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Cast a New Light (or, why Kwame banned "gloaming": #fivewordfridays

a series of vocabulary-based prompts

by Ashley Strosnider

 

Tackled the excercise below? Come up with something brilliant or hilarious? Tweet us a favorite line or phrase @theSchooner!

 

Last week, one of our new interns was reading submissions, and he stopped and said, “I just read two poetry submissions in a row with the phrase ‘a jealous moon.’ What are the odds?” Unfortunately, the odds are not so long.

A few years back, our Editor in Chief, Kwame Dawes, shared a tweet a day in a series he called “Memos to Poets,” and he called out a few words he was seeing too often.  

#13: This just in: “Gloaming” has been banned from poetry, especially Irish themed poems

Kwame Dawes, in his Memos to Poets tweet series

The word “gloaming,” refers to twilight, dusk, and it does have a certain feel about it, doesn’t it? So why can’t you use it? (Well, of course you can! Many poets regularly turn clichés on their heads, surprising readers with a fresh take on an old phrase, but that’s another post for another day.) Kwame’s point stands: Certain phrases come up again and again, in poems and in prose. Sometimes it’s because these words are fitting—why else would they have been used so excessively as to enter the idiom and become cliché?

As the Merriam-Webster entry for the word explains: “If ‘gloaming’ makes you think of tartans and bagpipes, well lads and lasses, you've got a good ear and a good eye; we picked up ‘gloaming’ from the Scottish dialects of English back in the Middle Ages.”

So the issue here isn’t so much that it’s not the right word for an Irish-themed poem as it is that the word makes everyone think of “tartans and bagpipes.” That’s the bigger issue with these overused words and phrases. Sometimes we’re seeing the same words because they simply sound poetic. 

And that’s the catch-22 of it: if the goals of poetry (and inventive prose writing, too, I’d argue) are efficiency and surprise, a new way of seeing something and saying something, then tried and true phrasings usually won’t suffice. If just anyone could think of it? Try again. Filtering the idea through a new vocabulary can cast a new light over everything.

The best way to avoid words and phrases that tend to be overused in your genre is to simply be reading your genre. Lots and lots of poems. Lots and lots of essays. Lots and lots of stories. Sometimes the common parlance is the right way to cut to the chase, to get to the heart of the matter (see what I did there?)… but sometimes it’s best to look elsewhere for your words. Let’s see where these five can take you.

2 nouns: teapot, opera
2 verbs: bully, teeter
1 adjective: sporadic

Today’s words are brought to you by our intern Olivia Miller, whom we hear is occasionally on Twitter but only in disguise.

 

 

As before, there are at least two ways to approach the exercise, though we welcome you—nay, we dare you!—to find more.

First approach: Generative prompt

Take these five words as a jumping-off point. Consider them together, and consider what they’re telling you and what you could use them to tell someone else. Go from there. Beginning is enough.

Level-two challenge: Some combinations may be obvious. Try to see connections or hear phrasings that wouldn’t occur to someone else. A single word can carry its own tone and connotations, but it’s the friction that comes from rubbing them together that truly delights. Do it distinctively.

Second approach: Revision tactic

Find a poem or a paragraph or a piece of flash fiction you’ve been working on that’s just not quite there yet, and revise it to make sure all five words appear in the new version.

Level-two challenge: Pick a piece you feel absolutely certain is a bad fit for this exercise and these words. The more horrified you feel about adding in V, W, X, Y, and Z, the better. Will your poem or story be better for it? No way to know, but you’ll have made your work weirder—at least temporarily—and even if these aren’t the exact five words you needed, this exercise may show you that your piece is a little more malleable than you thought, which is often just what you need to break it out of its rut.