Catachresis and Dylan Thomas

Catachresis is a Greek word meaning the misuse of language. However, from a poet’s perspective, it might be better understood as a way of reinventing the use of language.

Examples of catachresis include modifying words in an illogical manner, e.g., when Pablo Neruda writes of “insulted iron,” and “a tongue of years different/ from time.” Or a unique compound word, e.g., when Sylvia Plath describes a sea as being “many-snaked.” Or a word that transgresses its grammatical properties, such as an inflexible noun being used as a verb, e.g., “She light-bulbed a bright idea.” This list is not exhaustive.

It is often difficult to interpret the exact meaning of a catachrestic word or phrase. At worst, catachresis is a slush of bombastic nonsense. At best, it produces a dream-like, disoriented or hallucinogenic effect; and it often plays a hand in surrealist poetry. Note that it is sometimes the byproduct of a writer choosing words based on their sound rather than their meaning, thereby straining language to the effect of music.

Despite being a fastidious craftsman who often wrote carefully rhymed and metered poetry, Dylan Thomas’s application of language is anything but formal (and is rife with catachresis). Early critics tended to find him inaccessible and “drunk on language.” However, readers continue to acknowledge the unique force of language he employs throughout his oeuvre.

How many examples of catachresis can you find in this poem?

from Altarwise By Owl-Light

First there was the lamb on knocking knees
And three dead seasons on a climbing grave
That Adam’s wether in the flock of horns,
Butt of the tree-tailed worm that mounted Eve,
Horned down with skullfoot and the skull of toes
On thunderous pavements in the garden time;
Rip of the vaults, I took my marrow-ladle
Out of the wrinkled undertaker’s van,
And, Rip Van Winkle from a timeless cradle,
Dipped me breast-deep in the descended bone;
The black ram, shuffling of the year, old winter,
Alone alive amoung his mutton fold,
We rung our weathering changes on the ladder,
Said the antipodes, and twice spring chimed.

by Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)

The End of the Road

The End of the Road

You must have taken Highway 1 from the junction
at British Columbia and the Yukon, the Takhini
hot springs at Whitehorse—you must have been reborn
through a tunnel in the Rockies and turned left at Tok,
where a waitress in a plaid apron, tasseled mukluks
and beaver furs poured syrup thick as tree sap
over sourdough pancakes, and you eavesdropped
on two bush pilots, heard the forecast in their dispute:
cross-winds of tenacity with a spat of rain—
then down through Anchorage, Alyeska, Anchor Point,
shoulder to shoulder with a mountainous dawn,
until, round the overlook, you saw the arch of the Spit
cast out like a rod toward Halibut Cove, and the blue crush
of the Grewingk Glacier into Kachemak Bay.


by Ryan Dowling

Seamus Heaney and Regional Poetry

Regional Poetry is poetry that hones in on a specific location in the world. This location can be as small as a village and its surroundings or as broad as an entire province or territory, such as the American Southwest.

Regional poetry also tends to focus on the idiosyncrasies of that location, including its native inhabitants, geography, culture, wildlife, history, etc. Many of the best regional poets have lived there for a significant portion of their lives.

The most common effect regional poetry has is that of revelation, often bringing to light a relatively unknown part of the world. However, it’s important to note that while regional poetry can pay homage to a location, it can also cast a location (especially its people) in a negative light and bring unwanted attention.

In the following poem, Seamus Heaney writes about a town in Ireland called Anahorish, where he attended primary school. Note that it isn’t an epic poem; he doesn’t chronicle every nook and cranny. Heaney only offers a few select snapshots, a few specific details, and yet it’s enough to evoke the town’s mood and character.

The town was made famous after him.


My ‘place of clear water’,
the first hill in the world
where springs washed into
the shiny grass

and darkened cobbles
in the bed of the lane.
Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow,

after-image of lamps
swung through the yards
on winter evenings.
With pails and barrows

those mound-dwellers
go waist-deep in mist
to break the light ice
at wells and dunghills.

by Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)