On The Nature of Words In Poems

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Words have this bittersweet taste. They taste wonderful as they swill about in our mouths. When spoken, they roll over tongues, dissipating even as they were formed. Their evaporation leaves a quiet emptiness.

When written, they lie, unflinching, judging us even as we judge them. They become concrete, a tangible reminder of a memory, a thought or a feeling. They last.

The poetic symphony of words must reconcile these aspects – the ephemeral and the permanent. In this unity, there’s resonance.


Words can obfuscate. Take, for example, the befuddling field of environmental ethics.

Classical utilitarianism. Consequentialism. Intrinsic, inherent and extrinsic values. Instrumental and non-instrumental values. The differences between the intrinsic and non-instrumental; the disparities between extrinsic and instrumental ideas. Deontology. Teleology. Virtue ethics. Pragmatic ethics.

This forest of polysyllabic words is unfathomable, almost pointless.

We study to be wiser - to remove the lenses of prejudices clouding our vision. We learn more to see clearer. What I’ve learned from one module on environmental philosophy is a matrix of academic jargons that impedes the clarity of thought.

"Back when Rachel Carson or Aldo Leopold wrote their essays, these philosophical frameworks don't exist. But now that we know, we can classify them as being largely non-anthropocentric."

In the past, people wrote beautiful passages about life, nature and its meanings. Now, these wondrous words are interpreted with modern verbose lenses. I know all the polysyllabic words to describe something. So? It doesn't reflect genuine appreciation. I end up saying that Nature has both intrinsic and instrumental values or describing land ethics as an overlap between deontology and teleology. It’s almost pointless.

It irks me when words are used to confuse – perhaps to inflate and perpetuate a sense of self-importance. Why do this when words can be used to further a collective pursuit for beauty, equality and goodness?

Hence, our choice of words, I feel, should be simple, yet subliminal.


Words are more than a logical arrangement of alphabets. Each word evolves along our history and has meanings that we collectively agree upon and recognise.

But, beyond these commonly ascribed meanings, words also hold meanings specific to an individual. There are some words that I use because of the memories they bring; the joy, comfort and solace they offer; the pain and lessons they remind.

In my poem, Definitions of a Long-Kang noun, I recalled how one friend was described – most unflatteringly – by a Yale Political Science professor as having an ‘iron grin’. That image had thrust itself into my mind and demanded its inclusion.

This same phrase, however, would be read differently by readers, all with their unique perspectives and experiences. A materials engineer would understand this differently from a psychologist. Therein lies the resonance of poetry.

Poetic words should carry a multitude of meanings so that they can speak to everyone.


Words can be so much. In the quiet economy of poems, they are everything.

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