Poetry: Word Choice

“What’s in a name?” William Shakespeare asked this question more than 400 years ago and poets are still puzzling over it. Read this exchange between the Bard’s famous star-crossed lovers (at right) and remember when you first heard it.

By Juliet’s logic, a rose would smell like a rose even if it had been dubbed a turnip, and Romeo would still be Romeo even if we changed his name to Hank. But is this true? “O Hank, Hank! wherefore art thou Hank” It doesn’t have the same ring.

There’s something in the name Romeo—those three sweet, open syllables—that our English-speaking ears have come to love. No one-syllable Fred, no matter how beautiful of mind, body and spirit, will do. Even if we substituted another three-syllable name more fitting to the times, Christopher, for instance, we hear right away what it lacks. Partly it’s the erotic quality of the Italian language and its lilting syllabics and luscious Latinate endings. Benvolio and Mercutio, Romeo’s friends, also have poly-syllabic names that end in that lovely, open “o.” But only Romeo possesses the particular combination of the warm romantic “R,” mellifluous “m” and rolling “o’s,” so sensual to say and hear.

Shakespeare is always asking us to consider the questions he’s asking, right down to the last syllable.

The poet I’d like to consider today is a contemporary American poet named Suzanne Cleary. She asks the question, What’s in a word? in her poem “Anyways” (at right).

It’s especially enjoyable to read the poem aloud to hear the rhythms, internal rhymes and alliteration, as well as the snippets of dialogue and fascinating groupings of facts and assertions, and of course, the repetition of the word “anyways,” used no fewer than 14 times. Most importantly though, this is a poem about identity and connection: to ourselves, to our past, to our family history and to the difficulties of including the other into our tightly knit lives. It’s a poem about relationships and about asserting who we are from the very beginning. It’s important to note that the poem tells us right away that the poet married this man, in spite of the differences between them. And it’s also important to recognize with that last word, “regardless,” that the speaker of the poem knows what’s proper usage and what’s not, but makes her own choices. What’s in a word? This poem tells us: almost everything.  [WD]

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo    
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

[Aside.] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;—
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title:—Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.

I take thee at thy word:
Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptiz’d;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.

                      for David

Anyone born anywhere near
     my home town says it this way,
          with an s on the end:
               “The lake is cold but I swim in it anyways,”
          “Kielbasa gives me heartburn but I eat it anyways,”
     “(She/he) treats me bad, but I love (her/him) anyways.”
Even after we have left that place
     and long settled elsewhere, this
          is how we say it, plural.
               I never once, not once, thought twice about it
          until my husband, a man from far away,
      leaned toward me, one day during our courtship,
his grey-green eyes, which always sparkle,
     doubly sparkling over our candle-lit meal.
          “Anyway,” he said. And when he saw
               that I didn’t understand, he repeated the word:
          “Anyway. Way, not ways.”
      Corner of napkin to corner of lip, he waited.
I kept him waiting. I knew he was right,
     but I kept him waiting anyways,
          in league, still, with me and mine:
               Slovaks homesick for the Old Country their whole lives
          who dug gardens anyways,
      and deep, hard-water wells.
I looked into his eyes, their smoky constellations,
     and then I told him. It is anyways, plural,
          because the word must be large enough
     to hold all of our reasons. Anyways is our way
of saying there is more than one reason,
     and there is that which is beyond reason,
          that which cannot be said.
               A man dies and his widow keeps his shirts.
          They are big but she wears them anyways.
     The shoemaker loses his life savings in the Great Depression
but gets out of bed, every day, anyways.
     We are shy, my people, not given to storytelling.
          We end our stories too soon, trailing off “Anyways….”
               The carpenter sighs, “I didn’t need that finger anyways.”
          The beauty school student sighs, “It’ll grow back anyways.”
     Our faith is weak, but we go to church anyways.
The priest at St. Cyril’s says God loves us. We hear what isn’t said.
     This is what he must know about me, this man, my love.
          My people live in the third rainiest city in the country,
               but we pack our picnic baskets as the sky darkens.
          We fall in love knowing it may not last, but we fall.
     This is how we know home:
someone who will look into our eyes
     and say what could ruin everything, but say it,

—“Anyways” is reprinted with permission from Trick Pear (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2007) and was included in the 2005 Pushcart Prize XXIX: Best of Small Presses.

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