I was hiking a portion of the Long Trail the other day, Carlton Mountain, to be exact. It’s the penultimate segment of the Long Trail, just before Journey’s End, which is the final segment of the 272-mile footpath through Vermont. The Long Trail was built between 1910 and 1930 by The Green Mountain Club and was the model for The Appalachian Trail. In southern Vermont, the Long Trail and the Appalachian Trail overlap for about 100 miles. But for my hike of the day, I was up north, only a few miles from the Canadian border. Here are two scenes from the hike that I photographed:
As I walked along in the peace of the northern woods, I was thinking about buttercups.
In the End: Buttercups and Cockroaches
Buttercups are the cockroaches of flowers,
not because they are ugly. Buttercups
are beautiful. Look at a field left fallow
and you will see a million waving
droplets of the sun. In my garden
they creep in, one little blossom-burst
by one, and I begin to believe
in the beauty of their five petals,
tiny and perfect as though drawn
by a child. A maximum of wax permits
beads of dew to deepen their sheen.
Buttercups are like cockroaches, not
because they make group-based decisions,
deciding together where to live. As far
as I know, buttercups grow willy-nilly,
sprouting up without tap roots. Buttercups
are like cockroaches, not because you hold
a cockroach under someone’s chin
to see if she likes butter. Imagine –
holding a cockroach under a chin!
Buttercups are like cockroaches,
not due to the content of toxicity.
A cow that eats too many buttercups
will twitch its ears and lips, give bitter
milk, even convulse, and colic will erupt.
Buttercups are hardly the delicacy
that cockroaches can be.
Buttercups are the cockroaches of flowers:
they have survived for millennia, so hardy
so prolific, so potent in their reproduction.
When I see a buttercup, I yank it out
with the vigor I might use to kill
yet another cockroach in the kitchen.
But, usually, I only succeed in breaking
the long underground runner
of the buttercup. Its disappearance
a temporary deception of order,
as though I have control over anything.
As I am sure you know, connotation is what a word implies and/or the emotional association that can accompany a word. It is what a word brings to a poem that is beyond the denotation found in the dictionary. Point of view, attitude, and significance are developed in a poem through connotation.
Thinking about the connotation of words gives deeper meaning to a poem, both while writing and while reading it. Why include certain words? What meanings do they convey? In the poem above, buttercup and cockroach both have strong connotations due to the cultural context in which we interact with each of them. Associated with buttercups are flowers, the sun, summer, and lushness, bucolic pastures even (but beware the cow, horse, sheep or pig that eats them!). With cockroaches, what comes to mind? Grime, filth, creepy, crawly, bugs. Reminders of additional meanings are included in the second stanza – the childhood practice of holding up the buttercup under a chin and the cockroach as being edible.
Connotation is why time must be taken in selecting which words to include in a poem, ensuring each word conveys not only the correct meaning of the word or image, but the tone and theme of the poem. Digging deeper into a word’s etymology can lead to even deeper meaning, double meaning, or additional meanings. This is why it is always important to write and read with a dictionary at your fingertips, and which lover of words doesn’t do this anyway?
Connotations change over time and can be personal as well. A word, such as farm, has different connotations for different people. For my father, it would be associated with a childhood filled with hours of hard labor; for my friend, while still filled with hard work, it is her home, where she raised her children, where she has chosen to live. For me, having grown up in the Midwest and now living in rural Vermont surrounded by farms, but never having to put in the years of grueling work (except for a couple of summers in high school), there is certainly a more romantic feeling associated with the word.
As mentioned at the website Pic-Lits, “Employing words with various denotations and connotations allows poets to:
1. Omit needless words
2. Build implicit ideas through multiple connotations
3. Be purposefully ambiguous in order to awaken the imagination of the reader.”
There is a good lesson plan about Connotation at this website.
In The Practice of Poetry, Writing Exercises by Poets Who Teach, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, there is another a very good writing exercise, “Cleave and Cleave” contributed by Carol Muske. The title is taken from Brenda Hillman’s poem of the same title, “which examines these words that sound and can be spelled the same, but have opposite meanings” (145). For the exercise that Muske explains, you think of two homonyms such as stone and stone or bear and bear and “think of an emotional situation in memory that these homonyms might speak to, then imagine yourself ‘encountering’ each of these words separately, in concrete examples…Then you bring both words together at the poem’s conclusion, like Hillman, who dramatized the words’ opposite meanings by ending with two strong sentences” (145). This forces you to link the words at a more profound level.
By the end of the poem, “In The End. Buttercups and Cockroaches,” buttercups have transformed from “a million waving/droplets of the sun” to the source of twitching, convulsions, and colic. In the last stanza, words such as yank, breaking, disappearance, and deception all have negative connotations – and certainly reflect my feelings of lacking control.
RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Ok, so there is one more way that cockroaches and buttercups are the same: they both have songs about them, “Build Me Up Buttercup” and “La Cucaracha” (which, by the way, has hidden political meanings). I used to think that they were pretty lame songs until I went searching for some videos to share and found these two great renditions.
Other related links:
Amazing Photos of Buttercups – keep scrolling down the page.
The Poison Plant Patch– Buttercups and Clematis – from Nova Scotia Museum. Side note: My dog ate my first two clematis, but then she also ate pieces of the wooden trellis each plant was supposed to be climbing. The plants are gone, the wood had to be replaced, the dog is fine.
Sections of the Long Trail