Poetry of Hyphens: Elements

On how to craft meaningful compound and meld words. Examples taken from W. B. Yeats, E. E. Cummings, Keri Hulme.

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I reserve a special internal exclamation of joy for words that I have never seen before, but I immediately understand and appreciate. These mostly fall under the heading of compound words or meld words tailored to a particular context.

(Other examples are words that I know in one language and then see for the first time ported into another language—they’re altered, but recognisable; and also word-puns that hit a sweet spot of meaning.)

In my previous post,  I discussed “new” colour descriptions coined by W. B. Yeats, E. E. Cummings, and Keri Hulme, such as cloud-pale, blackred, seashaded, some of which are more, some of which are less far fetched. In the case of the senses (not only vision), it is fairly straightforward to write a recipe for creating sensible adjectives that a reader can enjoy without effort. It is even relatively easy to hone the craft: pick a colour and an animal nuancing that colour (e.g. elephant-grey), pick two colours (e.g. yellow-orange) and so on until you’re happy with your creation.

However, when it comes to more advanced meld-compounds—to coin a word which means either meld or compound word, or a combination, like Cummings’s watersmooth-silver—there are both more options to play with and fewer options that will work.

Take eyes. You can describe them with colours (greengrey), but suppose you want to go beyond that. Then you can also consider physical features (goggly, globular), emotions (gleeful, glamorous, goading), things and people (ghosts, gammoners, gemstones) etc. The options are endless. The price you pay is that the further afield you stretch, the harder it will be to find a reasonable pairing that will be worth the reader’s effort. Metaphors are nice, but they are taxing—this is why meld-compounds become more common and more complex the further you move along the spectrum from genre fiction to literary fiction to poetic prose to verse-novels to poetry.

This is why I picked my examples from poetic sources. (Elsewhere they are scarce and stale.)

As always, reading, reading, reading (of poetry), and tuning one’s inner ear, is probably the quickest way to accumulate ideas and experience that will allow you to hatch your own meld-compounds.

But … If I were to invent an exercise to help the process, this is what it would be:

  1. find examples you like,
  2. expand them into what you think they mean,
  3. write your own sentences of that form,
  4. compress your own sentences into meld-compounds resembling, but distinct from, your original example.

Let’s give it a go.

Four steps. I denote the transfer from one step to the next with an arrow. The first word in italics is taken from the author I’ve indicated; the last is my new meld-compound.


  • Yeats: sea-covered stone -> a stone covered by sea -> a shell buried by sand -> sand-buried shell.
  • Cummings: balloonman -> a clown who has/sells balloons -> a clown who wears pantaloons -> pantaloonclown.
  • Hulme: moonshadow -> a shadow cast by the moon -> shade cast by the stars -> starshade.

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