Musings + Essays


By: Jen Shoop

“What did you study in grad school?” I was recently, rather startlingly, asked.  It’s been some time since I have spoken about my studies at Georgetown University (the above picture is the exact corner of campus I think about when asked about Georgetown — I walked down this corridor maybe a thousand times en route to class), or since anyone has cared to ask, since I’m nearly ten years out and wildly out of practice when it comes to speaking academese.  I reached for my pat reply:

“High modernist poetry and poetics.”

“Poetics,” repeated my conversation mate.  He looked over at me inquiringly.  “Poetics?”

“Oh–” I interjected apologetically, suddenly feeling like an incorrigible snot, like that time I haughtily tossed around Ezra Pound’s name during a cocktail party .  “Poetics meaning the strategy and art that goes into writing poetry.  Sort of — the mechanics that poets use.”  He nodded, turning his mouth into an upside down “u” as he seemed to mull it over for plausibility.

His reaction made me think for a minute about the necessity of using “poetics” in that sentence.  Wouldn’t poetry have sufficed just as well, implicit as it was that, given my degree, I was studying more than just the words on a page?  And what about the modifier “high”?  Had I really needed to distinguish between flavors of modernism for the purpose of this polite conversation?

Yes, I ultimately decided.  Yes, I had.  I’d used technically correct, exacting language, and the gentleman across from me was bright, inquisitive, well-educated.  I don’t think an orthopedic surgeon would have “dumbed down” her response to an analogous inquiry as to her medical chops by describing herself as “a body doctor,” and though the tenor of his query had been mildly reproachful, I ultimately denied any transgression on my end.  On further thought, I also doubted whether I’d registered his tone correctly: had it been reproach or, possibly, curiosity?  And if the latter, had I done him a small kindness in glossing the word for him on the spot?  And if the former, had I redeemed myself regardless by proving that I had used the word knowingly, carefully?

What say you, chorus?

I’ve written recently on the weight of words — on the importance of taking care with language, of looking into the provenance of words, of observing the cultural and social norms and frictions around their exercise.  And I’ve also written recently in defense of “the lowbrow,” staking an implicit anti-snob claim that might be at odds with my cleaving to the jargon of literary study above.  And, many months back, I wrote a little piece on “the way language can occasionally, in the subtlest but cruelest of ways, fence people in and out.

Suffice to say that I have been hard at work in the project of thinking about language as not only a means for self-expression, but as a mirror for many of the cultural and social frictions of our times, and sometimes I discover I land in a different spot, looking at the expanse of language from a different mount, observing some new formation or distribution in its topography.

Today I feel strongly that I needn’t have shied away from using the mot juste, even if it might have caused temporary dissonance on the listener’s end, as I was using it without pretense and with an aim at specificity.  I’ve just recently finished the page-turning non-fiction book Nemesis, on Jackie and Aristotle Onassis’s complex and salacious life together, and I felt that the author was occasionally affected in his diction, using European phrases like “cri de coeur” and “mariage blanc” and “vilet de pied” that, taken together, imply Peter Evans’ worldliness, his cultivation.  I love French words, too, and will use them in my English writing — above, I used the phrase “mot juste” unblinkingly because it was the simplest, most direct conveyance — but I found myself lingering over his repeated applications from time to time: yes, the phrase mariage blanc was deployed perfectly in such-and-such case, but cri de coeur was used four or five times in the book, and I’m unconvinced that the phrase was additive to all but one or two of the occasions.  Meanwhile, or on the other hand, there are words like jurisprudence and ecclesiastical, which have the feel of pretense but are in fact beautifully precise, a generosity to the reader.  In short, I feel that there are distinctions to be made between ostentation and exactitude in writing — slender, delicate ones, for sure, but they abide.

Where do you land on this topic?  Have you ever stared down the question of whether to swap a simpler word for a more technically correct one?  What’s at stake?  (And are there gender/age dynamics at play in these interactions, too?)


+This breezy dress has the look of a higher-end piece from The Reformation.

+A chic bathmat, especially for a bathroom with black and white subway tile, or outfitted in St. Frank style.

+Sorry for the refeature, but I can’t get over the drama of this little white blouse!  Brides!!!  Chop chop!

