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” (dictionary.com), 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.

Author: Greg Zeck

Greg Zeck taught college English in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota. He also had a career in freelance business writing and communications. He's retired now in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with his wife Jennifer, where he continues to read, write, bike, hike, and garden.

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