As someone who writes poetry and prose, I spend a lot of time thinking about the best words – the best words in the best order, if you will. Often, however, I find myself frustrated at my own limited vocabulary, my tendency to use the same words and my irritating inability to summon the words I need when I want them. I seem to have come up against the limit of my own capacity to learn new words. I make an effort to assimilate a new one, use it several times in conversations in which it doesn’t really fit, and then forget it again. I wonder if this is a common experience?
I have a beautiful Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus set that my husband bought me for my birthday a couple of years ago. I also have a copy of Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary. These tomes sit accusingly on my shelf, a living embodiment of all the knowledge I do not possess. I brought them to Annaghmakerrig with me in an enormous suitcase last summer and didn’t look at them once. Faced with them, I experience the same anxiety I felt when I started to write poetry; I knew that to improve, I would have to do a huge amount of reading; to find where my voice sits alongside the voices of modern poets and to unravel the mysteries of their relationships with other poets, both classic and contemporary. But where to begin? I had a slim Sylvia Plath volume and so I tried some Ted Hughes; there was a Selected Yeats in the house, so I tried W.H. Auden; finally, I bought myself the selected Derek Mahon and breathed a sigh of relief. Here was something I could identify with; something that excited me and challenged my notions of what a poem could/ should be. But where to next? The microcosm of poetry can be dizzyingly diverse, sometimes unwelcoming and utterly mysterious. So can the macrocosm of words themselves. Some people slip into the stream of words and paddle around happily, never suffering a crisis of confidence. Others, like me, find themselves overwhelmed.
So how do I cope with this anxiety about my vocabulary? I have a plan to make proper use of my Dictionary/ Thesaurus set, but that hasn’t been put into action yet – in my current nomadic lifestyle I have no dedicated writing space and my dictionaries are locked away in the attic of my rented house. In the meantime, I’ve decided to try to concentrate on clarity rather than worrying unduly about the impressiveness of the words themselves. I would love to be making use of words like simulacrum, solipsism and sybarite on a regular basis, but for the moment it’s not to be. I hope that my attempts to achieve clarity and precision will mean that readers of my writing can appreciate a message carried by words both humble and familiar.