The Word I Couldn’t Leave

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:  light, love, body, life, star(s), dream.  And, of course, worldworld 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 has already been written.

(Image from here.)

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About Michael Klein

MICHAEL KLEIN’s latest book of poems, "then, we were still living" (GenPop Books), was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. His first book, "1990", tied with James Schuyler to win the award in 1993. A collection of short, lyric essays, "States of Independence" just won the 2011 BLOOM Chapbook contest in non-fiction judged by Rigoberto Gonzalez and will be published in the fall of 2012. Recent work appears in Fence, Tin House, Lumina and Ocean State Review. And his new book of poems, "The Talking Day", will be published in 2013 by Sibling Rivalry Press. He teaches in the MFA Program at Goddard College in Vermont and has a blog at
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4 Responses to The Word I Couldn’t Leave

  1. jane wohl says:

    I’ve done this… and it does make you see things differently.. really see and really hear things.. it’s not just perseveration
    or maybe it is perseveration, but in a good way


  2. Meg Kallman Feeley, Florida Atlantic U says:

    I’ve often found myself oddly obsessed with concordances — it seems odd and beautiful to me that some folks, in the past, before we had software that would search documents so quickly, were sufficiently intrigued by this question and would count, and publish those counts . . . a ‘concordance.’ Now, I think I might try to write a series of poems with that as a title . . . . Concordances. Needs the plural “sez” at the end to riff on what the ‘chord says.’ But more, the sound of — world is also whirled . . . I was teaching Colum McCann’s *Let the Great World Spin* this past year, and had to explain the chapter title, “This is the House that Horse Built,” — what the word ‘horse’ meant, in the druggy sense; how it was a play on nearby Yankee’s Stadium as “The House that Ruth Built,” but I never heard the term “horse” as in “Whores” — “This is the House that Whores Built,” (which makes sense) until a student pointed it out. Eric Darton used to talk about this — a title I had for a short play “Bagels” which he spelled “Bay Gulls” and, indeed, there was a whole lot of water in it. I even played with this in my dissertation, in progress, wholly non-fiction, environmental history, for pete’s sake — but there’s a bit on the poetics of bridges and keys. Fun to think about.

  3. Ann says:

    A visual way to do this is through Wordle ( I ran a large section of my latest book through it and compared it with a similar selection from my last one. Something about the visual appearance of the words–the more you use a word, the larger it appears in the text art–was aesthetically appealing and felt less like “driving my truck into the same dumb tract of mud” than just counting appearances.

    But you came to the most fundamentally right conclusion anyway.

  4. Ann Hedreen says:

    It’s interesting to think about how differently we read at different ages. “World” might jump out now, when I’m reading a poem or essay or story, in the way that “I” and “you” were such freighted words when I was 20.