Ever since I started writing poetry seriously, I’ve wished for an app that does a very specific thing: show me how many of which words I’ve used. Words are important to poems — I mean, come on — and any poet worth her salt wants to be sure she has not let any word overstay its welcome. If I say a tree is “massive” in stanza one, I don’t want to use that word in stanza five to describe a storm, or stanza seven to point out how large the lumberjack’s thighs are. Of course there’s a time for repetition, and if this is the time, then you can use those words over and over and it’s fine. (I guess. After all, they rhyme, but not really — your poetic license does not make it legal to rhyme a words with itself. But you could make a very funny poem if you used “massive” over and over, because you want to.)
Long, quirky words will stand out, and I should be able to notice when I’ve already used “persnickety” or “shenanigans” in a poem as I sit at my desk wanting to use it fourteen lines down. But there are other words, so many other words, that I just do not want to repeat. So why is there no app you can pour a poem into and then, magically (but not really — really, it’s digitally, which just seems like magic at times) find out which word I used the most (“a,” “an,” “the,” “amazing”), and so on down the line to the quirky words like “shindig” or “kaleidescope,” which I hope I would only use once.
For example, let’s take Maggie Smith’s brilliant poem “Good Bones”
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
I’m trying to imagine being the writer of this poem, and how I might wonder, “Did I already use the word ‘broken’?” Of course it should be obvious she purposely repeats phrases like “life is short,” and “this place could be beautiful” — these are the point, after all. But a poet wants to do these things deliberately, not find later she’s done something she never meant to do.
So I tried counting the most-used words in this poem, and found three instances each of “every,” “world,” and “life,” and four of “short” and “children.” But is there another frequent repeat I just can’t see? To do even this, I had to use the “find” app, but that only works if you plug in every word in the poem, or the ones that catch your eye in a quick skim. A quick skim is not a good way to revise. Well, it can be helpful, but only if you want a general sense of the thing, how it looks, how it scans. The writer can be pretty sure she only used the words “realtor” and “shithole” once, but what about “delicious”? What about “broken”?
Wouldn’t it be great if you could pour the whole thing into a funnel and have it come out like a word cloud, only stacked in order? Yes, it would. It would be fantastic. Until somebody invents this simple tool, I need an assistant to do it. Anyone?