+This khaki linen peplum top has an understated Grace-Kelly-on-safari elegance that I can’t stop thinking about.

+A chic personalized gift for a lady in your life.

+On your mark?  Get set?  GO.  This shirt will sell out in 1.2 seconds.  So chic!

+A far more affordable way to get the look of that Karla Colletto one-piece I’ve been drooling over.

+Against many of your suggestions, I picked up this beach read (described to me as “a rom com in written form”) after finishing Nemesis because I wanted a palette cleanser before diving into this.  It is rather prurient reading, but I do appreciate this: the book shuttles between the perspective of a woman and a man falling in love with one another and their tender and anxious concerns about how they are being perceived by one another ring true to me.

P.S.  One of my favorite posts.  I miss my grandfather when I read it, and it also leaves me optimistic for my future in writing.

P.P.S.  How to get a seriously good blowout at home.

P.P.P.S.  A love letter to you.

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19 thoughts on “Poetics.

  1. I think you are well within your rights to describe your degree (YOUR! degree) how you see fit, especially when asked directly about it. I love what Claire said below about hating the idea of language getting ever smaller — I’m in the same camp. I love that your blog has taught me new words in addition to new ways of thinking! Please don’t change.

    Oooh, I will be so curious to read your review of The Wedding Date — I hope you’ll include it in your next book roundup! I’ve been curious about it (that Roxane Gay blurb, as I think we’ve discussed before!) but have heard such mixed reviews. Also excited to hear more about Nemesis — going to add it to my queue!

    1. Oh man, MK. I am not sure what to make of / say about The Wedding Date. About a third of the way through the book, it turns into a full-on adult novel. There are elements to like about the book in a meta sense, in that the lead female character is well-educated (a lawyer), successful at and invested in her work, and highly emotionally alive — all things that make her more human despite the fact that some of the situations she gets herself into and plot happenings feel ultra-contrived. I don’t know what to think right now…

      Thanks also for your notes on the language inquiry above — I completely agree with your note on our shrinking language!

  2. I’ll add my vote to the specificity > simplicity camp! Where it gets greyer for me is the use of fancier words where plainer ones will do. On the one hand, I don’t want to exclude; on the other, fancy words have rights too! (Or, histories, anyhow—and I hate the idea of language getting ever smaller.)
    But back to your case: you were explaining what you’d studied, and accuracy demanded “poetics.” Which is a new word for me! And adds color to your earlier Haney references (hearing him read in Cambridge was maybe the closest I’ve come to a religious experience.).

    1. Hi Claire! You bring up a really good point here — there’s the old Orwell adage: “never use a more complex word when a simpler one will do,” but then there are aesthetics to contend with. When you used the word “logjam” in that piece on NYC that I can’t stop reading, it struck me as the absolute perfect word choice from a musical standpoint: I loved the way it sounded in that sentence. Just right. You would have been doing yourself a disservice by saying “clump of people” or something less aesthetically evocative.

      Oh my, Heaney — borderline religious is just right. I’ll never forget the cast of silence across the standing-room-only auditorium: not a wrapper, not a whisper, not a shuffling in a seat. We were all mute, transfixed by him reading his own words. It was absolutely magical. And there’s a poet who knew the incredible power of the incantatory when it comes to language!


    2. Not sure how to reply to your reply instead of my og comment but “incredible power of the incantatory” is going to be jangling ’round my head the rest of the day. Thank you for that and for the many kindnesses you’ve heaped on my I <3 NY post!

  3. I believe firmly in using the correct terminology, but at the same time I believe you need to explain things in a way so that the lay person can understand what you’re talking about. This was drilled into me by my advisor in graduate school and I still stick to it now. If you (not you specifically, but the general “you”) can’t explain yourself in words someone outside the field understands, then I remain dubious that you even understand what you’re trying to say. I had so many issues with graduate students who sounded like they could talk the talk, but ask them to explain themselves? Ha.
    (But you, this time indeed the 2nd person “you”, clearly are able to break down the jargon into lay terms!) It drives me NUTS when my husband talks in acronyms (he’s in the Navy) and I am constantly on him to explain himself better. (Gosh, I sound like such a treat.)

