Thursday, August 31, 2006

One-Word Poems and Dictionaries

During my first semester in college, Jonathan Katz, one of the poets on the faculty at Wichita State, made the two and a half-hour trip north to Cloud County Community College to read his poems, some of which included one-word poems. I have come up with some of my own one-word poems over the years, and I have included them below. A word qualifies as a one-word poem if it resonates with meaning--literal and, occasionally, figurative. It is the reader’s responsibility to ascertain the denotation for each word if it isn’t already known. Each poem acquires even greater significance if you can add where you first encountered the word. I encountered the word callipygian in Catch 22; rime comes from Dr. Zhivago, and mizzle comes from a Thomas Hardy novel.

One to Two Syllable One-Word Poems


Multi-Syllabic One-Word Poems


Ultimately, these kinds of poems cause the reader to return to the dictionary with renewed interest. As an onground instructor, I encouraged my students to make a close friend of their dictionary. I even set aside a few minutes in my first-semester composition classes to have the class learn more about dictionaries and to evaluate the ones that they brought to class. Students usually left class that day resolved to buy a larger dictionary.

When I was taking a linguistics class at Wichita State as an undergraduate, I became aware of how deficient my own dictionary was. I was using a college edition of the Webster’s New World, one that was copyrighted in 1964. When my dad gave it to me in 1965, he inscribed it with the following comment, “May you one day have knowledge of most of the contents of this book.” By 1979, I recognized the necessity of acquiring a dictionary with a more detailed pronunciation key and with more words than the 142,000 in the older Webster’s New World.

After my summer class in linguistics had ended, I was browsing through a secondhand bookstore on West Douglas when I discovered a first edition of the unabridged Random House, priced for $15.00, and copyrighted 1969. I lugged that ten-pound dictionary home on the bus and kept it near me when I was studying or even just watching television, occasionally looking up a word that I heard but didn’t know. Sometimes I found enough entertainment opening up the dictionary on a table in front of me and randomly flipping from one page to another, making a new discovery on each page.

Although I later acquired the second edition of the unabridged Random House, it has never carried the same emotional attachment as the first edition. Its cloth cover now contains several rips along the length of its spine and is about ready to fall off; even so, that first edition remains a treasured book in my library. It helped me get through college at a time when I had doubts that I would ever finish my undergraduate degree.

Instead of using an abridged dictionary now, I have my needs met by a recent edition of the Random House Webster’s, College Dictionary. It’s only those more obscure words, like omphaloskepsis, that cause me to open one of the unabridged dictionaries.

My kid will eventually inherit these dictionaries of mine. He currently much prefers to use the Internet when asked to look up words in Language Arts. He hasn’t yet learned the tactile pleasure of rubbing his hands over the open pages of an unabridged dictionary.