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!