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Saturday, July 28, 2012

Small Words

I walk a lot. We don't have a car, but since we live in a city in Japan, this is not a problem. Consequently I walk a lot. I wear a pedometer so I know how much, and it ranges between 5 and 12 kilometers on an average day.

If I'm not walking with someone else, I listen to podcasts (so that's a lot of podcasts!), and recently I was listening to poet Elizabeth Austen's short program on KUOW. She was talking about the poet Dorothy Trogdon, who published her first book in her mid-eighties (not THE mid-eighties, HER mid-eighties). Trogdon read the poem "Desire, Like a Hungry Lion" from her collection Tall Woman Looking, and even listening while walking I was struck by the final line, "The stars need darkness or you would not know them."

What struck me immediately was that, had I had this image in mind, I would not have made the perfect word choices that Trogdon did. I'm fairly sure I would have known that to use the obvious verb "see" instead of "know" would have trivialized the image. I also think I would have known to write "The stars need darkness" instead of "You need darkness", to universalize rather than personalize the experience. What I definitely would have missed, though, is the use of "or." I suspect I would have written "The stars need darkness for you to know them," which is so inferior to what Trogdon wrote. The sense of possible loss is so much more palpable with the "or" rather than with the fait-accompli-assuming "for". Also the "or" allows the negative "not" in there, which strikes the reader (or listener) with such force. Not to mention how much better the rhythm is in Trogdon's masterful line. Small words make such big difference. And I have so much to learn.


Chris said...

Speaking of podcasts, I never thanked you for your past mention of Radiolab, which I agree is simply wonderful. Any chance you might add a "podcast archive" to expose me to some more good stuff?

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Hi Chris,
I promised to do that a year ago, didn't I, list more of my favorite podcasts? Okay, I will do that, but I have to warn you, nothing is as good as Radiolab. That's the very best of the bunch. But there are other good ones.

Chris said...

The podcast devoted exclusively to Jack Benny radio shows ranks nearly as high as Radiolab for me.

Tara Mae Mulroy said...

Wow. Some people do just nail lines like that. Sometimes I feel like I do. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes, too, I think of Eliot's quote about poetry: "Bad poets imitate; good poets steal."

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Hi Tara Mae,

Great Eliot quote!

I'm lik you; every once in awhile I know I've got a line as perfect as it can be. But that's only every once in awhile.