Are Definitions Necessary?

This past weekend, I attended a reading in Hudson, NY for the poet George Quasha. He read from his book Glossodelia Attracts: Preverbs. Before you look it up, the words “glossodelia” and “preverbs” are not words found in the dictionary. “It’s something I made up,” Quasha said before he began reading. This would be a common aside throughout the reading. I became frustrated with these interjections. The definitions themselves didn’t seem to add anything to my overall understanding of these poems. I wished that he would let the words speak for themselves.

This theme of defining words for readers has arisen a few times during our workshop. I believe that definitions aren’t necessary. They speak to a lack of trust and confidence in writers to let the readers form their own understanding of the poems. Therefore, once the poem is on the page and shared with the world, I believe it is fair game for interpretations.

Word definitions can be constricting. I hate that a word or group of words should possess only one meaning. Words are meant to be versatile! A few classmates and I agreed that when presented with an unknown word, we understood its meaning based on its sound or the way it was spelled before we looked up the meaning in the dictionary.

Quasha’s definitions for his words confined me to a strict (and quite frankly, boring) interpretation of his work. I found myself dissatisfied with his preset prescription of his poems’ meanings. I have spoken to a few readers who have asked, “Is this what the poet intends? Is my reading how it is supposed to be read?” To which I say, there is no right or wrong way to read a text. There are infinite readings of any poem, and ultimately, I disregarded Quasha’s own definitions of “preverbs” and “glossodelia” in place of my own.

3 Replies to “Are Definitions Necessary?”

  1. Hmmm, I like this perspective Maya and I want to agree with you. But I struggle with wanting to claim that definitions aren’t necessary and wanting to communicate effectively to all my readers. I don’t doubt that my readers could interpret the words correctly or as correctly as their experiences and knowledge would allow them. I know for a fact that they can feel the word and give it meaning, though it doesn’t stop me from wanting them to understand me. A poem is very much about the reader and what they make of it, but sometimes, it wants to go beyond that and say “THIS IS ABOUT ME, HERE IS THE PATH AND I WANT YOU TO TREAD ON IT,” (as you can see I like caps lock, it makes me happy). Again, I am going to refer to John’s visit when he mentioned sacrifice in your work. Sacrifice the reader’s comfort for your own intent or sacrifice intent for comfort. All in all, it’s about you and what you want to do for your audiences. Do you want them to think how they have been thinking, or do you want them to think how you think to show them a new light? It can be considered narrow, but then knowledge tends to be that way when taught. I think it’s only once we understand intention and the lesson being taught that we draw and create grander and sometimes deeper conclusions. Nice post!

    1. Yes Carolina, you bring up a great point! You perfectly put into words a part of this problem that I am grappling with: how far can we go with word definitions and background information? It’s true that sometimes outside context is needed. You also call to attention, I think, a difference in intentions. I think in some cases we need context as readers because the writing is so pointed and deliberate, yet my intention in my own work is not to so much to give or teach a lesson but share a series of thoughts and observations.

  2. Hi Maya! This is a great post as, many of the times we’ve discussed this, it’s been in reference to my Whirlwind and first workshop poem. The first time I did the poem, I didn’t send in definitions thinking they were unnecessary and felt that people were affronted in that whirlwind workshop. Many people during that workshop mentioned they were frustrated for not knowing what the words MEAN. But, for the second poem, when I sent in a list of definitions, people were frustrated that I didn’t trust them or – as Dr. Smith pointed out – that my definitions offered only one facet of the words’ meanings.

    I think, honestly, there needs to be a delicate balance struck to reach understanding; one I am still working on in my work. How do we give the word definition within the poem? On the other hand, it’s always a struggle to not make the poem ALL about that one word, and trying to define it. Is a word’s sound still equally resonant if you don’t actually know the meaning?

    I have recently considered writing a small book of poetry about science; I was thinking about all the concepts I would like my readers to be familiar with, from insect biology and geology and meteorology and astrology and chemistry, and realized this would be daunting to the average reader coming to my work. I was considering the idea of a joint poetry-textbook, with poetry on one side, and the idea of the science explained on the other page (like No Fear Shakespeare, but this would be No Fear Science Poetry). Does that display a lack of trust in the reader, or simply a desire to truly communicate the meaning of the poem with more people beyond those who have the knowledge base I am writing with? How far can we, as authors, go in helping our readers truly understand the complexity of our ideas? Can we provide supplementary materials for readers to engage with if they choose (on the opposite page) while allowing them to simply flip past it or not read it (like Chloe with my Word Bank) and still get meaning?

    Goodness knows this clearly isn’t a question I know how to answer, or we wouldn’t have spent two workshops discussing this very difficulty in my poetry. Thanks for bringing this up, for me to share some thoughts!

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