On the surface, this is one of the simplest questions a reader can ask about any poem. Words (unlike, say, figurative language or meter) don’t presume that we’ve already soaked up some amount of purposeful poetry instruction. Words are words: any English reader, however innocent or sophisticated, can identify them, react to them, and talk to each other about them.
Words are also a poet’s solid artisan materials, which she grasps, and throws down and grasps again, as she struggles to construct a poem out of silence. In this way, making a poem is very much like building a stone wall. Poets create something out of nothing; they use words to shape what has, till now, been wordless. “How should this grief be properly put into words?” is how Roman poet Horace chose to open his ode “To Virgil.” The way in which he wrestled with that question is the way in which he created the poem.
So when a reader asks, “What’s the most important word?” she’s starting to think about a poem as a poet thinks about it. She’s also starting to realize that her answer is impermanent. Great art, unlike so much else in our workaday lives, requires us to come to terms with our own fluidity. As a reader becomes more familiar with the poem, her choice may change. As she grows older, her choice may change. As she experiences some momentous event in her own life, her choice may change. These shifts are themselves part of the ongoing poetic conversation; in some sense, they become part of the poem itself. A reader with a long, intense relationship to a particular poem might even agree with Adrienne Rich that “the moment of change is the only poem.”
[from a draft of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]