The poet William Meredith (1919-2007) was known for his extraordinary care in the handling of language and ideas. He suffered a stroke in 1983, and after that only wrote about six poems per year–becoming in the process perhaps even more careful with meaning.
As a description of the importance of being looking hard at data, and being careful with language, distinctions, and contrasts, I’ve long been fond of his 1987 poem: “What I Remember the Writers Telling Me When I Was Young,” from his 1987 collection of poems Partial Accounts.
Look hard at the world, they said —
generously, if you can
manage that, but hard. To see
the extraordinary data, you
have to distance yourself a
little, utterly. Learn the
right words for the umpteen kinds
of trouble that you’ll see,
generics like misery,
wretchedness. And find yourself
a like spectrum of exact
terms for joy, some of them
archaic, but all useful.
Sometimes when they spoke to me I
could feel their own purposes
gathering. Language, the dark-
haired woman said once, is like
water-color, it blots easily,
you’ve got to know what you’re
after, and get it on quickly.
Everything gets watered
sooner or later with tears,
she said, your own or other
people’s. The contrasts want to
run together and must not be
allowed to. They’re what you
see with. Keep your word-hoard dry.
Numerous bits of advice and insight here apply not just to poets, but to writers in the social sciences as well. Look hard at the world, but generously, if you can manage it. Distance yourself from the data. Learn the precise words. Sometimes when I have mostly sorted out the exposition of a difficult concept, or set of feelings, the language takes on a momentum of its own, pushing me forward, and I can feel the “purposes gathering.” Don’t let the contrasts run together.