It's a difficult thing to say, "Pass the thesaurus." Especially after a few glasses of wine or in the early hours of the morning, hunched over some poem or other which won't come right. But it's not cheating, I'm told, to beat through its thousand-strong pages, looking for le mot juste. Nor am I alone in reaching for it when the dull or pedestrian is all my brain seems able to turn up on its own. Even one of the most word-rich poets of the last century, Sylvia Plath, is said to have regularly relied on her thesaurus for inspiration, needing to access its wide-ranging and eclectic vocabulary when her own was stumbling about in the dark.
I have long been an admirer of the strange and highly involved delights of the thesaurus, my own 1982 paperback copy of Roget's Thesaurus looking a little worn around the edges now, pages browned and fading, curling up in places. It belonged to my mother before me - another thesaurus-beater and a prolific novelist - who has written in a neat hand on the flyleaf:
This book belongs to Sheila Holland and anyone who borrows or steals it will be CURSED. Signed S. Holland
Opposite, underlined in blue pen, is this sinister addition: DO NOT REMOVE FROM MY STUDY!
She knew her children well. Sorry, mother, but my need was greater. And since you are now dead, I have felt able to write my own name on the flyleaf above yours, as the new and probably not so careful owner.
Of course, it's important not to get sucked down into the bewildering nexus of the thesaurus when you're supposed to be writing. You turn to the book briefly to look something up and become horribly sidetracked. All you wanted was a strong Anglo-Saxon or Latinate word for patterned fabric, and suddenly you have a dozen or more, some needing to be looked up, some marvellously antique, not to mention a few which, if used, might lead your poem off into an entirely new and unanticipated direction. And if you're really lucky, one will be perfect and you can close the book and get on with your writing.
It doesn't always work like that, unfortunately. Sometimes I feel impelled to stop and write some of the word sequences down, perhaps to be used later in the same poem, perhaps to jolt my imagination at some point in the future or remind me of avenues not taken, or perhaps because I'm a little odd in my habits: tracery, filigree, gridiron, lattice, fishnet, seine, trawl, plexus, mesh, reticle, bolt, jute, hessian; or simply for the love of these words, the ridiculous sprawling nonsense of language divorced from context, nothing but sounds in the mind and the images they conjure up: gunny, hopsack, sailcloth, candlewick, shalloon, brocatelle, serge, nankeen, fustian, seersucker, and the currently miraculous moleskin (see earlier post on moleskin notebooks and the proliferation of poems).
If, like me, you need to update your thesaurus and access all those juicy new coinages alongside the more traditional words in our ever-expanding language, there's a new 150th Anniversary edition of Roget's Thesaurus available, pictured above.
And if you are currently without thesaurus - and if so, why? - try this instead: Word of the Day.