Friday, March 25, 2016

Word power

I've done a weird thing. I went back and looked at all the poems I've written based on random lists of words.

You can of course find several of these in my little book salad days and knights which is made up entirely of "word salad" poems. But before I started going to Steve and Constance's reading series, and writing to her word salad prompts, I did the same thing with a number of online prompt sites. The difference, of course, was that the poems weren't written "on the spot."

Alas, I was not always diligent about recording the words alongside the poem.

I did go back to the Read Write Poem site, and was able to find all the Wordles I had used as prompts. Big Tent is gone, the link now points to something else entirely, but it looks like I did identify the words I used in all my Big Tent Wordle prompt poems.

The real loss is Poefusion. Poefusion was a blog, and is apparently gone forever. I only identified the words in a few of those poems; there are at least a dozen more linked to Poefusion, that I remember writing to a list of words, but can only identify one or two of the words for sure. (There were typically 5 in the Friday 5 prompt.)

Some time in the near future I hope to go back and highlight the words in all the poems I was able to reconstruct. Then I'll put up a post that lists them all, with links and maybe with the words. Just for fun, and in case people want to increase their vocabulary.


It's a bit of a party trick. Not that some of the poems aren't good. But I've been thinking about one of the writers I admire most, Gene Wolfe. If you remember his early books, like the New Sun books and Fifth Head of Cerberus, you probably associate him with lush, dense prose, lots of description, intricate plots. In fact, the second sentence in the Wiki above starts: "He is noted for his dense, allusive prose..."

Well, the plots are still just as intricate. But in many of his more recent books, the language is so pared-down that it almost disappears. He's used a couple of plot devices to make this happen: the viewpoint character in Soldier in the Mist/Soldier of Arete has memory issues due to traumatic brain injury, the viewpoint character in the Wizard Knight books is mentally a teenaged boy (well, not exactly, but...), and the viewpoint in The Sorcerer's House is adult but has very little formal education. Baroque and mysterious things happen to these characters; they write about them using simple words, and they tend to describe only what's necessary for the reader to grasp the action at hand.

Is it working?

Well, it always intrigues me when people make "doing more with less" work. I regard it as a valid esthetic principle (though not the only valid esthetic principle) in its own right. And though I love strange and gorgeous words, and I revel in the extravagance of a poem like "Ingénue" (wait until you see the list of words for that one!)... I keep thinking about "doing more with less."

One other thing I found in the course of doing this was an exercise proposed by Read Write Poem, which involved snarfing the text of several recent poems and doing some word use stats. (The post is here if you're interested.) What I found based on 16 poems: "out of about 800 distinct words in these poems, almost 600 were used only once."

There were some problems with the way I counted words (mostly, I didn't collapse different forms of the same word into one, e.g.I counted "bridge" and "bridges" as separate words). But still-- 800 distinct words out of 16 poems seems like a lot considering most of my poems are well under a page. And, 600 out of 800 used only once seems like also a lot. I have no idea what sort of stats would be typical for poetry, or for English writing in general-- but I am damn sure the Gene Wolfe novels mentioned above would return much lower numbers for comparable pieces of text.

And, for my money, they're some of his best writing. Your mileage may vary.

I should redo the exercise with some of my more recent poems, and see how the numbers stack up...

Update: So I did go back and add the list of words to all the Read Write Poem Wordle poems, and a couple of others that I found the lists for. I also added the "wordpower" tag to all the poems I could find that I'm sure are from word list prompts. Most have the words either listed, or highlighted in some color.

Two hundred and twenty-seven? Seriously? Although the 3 Word Wednesday haikus do account for more than half.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

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