Sean Pryor

Some Questions about the Use of Diction in Poetry

Daniel’s excellent essay makes possible many further thoughts, for which I’m very grateful. In particular, for me, it raised these very preliminary questions.

What may poems do to or with the dialectics, vocabularies, and languages which they incorporate, and what may this active use of diction mean for its function as an index of collective experience or social life? The code-switching between two poems by Paul Dunbar and within a single poem by Sterling A. Brown is a good example: neither high lyric diction nor black dialect is the inevitable, unthinking language of any of these works; each language has been knowingly chosen and deployed. What, in turn, might Keats be said to be doing with “birds” and “sing” in that extraordinary two-beat line? Can even the most canonical of English lyrics be said to use and so in some sense to separate itself from lyric diction? If lyric diction seems to presume a false universality, just as the lyric subject appears to offer universality in and through a single individual, in Keats’s poem that presumption is complicated by the split between two subjects. There is the speaker, with whom we might, as a matter of the structure of the lyric, be customarily invited to identify. But there is also the lonely knight-at-arms, with whose emotional experience we might equally seem invited to identify. Moreover, both knight and speaker utter that same two-beat line. In what sense, then, does the knight knowingly deploy the speaker’s lyric diction? Even when the speaker first sings the line, no bird sings and the line falls short. A language is shared between knight and speaker, but the poem does not offer or impose that language as right, necessary, and universal.

These are questions about the use of diction in a poem, and they involve interpretation and judgement. This may mean considering the provenance and usage of the words which poems use. It may also mean considering the difference between two uses of a single word. Might a word’s significance as an index to social life, or to a particular configuration of individual and collective experience, change within a single poem, and sometimes change drastically? Might this in turn be an aspect of diction with which quantitative methods of distant reading are yet to grapple, or with which they will necessarily struggle to grapple, since it requires interpretation and judgement?

And yet, finally, to what extent are all these questions grounded in a particular conception of the poem, a conception which we may well wish to query? To ask whether even the most canonical of English lyrics separates itself from the lyric diction which it has come to exemplify may rest on an idea of the poem as always already ironic. Such a poem seems always knowing, its every feature knowingly chosen and deployed. But is that justified, or desirable? Daniel’s essay suggests that attention to diction represents a significant limit for that too quick, too easy approach to reading and valuing poems.



Sean Pryor teaches at the University of New South Wales, and is the author of Poetry, Modernism, and an Imperfect World (2017).