ABC’s of Writing (for Beginners): W for Words, Words, Words

Posted by on Oct 8, 2014 in Uncategorized | 4 comments

Gates and Alleys
(Words, Words, Words)

The leprous distilment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body.
The Ghost, Hamlet

Words are poison, a kind of leprous distilment. They hover above my ear’s porches as I sleep in the orchard.

I haven’t thought about them like that—the fall from Claudius’s vial to Hamlet Sr.’s ear the moment they gain their vigorous power—until just now, the effects quicksilver quick.

76396_537298452878_6869613_n[1]And that’s my point. I’m no quick thinker—that is to say, not fast on my feet, my tongue rather dull in the moment. Honestly, I’m downright slow (from vial to ear the poison suspends in profound eternity).

But when the poison hits, when that cursed juice spreads, my body’s gates and alleys, rain slick, light-catching, glisten and flicker the poisoned night, as if Scorsese directed Shakespeare beneath my skin.

Words penetrate, infiltrate—such visceral enmity in them; they work against my biology. Out of the heart’s jungle, the wilderness of viscera, come villages, cities, the landscape of the body mimicking the external: the rhythms of the natural world to the rhythms of the modern world, all the hustle and heat and strain of both. Words wilt the amygdala’s flowers, flood the lung fields, wash out the artery’s roads, crack the capillary’s sidewalks, frost-heave lonely streets of nerve endings. Words dismantle my sensibility, the way I perceive the world, the way I internalize the world—they shift the tectonic plates of my innards.

And then they rebuild.

I’m trying to hint at a word’s transformative power, how it infects, dismantles, and reassembles; how a word’s impact is of the body, lodged in a process reflecting inexorable rhythms by which we are bound: rot and rebirth.

Language used carefully demands we stroll down the corridors of its contexts, through its own gates and alleys, through the courtyards and graveyards of its history. Indeed, this is academic, a stroll with a backpack of books dog-eared to reference points. I won’t go there (to be honest, I get lost). This stroll is personal—a simple meandering in awe of a word’s place in memory, in sensibility: the gate shaped differently, the alley sloped differently, more graves in the graveyard, new light in the courtyard.

Take Joe Bolton’s father character in his poem “Childhood,” a man who holds a gun to his head “like a seashell, /Like a transistor radio tuned to a channel/ Nobody else can hear,” but only after “bounding down the stairs, almost like a boy/On Christmas morning.” It isn’t Christmas morning, though; it is, seemingly, any other morning. The father says over and over, “Do you want me to blow my fucking head off? /Is that what you want?” The mother grabs a clump of her hair “not the color of the sun going down so early in the day, /But the color/Of a child’s first clumsy rendering of that sky/In fingerpaint.” And the child, that furtive witness, looks silently on.

Bolton forces us to horrific associations. “Childhood,” the poem’s title, and seashell, the image half of the first simile mentioned, is obvious but no less harrowing. Who doesn’t remember (and if you don’t remember you can imagine) a seashell’s sound against the ear, that whirring and whispering, that cawoompf of waves somewhere in its core, a tiny ocean in there, perhaps on its shore a boy with a shell to his ear, eyes closed, imagining. You get the picture, one of youthful exuberance, the vitality of a child’s whimsy. The seashell is a gun, though (a twenty-five), and juxtaposed to a seashell’s connotations, the intensity of alienation and anxiety is framed (feeling lost and child-like in an adult world), a feeling that, perhaps, never leaves us. Yet the gun is also a transistor radio, tuned to a “channel/ Nobody else can hear.” Channel at once elucidates and complicates the network of associations transforming feeling. We are channeled through sympathy, through pity and disgust, to the dark corners of our own imagination, tuned to a channel adult in recognition, childish in fear; the voice we hear is our own. There, the clump of hair the mother grabs can only be fingerpaint, a murky representation of emotional complexity, a smudged and filthy window we’re given into the speaker’s dual struggle with the scene: one part child, one part adult; and again, we are with him; we are both. Yet the color of the mother’s hair, that sky in so much fingerpaint, isn’t splotched on, isn’t carelessly constructed, it’s rendered—an artful word, one of precision, a word that suggests the pride in a child’s creative spirit (”the frail page he brought home, clutched to his chest”) and the adult world of recognition (“he stood on the cold porch to admire [the painting] a moment/Before it ceased to matter”).

For me, these words make the poem; they squeeze, as Eliot might’ve said, all possible emotion from the poem’s subject; they best embody the poem’s drama; on these words (and many others, to be fair) so much of the poem’s emotion swings. I can’t identify with a father threatening suicide in front of his family, but I can identify with family dysfunction, bearing silent witness to anger, screams and pain as a child I could never understand. And how many beach trips did I take with my father, how many seashells did we collect, put to our ears? Countless. Words in this poem augment my memory, take me to places I didn’t know existed, dismantle what was to rebuild what is—a new experience. My sense of the old, however real, decays for a moment; in that moment something new sprouts, takes shape.

Clearly I’m speaking of poetic diction, language uncommon and un-colloquial; language that is intentional, self-conscious and exact. I’d like to argue that all words are intentional and exact. Beyond my own sensibility I cannot. I can only marvel at the power of a word, however manipulated, however conscious, to make more precise the feeling one tries to convey. As writers we are yoked by words, catalogued into the human experience by the impulse to dramatize a moment. We conjure the poison, toil over it, and then consume it; we shift our personal history by the friction of a word’s usage, alter the landscape of our sensibility—flesh of concrete, organs of rebar, long-limbed tree ligaments. The soil over our bones trembles; we feel our bodies quiver.

Matt LaFreniere is a Baltimore-based poet and teacher. He spends his days loving on his wife and daughter and trying to convince high school kids that their written words are important. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pilgrimage Magazine, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Utter, Wild Violet, and others.


  1. I looked this up to see who wrote this, and was shocked when I saw Kane. Well done Mr. Laf, great, empowering piece of writing.

  2. This was really well written. Each word in this essay has a purpose as well as “words” in general. Proud you are my teacher. Nice picture.

  3. Passionate.

  4. “Nice picture”

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