The Poet and the Dictionary

By Chelsie MalyszekNovember 7, 2020

The Poet and the Dictionary
IN OCTOBER 1940, Marianne Moore chastised her friend and protégée Elizabeth Bishop for her “unprudishness” in an early draft of the poem “Roosters.” Bishop had used the less-than-prudish compound word “water-closet,” now more commonly abbreviated as “WC” in architectural blueprints and even, inexplicably, an emoji. Moore warned Bishop that readers are “not depersonalized enough to accept the picture rather than the thought” of an impolite word like “water-closet.” The “picture” or definition of a word is always laden with cognitive associations, and words therefore inevitably lead readers to something other than strict denotations. Moore preferred to avoid the matter entirely rather than supply a euphemism such as “toilet,” “commode,” or the relatively innocent “water-closet,” which might still conjure an image of its use.

Moore’s letter to Bishop illuminates the darker side of her quest for lexical precision. Moore saw linguistic purity as a barometer of moral rectitude. In her mind, to choose signifiers tainted by unintended significance pointed to a more troubling impurity in the character of the author who was willing to use them. In an effort to purge words of potentially unsavory associations, she strove for a precision that could liberate denotations from the encumbrance of personal connotations. William Carlos Williams wrote of Moore that her words “stand crystal clear with no attachments” and seem to have been “treated with acid” to remove any unsightly blemishes. It is not surprising, then, that Moore’s concerns drove her to resources that to her felt objective, namely dictionaries. The Rosenbach Museum, which houses Moore’s papers, catalogs as many as 13 dictionaries in her personal library, a count that would triple if we were to include the number of dictionaries merely mentioned in her prose and poetry.

But about her unprudishness, Bishop would not relent. “I cherish my ‘water-closet’ and the other sordidities,” she wrote back. Bishop needed those associations: her readers’ disgust at encountering sordid diction imbued the poem with more emotion than pruder words ever could.

Though the two poets continued to correspond, the exchange marks an important break in their relationship — and in the trends of poetic discourse in the United States. The 1940s saw the decline in the enthusiasm for so-called “pure” diction that marked the majority of writing advice in the early 20th century. A dictionary may solve many language problems, but it perpetuates others: omissions, errors, prejudices. Ben Lerner insists that, because poets cannot wring all the communicative potential from language, “the poem is always a record of failure.” But what happens when language fails poets, rather than the other way around? This is the question that has prompted a resurgence of interest in diction, purity, and the ostensible compendium of pure diction: dictionaries.

In his new book Dictionary Poetics, Craig Dworkin gives renewed attention to the places poets find their words, and he frequently scours reference texts for anomalies and disjunctions in definition as source material for his poems. Looking through a much broader scope, Piers Pennington and Andrew Blades’s Poetry & the Dictionary tracks the centuries-long relationship between the terms of their book’s title. Together, these two studies remind us that the dictionary itself cannot be “depersonalized,” that no “picture” it presents is necessarily clear.


Poets have always aspired to compose the best words in the best order. The dream of a universal dictionary, surely inspired by the shortcomings of actual dictionaries, has long preoccupied them. Percy Shelley described lexicography and grammar as “merely the catalogue and the form of the creations of poetry.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge even wanted to fill in the glaring omission of “genuine words” that have “precise individual meaning” in Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language by writing a truly “Universal Dictionary.” Later, in 1855, Walt Whitman expressed his desire to write A Perfect English Dictionary, which would include slang, foreign borrowings, and perhaps above all dirty words.

Though poets are likely always to be dissatisfied with dictionaries, concerns about diction rose to a fever pitch in the early 20th century. Many poets strove to make their work noticeably new by shirking rhyme, meter, and the verse line. When even the line break no longer signified the poetic, diction bore the burden. Developments in lexicography and philology put extraordinary pressure on poets to make their diction pure, the truest sign of a well-wrought poem. Dictionaries were felt to satisfy the needs of both poets and philologists. They gave poets a storehouse of possible words — complete with clear definitions and usage examples — and provided philologists a mechanism to trace words through time, back to an original meaning or source.

Anxieties about “linguistic purity,” unsurprisingly, carried ethno-nationalist implications that were often subsumed under the same mission for purity. In 1913, goaded by how far English had strayed from the mother tongue, Robert Bridges co-founded the Society for Pure English (SPE). In its first tract, published 101 years ago, the SPE asserted that “our language in its future development should be controlled by the forces and processes which have formed it in the past.” Preaching what it practiced, the SPE asked its members to purchase the Oxford English Dictionary, “for that compendium of historic learning puts at every student’s disposal the facts that must govern our procedure” and would come in especially handy when “other speaking races” might mutilate or bastardize words and “infect therewith the neighbouring English.”

The SPE’s influence crossed the Atlantic. In a May 1926 review for the Dial, Moore expressed delight with the “persuasively fastidious” aims of the SPE. In 1929, W. H. Auden journaled about the SPE’s standards as “too exhibitionistic” for his tastes. And yet, later in life, Auden would himself plunder the OED for “pure” words cultivated from Anglo-Saxon roots. (Auden ensured that poets would continue to cherish the dictionary when he bequeathed his well-loved and well-worn OED to James Merrill, who then gave it to J. D. McClatchy, who wrote a poem about it.) Some vestiges of this period exist in still-popular writing manuals such as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, first published in 1920, which tells its devotees that “Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words.”

