Word choice in poetry, a personal dilemma

Geoffrey Hill and Paul Celan have both remarked on the importance of word choice in writing good poetry and I would argue that practitioners in English are privileged to have to hand the richness and diversity of such a vast and laden vocabulary. There are a number of issues which seem to muddy the field somewhat and the main one would appear to be etymology which looks at where words come from and the various uses to which they have been put. I’m a fan of this kind of activity and will spend many a happy hour with the OED and the Grimm brothers’ historical dictionary checking out words in all their previous glories.
The first problem that I have with using words in a way that refers to historical usage is that we don’t all have access to the OED and not all readers are sufficiently motivated to read a word in anything but its ordinary usage. I am a fairly attentive reader but would not have grasped Prynne’s use of the word ‘lintel’ had he not held up the sign for me in his recent Chicago lecture- the other point is not everyone with an interest in Prynne is going to know how to access that lecture.
The second problem is one I currently face as an occasional practitioner. I’m trying to put together a longish poem on the Bloody Sunday and BSE inquiries. This poem is fundamentally political and tries to retain the presence of the archival material that should underpin the inquiry findings.
One of the central events on Bloody Sunday was the shooting of Bernard McGuigan (aged 41) who was shot through the head by Soldier ‘F’ who claims that he was holding a weapon. In fact Mr McGuigan was holding a handkerchief. On the web there is a pathology report on this death which explains both what high velocity bullets do and what happened to Mr McGuigan’s head when the bullet entered his skull.
Reading this, I challenged myself to describe this moment and to do it in a very intimate way. I’ve since discovered that poetry has the potential to be intimate in all kinds of surprising ways.
The word choice problem in this project now became apparent. I had a range of specialist vocabulary from pathology that was fairly easy to mine and exploit but I needed a verb for the murderous passage of the bullet through the brain. After several awkward drafts I settled upon ‘thrill’ meaning to pierce rather than to excite. My knowledge of thrill in this sense comes from reading the many fight scenes in the Faerie Queen and I then discovered that it has its roots in the Anglo Saxon ‘thirl’ which also means to pierce. So thrill went in to the mix and then I realised the ‘exciting’ connotation would sound first to the contemporary reader whereas I wanted the Spenserian sense to be primary.
Then the social worker in me took over. Mr McGuigan’s family surely have the right to expect the facts of his death to be treated in a respectful manner, am I jumping all over that right by using the flight of this bullet to make a political/ideological point? If they ever read the piece, how likely is it they would glean the intention behind the use of this verb? Not very.
I’ve toyed with various ways of signposting how I want ‘thrill’ to read but I’ll probably discard it even though it does what I want it to. Any other ideas would be warmly welcomed- the pathology report is on the Inquiry web site.

2 responses to “Word choice in poetry, a personal dilemma

  1. Why not use Thirl? Or is it just wierdo’s like me who are fascinated by etymology who’ll get it then?

    Thrilling used in that context would be jarring enough to make me suspect an alternative meaning and go find it out. Or Thirling? Thrilled is more recent than good old Spenser, you get ‘thrilling shrieks’ in pulpy horror stories.

    • I’ve kind of decided to stick with ‘thrill’ because I want to use ‘sing’ as well to describe the bullets journey through the brain but this is only the 600th draft of an idea and no doubt there’s a long way to go. I know there are more recent uses but I want it to refer to Spenser- the Quentin Tarantino of the late 16th century.


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