No Such Thing as Bad Words

“The dose makes the poison.”


In response to my recent analysis of the frequency of words used in past issues of Poetry magazine, current editor Don Share issued me a good-humoured challenge:

So, I analysed 395 poems from 13 issues of Poetry edited by Don Share from October 2013 to November 2014.

I was at first surprised to discover that the nature of the results are not substantially different than those of the nearly 3,000 past issues.

The average poem is 92 words in length (again, once stop words have been excluded), containing 14% of words in the top-100 and 24% of words that were only used once across the 395 poems analysed.

Here are the top 25 words:

  1. time (137)
  2. light (104)
  3. night (94)
  4. long (93)
  5. love (93)
  6. man (92)
  7. eyes (92)
  8. white (89)
  9. world (87)
  10. face (83)
  11. air (82)
  12. left (81)
  13. black (79)
  14. water (78)
  15. head (76)
  16. life (75)
  17. day (71)
  18. hand (69)
  19. people (69)
  20. wind (68)
  21. inside (65)
  22. sea (64)
  23. red (62)
  24. things (61)
  25. lost (60)

I found this surprising because Don is, by reputation and in my experience, one of the most interesting and innovative editors around. He’s undeniably on the pulse of contemporary poetry. So why do these words seem like they come from the poems of a century ago?

I think the answer is pretty simple: there no bad words in poetry, only the overuse of “poetry words” in any single poem. No single poem analysed used even a fraction of the top twenty five, and I know that on average the majority of words (80-90%) in most poems were not from these top words. Furthermore, a substantial percentage of words showed up only once across all poems, which demonstrates a high degree of linguistic innovation.

Cumulatively, though, these words do keep showing up in poetry (and in Poetry). What is equally interesting to me is the idea that a certain number–in fact, just the right number–of these words may be sometimes necessary to make a poem what it is. These words are like salt–a little bit seasons things, but too much can ruin the dish.

Frequently-used words are used frequently for a reason. These words are terse, expressive, and acquired early in life. They hold a power that, if overused, derails our trust in the author, and defuses our interest in the poem.

Yet they also seem to be some of the great workhorses of our language. So, to me the moral here is: don’t be afraid to use them; but don’t wear these poor creatures out.

Good poems make use of the range of our language the way good painters make use of the range of their palette. To scoff at a composer choosing C-major or a painter choosing pure red is to miss the essentials of technique, context, and intention.

For this reason, to me, there are no bad words, only words used badly.

(Click here to read an analysis of my own poetry using the same methodology.)