    On the let’s-not-sound-like-a-crotchety-old-biddy side, I love those monogrammed tumblers (of course I do) – they’d be perfect for enjoying wine outside!

    1. 100% agree with this. Maybe that should be our informal litmus when choosing to go technical vs. simple in our word choice: could you gloss this word easily when pressed?

      Acronyms! I’ve known many people who overuse them, and I find it gratingly insular, sort of like when people “forget” to take off a badge or wristband or ski pass sticker because they want you to know how important/traveled they are.


  4. I do think this has to do with gender at the very least. I’ve not seen many men shy away from saying exactly what they mean, whether it uses “academese” or not. I’m a connoisseur of words and whenever I come across one that I don’t know (anywhere, including this blog!) I look it up. I love taking the opportunity to learn something new. I think clarity of language is something to work towards since we live in an environment that slang is the norm. People can absolutely be clear and lowbrow at the same time!

    1. Interesting — I tend to agree with you, though I’d not thought much about the gender divide in this until I wrote this little piece. And, also agree on the fact that “clear” and “lowbrow” needn’t be mutually exclusive. Reflecting on this piece and reading these comments, I’m now thinking that appropriate/non-condescending word choice has something to do with the authenticity and intent of the speaker. Sometimes you just know when someone is using a word out of affect!


  5. I think you’re right to describe your degree and course of study accurately, especially in response to a direct question! Presumably, if someone asks you what you studied, they are curious and may appreciate the chance to learn something new about a field of study with which they aren’t familiar. Not only do you give your own work due credit, but you also give the listener’s intellect the benefit of the doubt. As you say, language and words matter. Why not err on the side of precision?

    1. Love this — “you give the listener’s intellect the benefit of the doubt.” This is a separate offshoot of the topic, but I feel similarly when engaging with individuals for whom English is a second language. It can be tempting or even in a certain way natural to simplify your language and nearly mime your meaning, but then you’re making assumptions that might not be accurate or helpful.


  6. This is embarrassing to admit to you, but I flat out lie and say I’m a yoga instructor, to reply to your example. I have noticed, like Miranda on sex in the city, the tenor of the conversation changes noticeably if I tell the truth. Agree with you on gender/age, because interestingly with women my own age and station, particularly those wearing statement earrings I want to know the provenance of (read: you), I go whole hog! Also I would have been mortifyingly interested in the exact semantics and details of your schooling, because to me it is so exotic and elevated!!

    1. So interesting! I know what you mean — in different circles, I find myself describing what I do in different words. When I’m with my blogger friends and other “creatives,” I feel more inclined to say I’m a longform blogger; elsewhere, I’m a writer. Interesting to think about that.


  7. I love this post! New blog reader here, and I’ve been savoring your posts in general, and specifically these ones on language. You write so beautifully and lyrically that I always feel like I’m on a journey with a really adept guide. I’m a writer myself, so maybe that’s why I find those dark alleys of language fascinating. I would say with respect to your first topic, that using a more exact, highbrow description of your degree was not only appropriate in my mind, but perhaps also a feminist opportunity, i.e., one of those small moments where we women can find empowerment in not dumbing down our achievements. Because isn’t it more our tendency to diminish our accomplishments, rather than embellish them? You seem to be a humble, thoughtful person, and why should you not describe your accomplished degree in its fullness? I query whether a man would think twice or lose any sleep over rattling off the same thing.

    Using simple words v. technically complex ones made me think about my own writing, currently a novel, and how my choice of word in any given instance depends on context. I gravitate toward simple language with a smattering of interesting and complex words. If you employ a string of complex words without enough simple ones to cushion them, I think you run the risk of distracting from the story, or the message. So it’s a balance thing in my eyes. And I think you strike the balance well. I appreciate your expansive vocabulary that causes me to pull up a dictionary sometimes and bookmark a word for later use. : )

    1. Thank you, Jaclyn, for this thoughtful note — I agree with your note on the gender aspect of this, as I think that might have been at play here, and also found myself nodding my head when you wrote about blending simple language with more artful/complex ones. Sort of a marriage of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, right?

      Thanks so much for reading along, and for taking the time to write in today. xoxo

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