Word Values

“Word values” is a term that I have made up to convey a concept usually discussed as “diction.” “Diction” points us toward ideas such as formal and informal language, slang, jargon, and such concepts. And it points us toward the concepts of denotation and connotation. Denotation, you might remember, is the literal dictionary definition of a word. Connotation is the emotional content of the word—its color or hue, to use a metaphor.

To these concepts of diction, and denotation and connotation, I would add the sound content of the word and the rhetorical content of the word. By sound content, I mean what are the sounds that make up the word. For instance, there is much that separates the words “house,” “domicile,” “abode,” “pad,” and “crib.” One of the factors that distinguishes them are the sounds that contained in them. To my ear, “house,” “domicile,” and “pad” are a bit softer and more inviting that “abode” or “crib.” The rhetorical content of the words can be seen by comparing “Crib” and “abode,” which are dissimilar because of ironic content of the word “crib.” Its literal meaning, as a bed for babies, is in conflict with its reference to a house for people, especially as a house for people involved with the rap and hip hop culture. Different types of people use the words “abode” and “crib.”   Of course, everybody can use any of these words, but who the speaker is, compared to who we conceive the typical speaker to be, makes a difference in what “value” (or emotional weight) we give the word.

I am one of those people who believes that any word can find an important place in a poem. Jargon, scientific language, educationese, curse words, words from foreign languages—all of it—can be used in poems. They just have to be the right words in the right poems. (Even my hated abstractions can find workable, important places in poems.)

For instance, in the poem “Father’s Fish,” Wendy Barker writes, “I have seen them flop and heave.” Barker throws in at least three kinds of values 1) “I have seen,” 2) flop, and 3) heave. By doing so she creates a kind of tension in the poem. Isn’t it different from “I have seen them twist and turn,” “I have seen them bouncing up and down,” “I have seen them gasping and struggling,” or “God damn, they die desperately.”

Later in the poem she changes the tone with softer descriptions: feathers, amethysts, sunsets, cloud, swirling gleaming. “Amethysts” is kind of strange word in there, but still there is this airy lightness. Then it shifts with rectangular, world, perfect, temperature, pH, gravel. Later there is neon, knife, triangular, clutch. I particularly like the word “pH.” What is that doing in a poem! But it works—I think because of the p-sounds around it: perfect, temperature, plants, perfect.

I think that the idea of dynamics may be a metaphor for what I mean by “word values.” Think of a piece of music you like that is played on piano. Is every note on the piano struck with the same loudness or hardness or quickness? Of course not. So, I think, in a poem we need to give emphasis to certain words and ideas and tones, by choosing words that have different values. We can’t just jump all over the place and merely hope that it works, but we can force our readers in each line or so to focus, to pay attention to a particular note. Call it what you will—“the creative use of language”—but this is something that we can do for our readers.

Suggested Writing Assignment: One assignment that many books have is the following. Write a list of words that you really like. The list can be as long as you like, and your reasons for liking the words can be wide and various. Some words you like for the sound, others because of who often says them, others because of their etymology, others because of the allusions associated with them, etc. So make a list of words—however many you like, but 10 is a good number. Then write a poem with as many of the words as you can get into poem and it still make sense. Try not to write nonsense. But one thing that this can do is make you use words together that you may not have thought to put together: “rectangular world,” or “computer’s pH,” or “the heart’s tulip” or “tulip fingers.”


See a related post:  Types of Diction.


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About lymangrant

Lyman Grant is a professor of creative writing and humanities at Austin Community College. He has work at ACC since 1978. He is the author or editor of two textbooks, two books relating to Texas literature, three volumes and a chapbook of poetry. Recently he traveled the United States for a year in a 34-foot RV 5th wheel trailer with his wife and two younger sons.