An Error is No Mere Mistake

by | Jan 15, 2021 | Weekly Prompt

In linguistics, an error is a systematic mistake. A mistake happens when you know the rule but slip up. You correct yourself easily. 

In Italy, I signed up for a week-long cooking class. I turned out to be the only student. The teacher spoke no English, and I spoke very little Italian. I made an error: I said Mi chiamo (My name is…) when I meant to say Mi piaci (I like). My name is mushrooms, my name is not olives. The teacher gently corrected me all week, but I realized my error only after I left the country. 

At the start of his poem “Persimmons,” Li-Young Lee writes of being punished by a teacher for his persistent confusion between two English words: persimmon and precision. The next stanza takes a turn as Lee describes the perfect persimmon–a selection that requires precision. The voluptuous imagery suggests the next stanza: another memory of youth, this time erotic and no less linguistic. Persimmons continue to be the central motif of the poem, even as Lee toys with the meanings of a few other pairs of words with similar sounds. 

The first entry for error in the Oxford English Dictionary is as follows: “The action of roaming or wandering; hence a devious or winding course, a roving, winding. Now only poetic.” 

Lee’s poem begins with the mistake kind of error (the fourth entry in the OED) and then roams, and wanders–an error in the poetic sense. The logic of the poem is associative as it roves and winds among unconnected memories of persimmons with an incredible precision of imagery. 


Roam, wander, rove, and wind among two words with similar sounds and disparate meanings. If you have any trouble thinking of a pair, take a look at this retelling of a classic furry tail, “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut” and borrow one of its delightful near-homophones. 

Put them side by side and consider all your associations–memories, images, feelings–with each one until you find a bridge between them. Write into the bridge. You might try a few and let them take their course. Maybe one of the words fades from the paragraphs or poem the way precision does in “Persimmons.” No matter what emerges, it’s not a mistake. It’s the most poetic kind of error.