The Right Word is a very aptly named poem as it is ostensibly about the poet trying to find the truest word in order to describe the person who is at their door. Imtiaz Dharker describes this person and their action from the perspectives of different people and this approach helps highlight how changing words slightly can massively effect their context and points to the power that simply playing with phrase can have.
Form and Tone
The poem is quite serious in tone as it looks at people’s perspectives and looks to challenge the labels that are put on people by society. The poem is divided into 9 stanzas. The patterns oft he stanzas help to delineate the narrators emotions as they struggle to right what they consider to be the black and white truth. When the narrator reaches a sense of clarity in what they are saying the stanzas return to three lines long. Which is how the poem starts, the different length stanzas therefore represent uncertainty.
The Right Word Analysis
This first stanza of the poem, which you can read in full here, is very impactful. It is sharp and to the point. Taken in isolation we could assume from this opening line that the poem itself might just be about terrorism. What is also interesting is that Dharker uses the word shadow in this stanza. The shadows comes into play often in the poem as you will see as the poem progresses.
Here we see the narrator question their first stanza, the effect of asking this question of themselves is to extend the stanza to a further line. It’s as if just questioning what has been said can contort what was thought to be true. The narrator then once again tries to describe the scene honestly. This time the character is taking shelter in the shadows rather than lurking in them and they are not referred to as a terrorist, but a freedom fighter. This is an interesting change in description, if you flip your perspective could a terrorist be classed as a freedom fighter if their cause was one that you believed strongly in. the narrator is forcing the reader to look at things from more than one perspective.
Still the narrator feels they haven’t got the description correct. This repetition gives the impression of a writer that is really struggling to get the description that paints the most honest and legitimate picture. Although the description of the person in this stanza seems far more harsh, more of a character assassination if you will, the description of their actions seems less harsh, they are not considered to be lurking, as in the first stanza, but waiting, although this still certainly has negative connotations it is not as sinister as the first description.
Still the narrator struggles with finding the correct words to describe the situation. They postulate “are words no more than waving, wavering flags” flags are often associated with nationalities and the idea of one wavering is a play on words. A flag might physically waver, but I think the suggestion here is that different nations viewpoints are quite often flawed and these lines suggest that is the case Once again the description of the character and their actions are very different. This time they are watchful and are described as a guerrilla warrior. Is this complimentary? It seems more positive than being a terrorist and a hostile militant, but not as kind as being a freedom fighter. If you ever get the opportunity, you can play a game where you get a list of adjectives that all mean the same thing and put them into order of which is the most powerful, for instance angry, upset, livid, raging, and miffed. You could almost do that with the descriptions of the man in this poem.
In this stanza we see that the narrator has become so frustrated with their plight that they are literally praying to god for help. This raises the importance once again, from being an issue relevant to nations to one of being worthy of gods consideration. The man this time isn’t described as hiding in the shadows, but defying them! This is an interesting concept. What does this mean? That the man is clearly well defined and easy to see despite the shadow? Here the narrator actually sees their face. The person is described as a martyr. Once again this is like a terrorist, just seen from an opposing point of view. This subversion of meaning is present throughout the poem.
In this stanza it would appear the narrator has given up trying to find the words. The use of the word “now” In the first line of this stanza brings a sense of immediacy to this part of the poem. The character is described as lost and a child that looks like the narrators. Describing the person as a child instantly brings forward the idea of innocence, having been described as everything from a martyr to a militant this description offers a nice contrast and highlights in some ways that every terrorist, or indeed freedom fighter is somebodies son or daughter.
This is the last stanza to have more than three lines, but the tone appears to suggest a revelation for the narrator: like they have discovered something. They describe the character as looking like your son, suggesting that despite this character, with eyes that are “too hard” being of undetermined decency it could easily be your son at the door.
This stanza simply describes the narrators actions. They are indiscriminate as the person is invited in to eat.
It would appear that this small act of kindness has reduced the freedom fighter/terrorist back to their innocent child-like state. The wider picture here is that peaceful action beget peace. Just by showing kindness to this man from the shadows he becomes like a boy again. Unspoiled and polite, with the suggestion being we should all be less quick to judge and then people won’t have to live up to the labels that we give them.
About the Poet
Imtiaz Dharker is a Pakistan born poet. She lived most of her early life in Glasgow, but married a Welshman and (despite her husband losing his battle with cancer) She now divides her time between London, Wales and Mumbai/ Her poetry is varied but often concerns itself with themes such as feminism and as is the case with this poem displacement.