The SPE’s counterpart in the States was the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Founded in 1904, the Academy promoted “dignity, moderation and purity of expression” and opposed “vulgarity, sensationalism, meretriciousness, lubricity and other forms of degeneracy.” The missions of the SPE and the Academy gained financial support and momentum in the 1920s. In 1928, the newly complete OED appeared. As critic Michael North describes it, “what was new and peculiar to the period was not linguistic difference and variation, which had been even more promiscuous in the past, but demands for its elimination.”

Some poets took the pursuit of poetic purity to its logical extreme: eliminating poetry all together. For Laura Riding Jackson, purity and poetry so infrequently aligned that she renounced poetry in the early 1940s after feeling “sucked into the whorl of poetic artifice.” Meanwhile, in “Pure and Impure Poetry,” Robert Penn Warren explained how poems “mar themselves with cacophonies, jagged rhythms, ugly words and ugly thoughts, colloquialisms, clichés” and thus call us back to a world full of imperfections. In the span of 30 pages, Warren arrived at the same conclusion as Jackson: there can be no “pure” poems.

A few years later, in 1948, the SPE stopped publishing tracts. Its mission became untenable. After World War II, anything rationalized under the guise of “purity” was suspect. When purity promotes national pride, it sidles dangerously close to linguistic eugenics. However, poets’ fascination with dictionaries continued beyond the first half of the 20th century, even after the quest for linguistic purity subsided.


As repositories of untainted words, dictionaries have been fetishized by poets as formally rigorous as Moore, Auden, and Merrill. But dictionaries have also furnished the material for avant-garde poetry that deconstructs and reassembles dictionaries’ standardized lemmas and layouts. More recently, dictionaries have provided structure and organization for experimental books by Harryette Mullen, Solmaz Sharif, and Duriel E. Harris, all of which show the slippage between a dictionary’s intent and content. These poets respond to their suspicion of authoritative records of language, seeing those records as opportunities for criticism and investigation.

Looked at as conceptual artifacts, dictionaries become interesting precisely for their failures and points of ideological impasse. In Dictionary Poetics, Dworkin writes that searching for idiosyncrasy in a book designed to foster linguistic uniformity breaks “the illusion of the dictionary’s detached disinterest and expose[s] the rough weave of the canvas beneath.” With critical readings that are keenly aware of how poets actually write, Dworkin dispels any notion that the dictionary is a platonic word-hoard.

While dictionaries give us insights into how poets work, poets who use dictionaries give us insight into how the dictionary works. Poems open up and release unrealized references and resonances — especially if we have a dictionary nearby as we read. But when poets look in the dictionary for something beyond the word choice it offers, they discover striking lacunae: the words the dictionary chooses not to include and the voices it will not let speak.

Dworkin succinctly defines “dictionary poetics” as “the use of the inherent logic of the dictionary as a generative, structuring device and not just as an authoritative compendium to check correct spelling or to confirm the precise use of le mot juste.” With this definition in mind, Dworkin’s recent creative works come into focus. His most recent book of poetry, DEF, begins with a text by the logician Gottlob Frege and then loosely translates the text using definitions found in the OED and Noah Webster’s “compendious dictionary of the English language.” The greatest strength of Dworkin’s creative work is also that of his academic work — these books ask us to read them slowly and closely, with a dictionary at our elbow.

Another take on the distortion in the dictionary, Blade and Pennington’s Poetry & the Dictionary, has considerable overlap with Dictionary Poetics, with chapters on avant-garde poets Louis Zukofsky, Clark Coolidge, and Tina Darragh. These poets, according to Dworkin, view the dictionary as “a unique printed artifact and not as an imaginary ideal of comprehensive authority.” The dictionary serves poets best when it is ransacked for the words, images, and layout it does contain, rather than revered for the linguistic purity it theoretically preserves. For instance, Zukofsky’s intentionally myopic focus on the dictionary helps him create new connections between words in his long poem “A”. However, the proximity of words in the dictionary’s alphabetized entry headings, not linguistic ancestry, structures those relationships.

Darragh’s hyperopic view of the dictionary, on the other hand, cuts through the unquestioned conventions of dictionary typography and mise-en-page. Darragh’s highly visual poems foreground the jagged shapes and stark columnar divisions of The Random House Dictionary of the English Language. When we read as Darragh does, with the dictionary page parallel to eye-level, our eyes skim quickly across the page. Indistinct shapes become crisp as more familiar ones blur. We see words not as restricted to their own carefully limned definitions, but as mutable entries that merge into one another and cross columnar divides. This reading more accurately reflects the true logic of the dictionary, in which words of many registers and from many origins are yoked together.

Dictionaries pretend to preserve something universal, to transcend rather than demarcate cultural differences. As James Merrill is often misquoted as saying, the “collective unconscious of the race is the OED.” This “anonymous, aggregated, collective cultural voice speaks more than it intends,” as Dworkin writes. The reality of a dictionary never lives up to its promises. It fails language. It also fails poets looking for pure language. Contemporary poetry is a record of these failures.


Chelsie Malyszek is a PhD candidate in English at Yale University and a reader for The Paris Review. Her work has appeared in The Threepenny Review.

LARB Contributor

Chelsie Malyszek is a PhD candidate in English at Yale University and a reader for The Paris Review. Her work has appeared in The Threepenny Review.


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