The Trouble with Words

For someone who loves and appreciates the beauty of words, and how they contribute to our very humanity, this poem may seem strangely negative. This poem uses the imagery of warfare to express something of the danger that words contain. For words are dangerous, and more than that, they are used by people who have different life stories and different life views and motives. I remember once being shocked that a friend had a hugely different meaning for what I thought a common and important word. I couldn’t presume that what I meant, she actually understood in the same basic way. If we begin to appreciate the complexities of communication, verbal or otherwise, perhaps we should be a little more patient and kinder with one another?

Our words are like the casings, containing

The powder of our meanings, as we fire

Verbals back and forth in the daily skirmish

Of mutual intercourse – from separate trenches.

Trenches? Why should conflict be implied?

Don’t we all sing from the Queen’s English?


In the no man’s land of comprehension,

Where what I may say and you might hear,

Is set with barbed wire and primed mines,

The detritus of comments intended or not,

The smoke of misunderstanding hangs heavy,

And we fail to meet minds oftentimes.


Probably just as well most communication

Is non verbal, and we give ourselves away,

And even teenager-speak can be decoded.

Where desperation is too transparent, or

Revealed in stiltedness and awkwardness.

The higher the stakes, facades more eroded.


Words are fabric for the self-built airplanes

Of our desires and needs: they soar us up,

But fear and prejudice fire deadly ack-ack,

And can send us spiralling out of control, to

Plummet downwards, struggling to pull up,

And fire our own salvoes as bitter talk back.


For words are signs, and need interpreting.

Even when we speak truth from our hearts,

The recipients, often bunkered and blinkered,

May take our best intentions for the worse:

The sacred sense of our soul’s communion,

Desecrated, despoiled, crudely butchered.


Our words convey but can also camouflage.

What I despatch may not arrive at you intact.

The Chinese whispers of transmission apply,

Ensuring infallible is de facto impossible.

And when love is in the mix, better beware,

The potential for pain will surely multiply.


Our words can be mis-timed and mis-aimed

As we struggle to express from the confines

Of our individual positions, fenced with fear.

Many of us have rued our empty launchpads,

As our rocket blasts into another’s vulnerability.

Perhaps a little more kindness is needed here?


And holy words, the sacred scriptures, are

Even more explosive, since the believers’

Cannons roar with the charge of divine right.

Where ‘interpretation’ is more ‘agree with me’,

And discussion and discernment imply insult,

Devil doubt, to be witch-hunted out of sight.


Communication is not a simple matter,

And words are precious yet problematic.

I cannot demand others always understand.

For my part, I pray for purity of intention,

To craft words of clear and honest meaning:

A Christmas truce in verbal no man’s land?