Kalliope, Muse of Heroic Poetry: Online Poetics Workshop







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Words, Words, Words

"When I use a word, it means exactly what I intend it to mean, no more, no less."
— Humpty Dumpty to Alice, Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

In spite of Humpty Dumpty's attitude, most of us regard poetry as an art of communication. We want to pick words that not only mean something to us, they mean mostly the same thing to our readers.

A large and flexible vocabulary is almost THE basic tool of the writer.

"What I don't know has never gotten me in half as much trouble as what I know that ain't so." — Will Rogers

One of the land-mines for a reader, a writer, or any person in daily conversation, is the word that you KNOW the meaning of — the wrong meaning. When you don't know a word, you just ask -- or look it up quietly on your own. If you think you do know a word, someone describes your husband as "uxorious", and you fly to his defense in loyal outrage

Here's an exercise, just for yourself — not for critique. Look up the definitions of the following words in any good dictionary. See if they actually mean what you think they mean - or if there are additional meanings you've never used. Then make up three sentences using each word, in each of its senses.

  • uxorious
  • which
  • of
  • effect
  • affect
  • shall
  • literal
  • virtual
  • infer
  • imply

Does the page look any brighter after that? Try the same thing, periodically, for yourself — browse the dictionary, making a game out of TRYING to find words you know that have meanings you didn't know.

Here's another couple of exercises — again, for yourself, not for critique.

For each of the following words, make a list of all the synonyms that you can think of for it - or words that convey the same meaning, not strictly synonymous, such as "trout" for "fish", or "seek" for "fish", or "wrinkled" for "old".

  • love
  • apply
  • fish
  • old
  • give
  • human

Now make a list of antonyms for every word you came up with in those six lists.

Now for a poem exercise, for critique.

The List Poem

Take one of your lists and develop each word into a line, playing out a string of variations on one theme.


An old man;
a wrinkled, hoar, bent man;
a moldering man;
an ancient man;
a ripe man;
an aged man;
a well-matured man;
a sage and seasoned man;
a man.

Guidelines for critique:


Length and variety of the list: Did the writer cover an impressive scope of variations? Or can you think of a lot of possibilities left out?

Writers: If someone points out words you passed up using, I recommend you go look them up and practice them.


1) Is there a pattern to the flow of the list?

2) Is there a theme?

3) Is the whole more than just a list of parts?

Critiques may address any other aspects, also, but please be sure to cover the points in the above list.

Write On!