The poet Mark Doty was similarly forthright in a 2011 interview:
If you write a poem with the aid of a thesaurus, you will almost inevitably look like a person wearing clothing chosen by someone else. I am not sure that a poet should even own one of the damn things.
Some writers counsel that a thesaurus should, at the very least, be kept at arm’s length, like Billy Collins’ “copy up on a high shelf.” When the Guardian asked Irish novelist Roddy Doyle for his rules for aspiring writers, one of them was as follows:
Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine.
Margaret Atwood, on the other hand, supplied her own cardinal rule of writing to the Guardian: “You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality.”
A young Sylvia Plath was more enthusiastic, calling her thesaurus the book that she “would rather live with on a desert isle than a Bible.” She relied on her copy of Roget heavily when composing the poems in her first collection, The Colossus, though she apparently outgrew her thesaurus dependence by the time she wrote her famous Ariel poems. Dylan Thomas, Plath’s contemporary, leaned heavily on a thesaurus when writing his later poetry, as researchers have discovered by analyzing his manuscripts. For Thomas, his thesaurus likely did serve as a crutch of sorts, since he was in the grips of alcoholism and his writing was deteriorating. We can think of Thomas’ case as an object lesson in approaching all things in moderation, be it the bottle or the thesaurus.
To be sure, the potential for abuse is a constant danger, especially for eager students who may go overboard when hunting for impressive words. When I speak to student groups about the use and misuse of the thesaurus, I like to open with a cautionary tale. The story, I explain, is told in the memoir of a prominent American politician, recounting his experience as a new student at a prestigious Eastern boarding school:
I remember the first paper I wrote. I thought I was in over my head, so I consulted the Roget’s Thesaurus Mother had given me, searching for some big, impressive words. I wanted to show off for my Eastern professors. It was a story about emotions, and I was trying to find a unique way to describe “tears” running down my face. My discussion of “lacerates” falling from my eyes did catch the teacher’s attention, but not in the way I had hoped. The paper came back with a “zero” marked so emphatically that it left an impression visible all the way through to the back of the blue book. So much for trying to sound smart.
My student audience can usually guess pretty quickly that the memoirist in question is George W. Bush. The former president uses the anecdote in A Charge to Keep to illustrate his fish-out-of-water status attending the Phillips Academy prep school at Andover, and also to own up to his much-derided linguistic shortcomings. In a 2000 profile of Bush in Vanity Fair, Gail Sheehy even used the episode as circumstantial evidence that he was dyslexic, quoting an expert as saying that his confusion over word choice suggested that “he really didn’t understand the language.” The simpler explanation is that he didn’t understand how to use the thesaurus his mother gave him, and thus got tripped up by the homography of “tears.”
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