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  • Writer's pictureKen Chamlee

Choose Your Words Carefully

Poets know every word requires deliberation—is it the exact denotation, the right connotation? Does it have a sound value resonant to other words, seem part of the rhythmic flow? Is the language appropriate in tone and diction? Some choices are made in process, of course, many others in revision.

But what if you got only one shot at the right word? Once written, no changes. And what if you could write only one word a day? The pace would seem agonizing. Would you conceive the poem in the mind first, or let each day lead you to the next word?

In the November 1997 National Geographic, photographer Jim Brandenburg published “North Woods Journal,” a photo essay I never tire of revisiting. Brandenburg explains what he attempted: “I had set myself the challenge that for 90 days between the autumnal equinox and winter solstice I would make only one photograph a day. There would be no second exposure, no second chance.” Understand that this is the pre-digital era, using 35mm transparency film, the 36-exposure roll staying in the camera until all shots are taken. He didn’t know how the shots came out until the film was processed.

The amazing results of that self-imposed experiment are evident in the beautiful variations of scope and detail: a close up of peeling paper birch, a lake/sky sunset with swimming loons, a wolf’s bloody pawprint in snow. Brandenburg had to think about varying his subject matter, the time of day, using a close-up or wide-angle lens, creating a careful composition or a spontaneous action shot. There’s some of each in the ninety frames. How exquisitely he understood his craft to make such choices, every click a finality. Each exposure on film is complete—it either tells a story, captures a moment, or does not.

I have tried to imagine a comparable poetic challenge. As I asked above, one word a day? One line? One sentence? Reading/writing one word at a time, at such a pace, a poem would seem interminable. We don’t have to be that deliberately slow. But we should be that deliberate. Don’t settle for words that are out of focus, broad phrases that need to be cropped. Too much foreground? Zoom in and get to the point.

Luckily, the world doesn’t have to see our drafts, our poor exposures. We can take our blurts and Photoshop them into crafted revisions—sharpening here, applying contrast there, highlighting what’s needed and dodging what’s not. It’s an art we practice, using a palette of words. Choose carefully.

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