I didn’t know how obsessed I was with the world – with the actual word world – until I went through my last book of poems and saw that I used the word at least 30 times.  Actually, another poet told me I used it 30 times but of course I went back and counted the words myself (because they were my words) to see if this was true.  I’d never done anything like that – count how many times a word got used.  I wonder if other poets do this?

Thirty times is a lot of instances of world in my book then, we were still living.  And when I looked at my poetry that way – when I sieved through language and the pages it filled until a single word dropped through – I saw the word world not only as a liability or a bad habit or an obvious obsession but also as the literary equivalent of a facial tick.

Where had my imagination gone?

Why was I driving my truck into the same dumb tract of mud so many times?


My tires were stuck in it and now for the 30th-something time.

My eyes were glazed by a word I couldn’t leave.

* * * * *

There are many ways to look into a poem, particularly when you’re the one who wrote it.  I don’t think readers are very interested in reading a poem more than the one way they read it but writers almost always have to look in different directions or they wouldn’t get any revision done.  Revising a poem goes from East to West across the page, and also North to South up and down the page.

I know that looking for cases of the world (or, if you desire, love or star or sky) in anybody’s poem isn’t a good way to look at poems because when that happens you aren’t reading poetry, you’re looking at it.  When I turned away from looking at the 30th instance of world, I realized – and not too unhappily – that at its core, my book was actually about the word it kept repeating.  My book was about loving something too large and too dangerous.  My book was about how much of the world I could, we could, actually hold.

This sudden knowledge seemed like an important aspect of a second book because my previous book had been more about the “I” and with the realization of so many world occurrences, then, we were still living seemed beyond (if that’s the right word) the knowledge in the first book.  The second book was looking past one’s own sense of being and more toward a sense of time, of history.  The self became a moving part in a larger body.

Since I counted how many times I used a particular word in a book of poems, I’ve gone to other books and found that there are (not surprisingly) certain words that get repeated over and over again:  lightlovebodylife, star(s), dream.  And, of course, world – world more than planet or earth or orb.  Could it be that these common words built like a kind of alphabet into so many books of poetry are the first words that civilization used to figure out who we are?  What we are?  And where we are?

My first book of poems, 1990 uses the word light a lot.  I know from counting how many times world appeared in the second book that light probably appears just as many times in the first book so I didn’t bother counting exactly how many times it’s there.  What I do know is that my particular version of the Book of Light was a book I wouldn’t have to write, as it had already been written.

The Word I Couldn’t Leave
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MICHAEL KLEIN’s third book of poems, “The Talking Day” (Sibling Rivalry Press) is both a Thom Gunn Award Finalist and a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. His second book, “then, we were still living” (GenPop Books), was a Lambda Literary Award finalist and his first book, “1990”, tied with James Schuyler’s Collected Poems to win the award in 1993. His new book, "When I Was a Twin" will be published in the fall of 2015 by Sibling Rivalry Press. He also has written a collection of short, lyric essays, “States of Independence” which won the 2011 BLOOM Chapbook contest in non-fiction judged by Rigoberto Gonzalez and was published in 2012 and two memoirs “Track Conditions” (Lambda Literary Award finalist) and “The End of Being Known”, both published by the University of Wisconsin Press. His poems, essays and interviews with American poets have appeared in POETRY, American Poetry Review, BLOOM, Fence, Tin House, Ploughshares, Provincetown Arts, Poets & Writers and many other publications. He has taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College, Binghamton University, Manhattanville and for the last 15 years has been part of the writing faculty at Goddard College, in Vermont. For many years he was on the faculty of the summer program at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was a fellow in 1990 and now teaches at Castle Hill Center for the Arts in Truro, Massachusetts. He lives in New York City and Provincetown, Massachusetts. Find him at: http://www.hauntedimportantly.com. @boypoet
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One thought on “The Word I Couldn’t Leave

  • November 12, 2018 at 9:38 pm

    Hi Michael: Thanks for this reflection on language in (your) poetry. I happen to agree with you that certain words seem to have formed the building blocks of artistic language, just as certain objects appear in paintings throughout history. It felt good to think of this some more. I think I use the word “grace” a lot in mine, and maybe even “God.” I always thought too much, but now I kind of like to think of it as a trademark, or maybe a frame through which I see the “world” (joke intended). Anyway, I graduated from Goddard in 1998 and stopped writing for many years, but I’m at it again at age 62. Final thought: Your prose has always struck me as poetry. I love your memoir “Track Conditions” for that reason. It told a story but the language had a such a gorgeous flow to it. I’ll check out your “world” poetry now. Hope all is well with you.(I still correspond with Nora Mitchell; can you believe it? Twenty. years later!)

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