Lightering Words

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 used to pull 36-hour shifts for a barge company monitoring fuel transfers to and from barges 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 8 miles off shore by barge to the tank farm as “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 a red bore tide — a wave of red seaweed advancing through the water like an alien invasion or earthly miracle, depending on your state of mind.

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 fully loaded, leaving but a couple 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, an incendiary idea, 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’re going to lighter the fuel.” The word lighterage meant the loading, unloading, and the transport of cargo by barge. Each sense of the word logged some nautical miles in 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 into your soul and then out again into the world when you shared them. I’m also saying he unloaded his words into this great barge of the world and to this day we are still lightening them around.

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 loosed upon them. 

So what kind of fly was loose –a zipper, an insect, something else or all three? A poet will never tell. The verb might give an indication or perhaps not depending on where the rest of the poem might take the reader. Poet’s might be reluctant to tell for another reason. They may not want to dampen the chance the poem will lighter the reader to other destinations.

Ambigious word play can be fun, even profitable, but taken to extremes can be a bore and bore hole in a poem large enough to sink it. Even straight forward words, whose meaning is relatively fixed, can influence a poem’s meaning if played at just the right time. Poetry seduces, it says the right word at the right time, to surprise and delight with unexpected associations. 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 and his son at horseplay. 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 — 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 and expected hell or heck, which echos 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 or mass. Death is as close as one’s breath. The father’s breath could “make a small boy dizzy” and a single word could easily set off a drunk father to violence. We are close to death by breath and word. Donald Hall, American 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, the poem that forgets to breathe. Good poems have volume, depth and mass, created by the tension between the surface images, formal and informal diction, the cadence, and the artful use of line breaks, to name a few tools in the poet’s bag of tricks.

As we read these first lines we get time to squirrel away this word play 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 around to give shape and substance to what is normally empty experience. We are all creatures of movement. Words, like our bodies, are busy moving from one place to another and we have our becoming in each moment of movement. Stop moving and you are dead or soon will be, like so many retired people who quickly decline.

I am bi-vocational (that should be a category on a census form) like the vast majority of poets. Currently, my government job title is Engineering Equipment Operator, which means I smartly operate dumb heavy equipment — god-sized  excavators and bulldozers. I’m also a poet and find myself at odds when 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 so impressive), then a slash is made before turning to my other chosen vocation, poet.

The only problem is the term poet is rather a cliché and needs a makeover too, so recently I wrote, Word Lighterage Engineer. I figure this phrase will give some pause to the reader and hopefully cause them to pause and consider the word and why its there. Then they can decide if I am a certifiable eccentric or completely bonkers. Either way, they will find Word Lighterage Engineer a play on words. If sufficiently curious, they will discover this word has more than a few meanings when applied to a poet.

A poet moves words around and, at their best, offers a way out of predictable thinking. You could say, I enjoy swilling the milk of moonlight, surely the preferred intoxicant of poetry lovers everywhere. 

Word play anyone? Leave a note in the comments.


4 responses to “Lightering Words

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