Poetry Break | Poet Laureate Catherine Pierce

Poetry Break
Catherine Pierce
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

Listen for the unexpected trove of language

Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

A couple of weeks ago, our youngest woke up in the night complaining of a sore throat; by morning, it was clear we needed to head to the doctor. Following a quick diagnosis of strep, he started on his prescribed course of amoxicillin, and when he woke the next morning, he announced, “I feel fine!”

After our kids were in bed that night, my husband and I talked about how amazing antibiotics are, how lucky we are to live in a time where this potentially dangerous illness could easily be treated. I reminded my husband that a century ago, strep throat was what led to the deadly scarlet fever. Then I paused. “Scarlet fever,” I said. My husband, waiting for more, raised an eyebrow. “Scarlet fever,” I repeated. “Wow. Those are great words.”

Now, to be clear, I wasn’t saying there’s anything great about scarlet fever, which is a painful and dangerous illness. But the words—“scarlet” and “fever”—are fantastic. So fantastic that I got sidetracked by them, momentarily lost in the beauty of language.

It was a reminder for me of what I’ve long known but sometimes forget in the flurry of my daily life: that rich and surprising language is everywhere, and all we have to do is look and listen.

This Month’s Poetry Break: An Unexpected Treasure Trove of Language

Some of the most vivid and musical language exists not in poems or song lyrics or prize-winning novels, but in unglamorous places like cookbooks, field guides, and repair manuals. A quick flip through a pasta cookbook on my bookshelf reveals the words “fusilli,” “garnish,” “tureen,” “simmer.” Paging through the Audubon “Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders”, I find “firebrat,” “lacewing,” “velvet mite.” The refrigerator manual includes, surprisingly enough, “hazard,” “ignition,” “osmosis,” and “grape-seed oil.”

Choose a reference or resource text you have around or can find online: this might be a cookbook, an appliance manual, a gardening guide, etc. Take five minutes to page through this text, writing down any words or phrases that stand out to you as interesting. Don’t worry about context for now; just focus on the words themselves. Which words sound good to your ear? Which ones conjure up an interesting image or idea for you?

Once you’ve got your word bank (ideally, you’ll write down 5-15 words), it’s time to write a poem. The only requirement for this poem is that it not be about your chosen text’s subject matter. For example, if you built your word bank from a book about types of trees, your poem shouldn’t be about trees. It can reference trees, if you like, but it should be about something different: your grandfather, a trip to Cancun, your first pet. See where the words lead you; the goal is to let your poem be shaped by the surprising and vivid language you’ve found in your unexpected source material.

Example (using words from the pasta cookbook):

First Beach Day of the Summer

Here in this vast tureen of sun

and sand, I simmer.

The air shimmers

as I listen to

ocean hiss,

foam sizzle.

The sun floats

bright in the sky,

a golden garnish.

Don’t worry about fitting in all the words you selected (you’ll notice I couldn’t work “fusilli” in there); rather, let yourself be led by the words that are most compelling to you, and see what new and interesting images those words can help you conjure. Have fun reveling in language. Write your life.

Catherine Pierce is the Poet Laureate of Mississippi and the author of four books of poems, most recently “Danger Days”. She co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. 


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