Friday, January 29, 2021

Poetry Friday: Dictionary Time Travel

This month's challenge was a fun one:  using your birth year, tap into the Merriam-Webster "Time Traveler" site to generate a list of words new to the dictionary that year. Write a poem (any form) from the result. Here's a screenshot of some of "my" words:  

Words, words, words...

First of all, the complete list of words from 1963 was eye-opening. Who knew zip code wasn't in the dictionary until then? And while some words have gone out of style (phat and snarf) and some tech out of use (dot-matrix printer, anyone?) others words have become ordinary (mind game, upscale, scam.) 

Beyond that, though, this challenge sparked a discussion among the Poetry Sisters about word choices, and how language can be behind or ahead of cultural change. For example, sexism was officially recognized by M-W in 1963. Of course, sexism has existed since the beginning of time, but being able to name it was a sign we were also seeing it more clearly. Maybe. (For an explanation of what "first use" of a word means, see here.

The challenge, though, was not just about words. It was about how to use them in a to create something more than a word salad (not a 1963 word, that's 1904.) For example, was writing a sonnet possible with vocabulary like "checkbook journalism" and "support hose" or was free verse the only answer to employing such sore thumb choices? Should we select words that already had something in common (sports words or culturally-charged ones or medical jargon) or should we string words along a personal narrative of memories from our year? 

As usual, having so many choices didn't make the challenge easier. Liz called her first attempt kin to making modern art. Mine was more like graffiti. (Graffiti as a noun---1945, graffiti as a verb---1964.) 

In the end, I found structure in a definition poem. Perhaps an obvious choice for a dictionary challenge, but I didn't plan it that way. As I told my Poetry Sisters, I rarely start with a plan...I write in order to find out what my plan IS. And after some scrounging (1909) and scrawling (1612!) this poem wanted to talk to me about love.  

1963 words are in purple.

Love is….

Love is not a bully 

pulpit or a bodysuit

zipped to fit. It’s not 

mind game.

Not a mini-series, bent

on one-upping itself. 

Love is a space walk. 

Love is a play-action

pass. Love is phat. But oh,

my dragon fruit, love is 

passing rare. We’ll fall off 

the leaderboard. We’ll be

the after-burn of slings

and arrows. We’ll be 

elevator music. What a

dirty trick, and yet…

there we fly, doubled

on a banana seat bike, 

plastic fronds thwapping

from the handlebars. We

ride because love is 

a gut check. Love has

no delete key. Love is 


           ------Sara Lewis Holmes (all rights reserved) 

My poetry sisters time-traveling poems can be found here:







Poetry Friday is hosted today by Bookseed Studio.