English Literature

Imtiaz Dharker: The Right Word


Imtiaz Dharker was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and grew up in Glasgow, Scotland. As well as being a recognised poet she is a well-known documentary film-maker. She is interested in global social issues such as health and education, including the impact of war and politics on everyday family life. These themes were explored deeply in her 2006 collection of poems 'A terrorist at my table', which included The Right Word.

Watch here as Imtiaz Dharker performs her poem, 'The Right Word':

Subject matter

The Right Word is about language and identity:

  • How we see and label other people.
  • How those people may see and label themselves.

Dharker, growing up within the two contrasting cultures of Scotland and Pakistan is particularly sensitive to these issues. After 9/11 the image of the 'terrorist' was much talked about:

  • For some people the person was a powerless fighter against oppression [oppression: An unjust or cruel use of power. ].
  • For others, simply a murderer.

In a world of so many different opinions and perspectives, how can you truly describe anyone or anything?

Form and structure

The form of the poem mirrors the intention of the poem. It aims to describe a single event accurately. It is therefore built around a single image (someone standing outside a house) broken into three lines to give it clarity.

The poem, however, is structured around a conversation the poet is having with herself. So as the aim of describing the event clearly fails, so the form begins to change. The three-line description remains in the second stanza [stanza: A group of lines of poetry that make up a unit - like a paragraph in a piece of prose; a verse. ], is crushed to two lines in the third, returns in stanza four and is again delivered in two lines in the following stanza.

Here is the turning point of the poem – the poet stops using words and uses her eyes. She "saw his face". The description now changes. It loses its ambiguity [ambiguity: Something that is open to more than one interpretation. ] and is clear and confident. The truth is out – the person is "a child who looks like mine" and the reader's. The poem can then return to its clear, confident three-line form for the final two stanzas.

Language and imagery


The poem is about language and imagery - and how dangerous and unhelpful it can be. The language is simple and straightforward.

This shows the poet's desire to be as simple and truthful as possible. She immediately finds this impossible, however, since every word choice she makes, however small, brings with it a huge weight of political and emotional connotations [connotation: An idea or image which is suggested by a word, which is not its dictionary meaning, e.g. the connotation of 'desk' might be school. ]. Compare the words she uses for the person and what they are doing:

  • Terrorist – freedom-fighter – militant - guerrilla warrior – martyr – child
  • Lurking – taking shelter – waiting – watchful – defying – lost

The question in line four, therefore expresses the doubt she has about her task.

She realises God cannot help (God creates "martyrs") and then abandons words altogether ("No words can help me"). Ironically, it is only then that she finds the right words. She sees the person as a child.

The shadows are not just literal, they are metaphorical [metaphor: An expression used to describe and/or compare a subject/action/person by the way it feels or what it resembles - eg 'sea of troubles', and 'drowning in debt' are metaphors. ] – for his hand is "too steady" and "eyes too hard" because of the adult, political world into which he has been thrust (his bright childhood has been darkened).

These associations are then softened by the simple but strong domestic images that conclude the poem: shared eating, taking off shoes. The image of the lurking terrorist is banished by a simple act of human kindness.

Here Imtiaz Dharker describes the process of writing The Right Word:

Attitudes, themes and ideas

In its concern with language and imagery, Dharker's work is really about the role of poetry itself. The poet has set herself a difficult task – to describe a simple scene without taking sides in a conflict that seems impossible to end. When she questions the power of words in lines 11 and 12, she is really questioning her own power as a poet.

Words, however, appear to be confirming people's different points of view (if you call that person a terrorist I know what side you are on). The solution therefore comes from something she does – she looks at the person, sees he is a child, then invites him into eat with her.

So should the poem be called the 'right act'? Yes, although it is an act that requires the right words. And here they are "Come in, come in and eat with us".


At the Border, 1979 – Hardi's poem is also about divisions and how they are created in the mind rather than in the 'real' world. In Dharker's work, the poet is herself caught up in the war of words, and has to find a way through the conflicting points of view around her. In At the Border, we see this world from a child's perspective. So the world of different countries established by the adults is made strange by the child who sees a chain rather than a national border, a single chain of mountains rather than two completely separate countries.

Belfast Confetti – Ciaran Carson's work is based on a similar experience as Dharker's poem. It comes from a world where soldiers and civilians are part of everyday life in a city divided by political and religious conflict. Carson also sees the conflict from the point of view as a poet and similarly, the poem dramatises the poet's difficulties in describing or expressing what he sees and feels. Words seem powerless to make sense of the violence. They neither explain anything or offer a way out. At the end of Carson's poem, though, the doubt and the struggle remain.

Sample question

Whatever grade you are working towards, the basic structure of any answer will be the same:

  • The introduction will explain the relevance of the question to what feelings the poem expresses and an overview of the story the poem tells.

  • Paragraph that covers form.

  • Paragraph that covers structure.

  • Paragraph that covers language (sound and verbal imagery).

  • Conclusion: You then conclude on the meaning that emerges from this.

For each point, you need to provide evidence (a quote or reference) and an explanation.

How does the poet express feelings about conflict in The Right Word?

Points you could make:

  • The poet expresses her feelings by trying to write without feelings.

  • The form of the poem reflects the poet's desire to be short, sharp and clear.

  • The three-line stanza structure shows the poet trying to describe what she sees without distorting the scene with her own feelings.

  • The language she uses shows how hard this is: feelings are expressed simply by choosing a word for the object (terrorist/freedom-fighter etc) and what they are doing (lurking/taking shelter etc).

  • The imagery suggests a movement towards hope.

  • The image of hostility and difference of the first stanza is replaced by an image of community and understanding in the final stanza.

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