against use or consumption. In this case it’s both underwear (“socks, tees, and bikini briefs”) and a poem, this poem, that are being hoarded. A strange combo to hoard in a drawer, to be sure. 

Then comes a series of unusual, and maybe unfamiliar, words: sere, a rather archaic word for dry; spraints, which means otter feces, and scats, animal feces in general; and anoesis, “a state of mind consisting of pure sensation or emotion without cognitive content” (, which with the modifying phrase “of barks, sniffs, scratches,” suggests some kind of doggy mentation at a pretty basic animal level. 

So, the situation is a bit strange, or strained, or not exactly realistic or literal. We have underwear in a drawer and also scraps of poetry, maybe unfinished or unpolished poems. And these unlike objects coexist and somehow belong in, or have been filed in, the same place (by the poet). The phrase fine and private place is an allusion to a 17th century seduction poem, familiar to students of poetry if not the general public, by Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress,” where the poet says as he nears the climax of his seductive pitch:

The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

Marvell is in a hurry to get it on with his mistress, and she’s still resisting. He admonishes her to do it, do it now, before they’re both dead and can feel nothing at all.

The poet of “Poem I’ve Been Hoarding in a Drawer” is not pleading with a lady, but making something of an erotic connection between the hidden contents of a drawer — intimate garments like underwear, that is, and intimate feelings contained in poems. For isn’t that one of the things that poems do best? Talk honestly about things most of us keep to ourselves, perhaps forever, never uttering, never getting off our chests and out of our hearts? True, this particular poet, in this particular poem, has hid poems away: perhaps he doubts the wisdom of presenting them to the world. He’d be opening himself to the cold gaze of the world of duty, service, subservience, convention, it could be.

But in the end, at the end of the poem, he seems to be resigned to the eventual discovery of these poems, these feelings, 

stuff I hid away, a dusty
cluster of what might have been, and perhaps was,
back in the day: okay, okay, okay.

Whatever intimates he might have worn, or intimate feelings he might have had, pinned to his sleeve, worn on his face, or tucked out of sight, they are all gone now, you see, except, for this poem (and others like it).

Now I may seem to be making something more ingenious out of the poem than it ever consciously was. I swear that when I wrote it, I did not start or proceed from a rational outline or moral thesis. The poem simply came to me, pretty quickly, and I relied, as often happens, at least as much on sound as on sense. The origins were not much more than anoesis, believe me: scratching, sniffing, barking.

Poets are suckers for sounds. (They have not been weaned perhaps from these oral pleasures and onto the hard, dry facts of the working world.) In the mouths of poets, words are musical and magical things, even dream things, as Zapruder also suggests. But in the end words also must make sense.

In the minds of readers, especially those who do a little homework, as with the dictionary, sound and sense can merge to make a wondrous and affecting experience. Given a bit of time and effort, poetry will make more sense than the brevity of a piece like “Hoarding” might suggest. But poetry will never appeal to readers the way a page-turning novel does. They are completely different creatures, and if poetry requires time, study, patience it can repay us a thousand times for our efforts.

Words and deeds

The other night — actually three nights — I watched the Netflix documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door about the Colorado man, Chris Watts, who killed his pregnant wife and two baby daughters in the summer of 2019. It took me three nights not because the film was so long but because it was so painful.

Watts worked for Anadarko, the oil and gas exploration company, and the night his wife returned to him from an out-of-town conference he had sex with her and then confessed he no longer loved her. He was working out like a maniac, chiseling his body for the sake of his ego and his new GF and chiseling his wife in the bargain, as he adamantly denied he was interested in anybody else. He was making love to her that last night, he was fessing up that he did not love her, and then he strangled her in the bed.

Chris Watts' wife and daughters
From left, Bella Watts, Celeste Watts and Shanann Watts. – The Colorado Bureau of Investigation via AP.

He took the wife’s body to his truck and packed in the two girls, three and four years old also, who were crying and asking what was wrong with mommy. He drove to a worksite and laid the wife’s body on the ground, then strangled both girls, the younger, then the older, and threw the bodies into an oil storage tank.

You see what I mean? This is hideous and incomprehensible.

One of the lines that struck me in the film is one of the little girls skipping and singing, “I love school!”

But her father hadn’t learned much. He was a liar, in short. He was quieter than his wife, Shanann, who was passionate and frantically needed to be loved. She would text her girlfriends about Chris’s indifference and his lack of interest in her. She would hope to be lucky, that night, she would tell her friends, but Chris was not interested.

He was interested in working out, which he would do in lieu of talking to her or leveling with her or doing things with the family. He would bite his tongue till the blood roiled and keep his feelings to himself.

After the murders he told investigators, when he began to break, that his wife had strangled the girls, so he strangled her. That wasn’t true, of course.

He denied he had an extramarital love interest. And that wasn’t true.

Even his friends knew something was wrong. He was ordinarily such a calm, or should we say repressed, character, and here he was in the presence of investigators, in his house at first, acting weirdly nervous.

Wouldn’t you?

The wife doesn’t come across in the film as a very sympathetic figure — too needy and wheedling. But that’s no reason to kill her, as witnesses say. Why not simply leave her and the girls? Go with the GF and create a new life?

There was something darkly, demoniacally compelling, though.

“Every time I think about it, I’m just like, did I know I was going to do that before I got on top of her?” he told investigators. “It just felt like there was already something in my mind that was implanted that I was gonna do it and when I woke up that morning it was gonna happen and I had no control over it.”

This despite his apparent, or overt, Christianity. Chris Watts and his wife both hailed from North Carolina, part of the Bible Belt, and Watts’ father could not believe his son had committed murder. “In my heart,” he told ABC News, “I know he didn’t kill those girls.” After all, he “knows the Bible inside and out.”

But you can say one thing and do another, yes? You’ll see famous liars even in the Bible: Satan, St. Peter, Judas Iscariot.

You’ll see liars in Dostoevsky and other authors of the modern condition.

There’s love and marriage, and then there’s murder.

There’s saying one and doing something else.

There’s crime and, of course, there’s punishment, and Chris Watts is in prison for the rest of his life, where he will have ample time to cogitate his words and deeds.