I made a notation on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary today under the “lighter” entry. I’ve liked this word ever since I first heard it working on the Alaskan coastal waters 20 years ago. Previously, I thought a lighter was kept in your pocket and was brought out to light a cigarette or start a fire to keep from freezing. Imagine that, it had another meaning, a meaning I was unaware of the first three decades of my life.
I was pulling 36-hour shifts for a barge company monitoring fuel offloads from barges into a tank farm on St. Michael Island on the Bering Sea. It was long, cold and anxious work. In a severe sleep deprived state, you had to stay vigilant so as not to over fill and spill fuel oil, gasoline or highly volatile aviation fuel. If you fell asleep the other guys on the crew would tie your shoe laces to one another or do some other practical joke like scream fire!
Anyway, the managers at the time called moving the “product” from a super tanker 13 miles off shore by barge to the tank farm “lightering.” The workers called this hell (sleeplessness, diesel fumes, ocean swells and the damp air black with mosquitoes) but it paid well. The word is forever seared into my memory along with the amber light of the low hanging subarctic sun, and the riptides lightering red seaweed through the water like an alien army.
The word lighter came into English by way of the Dutch lichter or lichten meaning to unload. The dictionary says the noun can refer to a large, flat- bottomed barge. (Our barges held 250,000 gallons and when fully loaded only had a couple of feet of freeboard.) The word is also a verb meaning to convey something by barge. I don’t know how the meaning of lighting cigarettes got mixed up with loading freight but stranger things have happened in English etymology.
The idea of conveyance is pretty much how lightering was used on the Western Alaskan coast. As I noted in the comment section of Merriam-Webster, we might say, “We’ll going to lighter the fuel.” The word lighterage, the loading and unloading, or the transport of cargo by a lighter or barge, also got some nautical miles into our speech.
What’s all this got to do with poetry. Well, I’m glad you let me ask this rhetorical question. All words with multiple meanings make good poetic fodder. If I say Yeats lightered words I mean he transported words from world to head and heart, and then out again into the world. I’m also saying he lit up the world of words. Good poems are chocked full of words pregnant with meaning. Here is an example I just made up for the occasion.
The fly was loose in the room so I nonchalantly scrambled to shun the thing
before the buzzing guests knew what was loose upon them.
So what kind of fly was loose –a zipper, an insect, something else or all three? A poet will never tell.
Ambigious word play can be fun but taken to the extreem, as in too many MFA graduate poems is a bore. Even straight forward words whose meaning is well known can influence a poem’s meaning if played at just the right time. Poetry seduces, using the right word at the right time, and surprises with unexpected gifts. Theodore Roethke uses one word to great effect in the first stanza of My Papa’s Waltz.
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
He “hung on like death.” Death seems out of place here. The poems opening seems to be about an intoxicated father playing with his son. As we move our eyes through the third line our mind makes ready to hear “heck” or “hell.” Heck, this is the word we Michigan boys used a lot in the post World War II and into and through the Vietnam War era. ‘I hung on like heck.’ Or. ‘I hung on like hell.’ Heck is a word I used instead of hell, a word I spoke in my grandmother’s house once and for which she washed my mouth out with soap. Roethke slipped in death to avoid the obvious, clichéd usage of hell or heck, which echos off the rhyme of the first line. This particular use causes us to breathe and hesitate, just a moment, before moving on. He’s controlling not only meaning here but motion and cadence. He is also creating depth. Death is as close as one breath. The father’s breath could “make a small boy dizzy” and a single word could set off a drunk father to violence. We are close to death by breath and word. Donald Hall, poet and critic, said poems are more like sculptures than paintings. He was critical of poems that loitered on the surface image — the photograph poem. Good poems have volume, depth and mass, created by the tension between the surface images, the cadence, and the artful use of line breaks.
As we read these first lines we get time to squirrel this word play away in our brains while we dance through the rest of the poem. I won’t spoil the remainder of the poem for you, but I wanted to suggest that what poets do is more akin to lightering words than some might think. We are all creatures of movement. Words, like our bodies, are busy moving from one place to another and we have our becoming in that movement. Stop moving and you are dead or soon will be.
I am bi-occupational (that should be a category on a census form) like the vast majority of poets. Currently, my job title is Engineering Equipment Operator, which means I operate heavy equipment — dumb, godlike excavators and bulldozers. I’m also a poet or at least a wannabe poet and find myself filling out online profiles where occupation is the question. The first thing I write is Engineering Equipment Operator, (that’s where the money is and the government job title sounds more impressive), then a slash is written before turning to my chosen vocation, poet.
The only problem is the term poet is rather a cliché and needs a makeover, so recently I wrote, Word Lighterage Engineer. I figure this phrase will give some pause to the reader and hopefully cause them, if they don’t know the word, to look it up. Then they can decide if I am a certifiable eccentric or completely bonkers. Either way, they will find Word Lighterage Engineer an unexpected play on words. If sufficiently curious, they will discover this word has more than a few meanings when applied to a poet.
Poetry helps me move words around and maybe offers a way out of predictable thinking. You could say, I enjoy sharing the milk of moonlight, surely the preferred intoxicant of poetry lovers everywhere.
Word play anyone? Leave a note in the comments.