Writing Prompt: New Meanings

editsAs I read more Gertrude Stein, I admire the way she would reclaim a word and give it new meaning. Even if you don’t get it, there’s something about it that draws you in.

Take, for example, this excerpt from Negligible Old Star:

NEGLIGIBLE old star. 
Pour even.

Why the word “negligible” and why in caps?

If we were to do a close reading, which I think isn’t always a great idea with Stein’s work, we might decide that she capitalized the word because its presentation was in direct opposition to its meaning. Drawing attention to its unimportance, perhaps.

Then there’s the “old star.” Could it be an actual star? What about a person? If so, to whom does it refer? What does that say about the life she’s describing?

Pour even.

I love this one. Your mind sees and thinks “poor” but that’s not what she’s written. Does she mean “pour” in the sense of pouring water from a glass, or pour as in a gush of water? Or is she using “pour” to describe poverty of something other than money? And what’s “even” mean? Evenly, also, equally, constant…

As Stein reinvented meaning, so can we. To use words in new ways is such a release of constrictions that language imposes. I played with this method in one of my pieces, called Movement #5. Here’s one stanza:

Lease the Infantry

that Electrocutes the Nation

this Ulcer so Amphibious

a Township on the Nib

all Tanks to the Elephant.

Why I like this exercise: It gets us thinking about words as having more than one meaning. They usually do, right? But we’re so used to stringing together ideas without challenging both ourselves and our readers. Some of the best poetry I’ve read comes from poets who push boundaries and either invent new meanings or bring emphasis on otherwise unnoticed words.

Today’s prompt:

Take one of your existing poems, or use a famous poem, and change out the words for synonyms.

How does that change the meaning? Which way is better? Feel free to post your results in the comments.



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