poets and technology – the thesaurus?

I’m probably going to come across as a cave-person, but I confess it’s only been about a year and a half since I started using a thesaurus while writing poetry. And I never used a book thesaurus – went straight to the online thesaurus. I’m pretty sure it’s made a huge difference to the speed and facility of my writing. I always know the right word as soon as I see it in a thesaurus, but I don’t always have all the available words immediately accessible in my own mind. The thesaurus brings that pool to me instantly, with almost no effort on my part. Pre-thesaurus, I suppose I must have either gone with less than optimal word choices, or waited around for time to push the right word up to the surface.

Of course, there are two issues here – one revolves around the question of using a thesaurus at all, and the other around using an online version rather than a book version. The second is obviously by far the least significant – a question not of paradigm shift but of degree of convenience.

But now I’m wondering what the the invention of the thesaurus (Roget’s, the first one, was only published in 1852) did for poetry? How many poets use a thesaurus when composing? The reason I think it’s significant is because I recall this paragraph cited in this post (am substituting ‘poetry’ for ‘music’ – italics mine):

…human composers draw on a huge amount of data when they sit down to write a piece of music. “We don’t start with a blank slate,” [Cope] said. “In fact, what we do in our brains is take all the music we’ve heard in our life, segregate out what we don’t like, and try to replicate [the music we like] while making it our own.” What separates great composers from the rest of us, he says, is the ability to accurately compile that database, remember it, and manipulate it into new patterns.

In other words, the more that your accessible memory contains, the bigger your advantage as a composer. Surely that principle applies to words, the raison d’etre of poetry?

The thesaurus comes along as a big cheat, then – like a sort of external hard drive, or additional RAM purchased on the side. It gives would-be poets with smaller natural RAMs – who would have been non-competitive or less competitive in pre-thesaurus days – the same advantage as their more gifted peers with huge natural RAMs.

Works for me!

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7 thoughts on “poets and technology – the thesaurus?

  1. Nico Bethel says:

    I use thesauri for poetry, and for other writing too, but for poetry particularly. I’ve used them ever since I discovered Roget’s, the book version, hardbacked and red-black-and-yellow, with close-spaced, little print in columns, like a Bible. I still prefer the book version. More why below.

    I disagree about the thesaurus as a cheat. How does one learn words to dump into one’s RAM anyway? It’s the human equivalent of programming, or compiling the database, isn’t it?

    What I like about the book version (Roget’s, not any of the other, ersatz ones) is the organization of the words (which is intuitive rather than alphabolical) and the fact that you can see them all at once, at a glance, which helps spark ideas that you wouldn’t have had otherwise. Computer ones are second-best because you have to scroll. You don’t have that chunk of related words before you, in their little print and their columns, to spark all the ideas they can spark. It’s a question of priming the pump (to use a 19th century trope) or (to use a 21st century one) putting in the right keywords for the search.

    What I like about the online version (thesaurus.com is the Roget’s version, but since I pay for Webster’s as a dictionary I use that one too — rarely do I use the built-in one) is that it’s a heckuvalot faster than the book one. But it still doesn’t spark the same sparks.

    Cheers.

  2. Dave Bonta says:

    I sometimes use a thesaurus — paper or online — when writing poetry, but I almost never find the right word in it. What happens is that the action of looking at lists of words distracts me enough for the right word to appear.

  3. Nico Bethel says:

    The last time I really worked with the thesaurus was to find the synonyms whose sounds were right for the poem. I liked the result. Found the right words, though I didn’t know before they were right.

    I like Dave’s idea, too though. That tends to be how online thesauri work for me.

    Thesaurus. Sounds like a dinosaurus.

  4. Juliana says:

    I rarely use a thesaurus for poetry, but when I do, it’s typically to make sure the word I am using actually has the exact connotation I want and that there isn’t a more exact synonym.

  5. Mike Snider says:

    Not a cheat – but I think (and think it more in the spirit of Cope’s remarks) that having many poems and many more lines of poetry by heart is more useful to a poet than having an especially large vocabulary.

    Here’s Robert Graves:

    You learned Lear’s Nonsense Rhymes by heart, not rote;
    You learned Pope’s Iliad by rote, not heart;
    These terms should be distinguished if you quote
    My verses, children – keep them poles apart –
    And say the man a liar who says I wrote
    All I that I wrote in love for love of art.”

  6. Shelley says:

    What I’ve learned from my students’ almost inevitable wrong word choice based on the thesaurus: isn’t it wonderful how each word exists within and draws life from a nimbus of connotations and subtexts and playful/evil/quirky undertones so that its actual “definition” is almost secondary?

    But my writing uses the simplest of language. No thesaurus.

  7. Perhaps ‘cheat’ *is* too strong a word. I like Nico’s point about the word synergy the thesaurus can create through the groupings themselves. Thanks, all, for stopping by!

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