Samuel Beckett. Pic:
Samuel Beckett. Pic:

“What Is The Word” was written by an 83 year-old Beckett. The poem explores struggling with words and perhaps draws from his, and a friend’s, illness.

The Collected Poems of Samuel Beckett contains What Is The Word, and explanatory notes.  The notes place Beckett’s poems in context, detailing the history and circumstances of composition and help explain obscure turns of phrase and allusion.

After a fall in his apartment in 1988, Samuel Beckett moved to the Tiers Temps nursing home, 26, rue Rémy-Dumoncel (14th arrondissement), Paris, France.

“Stirrings Still”, his last prose work to be printed in his lifetime may well draw from his life in the home.

The New York Times described it as: “… a character who resembles the author sits alone in a cell-like room until he sees his double appear – and then disappear. Accompanied by ”time and grief and self so-called,” he finds himself ”stirring still” to the end.”

It was here that Beckett, aged 83, wrote “What Is The Word” his last poem. Barbara Bray, Beckett’s long-time collaborator typed it up.

The poem is dedicated to Joe Chaikin. Chaikin had directed a number of Beckett’s plays. A stroke had left Chaikin with partial aphasia – an impairment of language ability.

As Wikipedia puts it, “What Is The Word” “grapples with an inability to find words to express oneself, a theme echoing Beckett’s earlier work, though possibly amplified by the sickness he experienced late in life”.

Samuel Beckett died on December 22, 1989, in Paris, France.

Listen to What Is The Word, by Samuel Beckett

What Is The Word, by Samuel Beckett and written for Joe Chaikin

folly –
folly for to –
for to –
what is the word –
folly from this –
all this –
folly from all this –
given –
folly given all this –
seeing –
folly seeing all this –
this –
what is the word –
this this –
this this here –
all this this here –
folly given all this –
seeing –
folly seeing all this this here –
for to –
what is the word –
see –
glimpse –
seem to glimpse –
need to seem to glimpse –
folly for to need to seem to glimpse –
what –
what is the word –
and where –
folly for to need to seem to glimpse what where –
where –
what is the word –
there –
over there –
away over there –
afar –
afar away over there –
afaint –
afaint afar away over there what –
what –
what is the word –
seeing all this –
all this this –
all this this here –
folly for to see what –
glimpse –
seem to glimpse –
need to seem to glimpse –
afaint afar away over there what –
folly for to need to seem to glimpse afaint afar away over there what –
what –
what is the word –

what is the word

See also
Notes about What Is The Word – in Beckett’s collected poems
NY Times Sam Beckett obit

Quatre Poèmes


  1. sam becket August 3, 2013 at 7:30 am - Reply

    WHAT does this explain of the poem?

  2. Extrageographic August 6, 2013 at 2:49 pm - Reply

    It explains the background to the writing of this poem, which may also explain the contents of the poem; the reference to words when the person that the poem is dedicated to has partial aphasia – an impairment of language ability. Beckett’s poetry is notoriously “oblique, resistant, and complex to the scholar as it is to a novice reader.” If you’d like a more in-depth explanation, Laura Salisbury in the Journal of Beckett Studies also makes the connection between the poem and aphasia here:
    . Thanks for visiting.

  3. Tom Cousineau April 1, 2014 at 8:51 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the link to Laura Salisbury’s article, which I didn’t know about. I’ve been invited to talk about this poem, among others, in Bucharest next month,and I’ll look forward to benefitting from Laura’s help.

  4. Extrageographic May 30, 2014 at 8:12 pm - Reply

    Hi Tom, what’s your take on this poem? Do you have notes from your talk that I could publish here? Best wishes, C

  5. tom cousineau June 14, 2014 at 10:17 pm - Reply

    I don’t have my notes at hand, but I’ll try to say a couple of things in response to your question. I read this poem as part of a Yeats/Beckett evening that I was invited to do at Tramvaiul 26, a literary café in Bucharest: Pairing it with Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” and mentioning to the audience Beckett’s struggle with aphasia following a fall knocking him unconscious that it records, I suggested that we think of it as a poem spoken by “an aged man” who is, and remains throughout the poem, a literally “paltry thing” rather than becoming miraculously transformed, as in the Yeats’s poem, into a golden bird. One other thing that I remember: I read the poem in both the French original and the English translation that Beckett worked on, following Ruby Cohn’s suggestion, for his friend Joe Chaikin. I found myself wondering for the first time as I read it aloud in French to this Romanian audience whether the prevalence of guttural “r” sounds in the original — voir, croire, entrevoir, etc. — was a way of creating the effect of a death rattle (“un râle,” in French). I have no idea whether or not Beckett may actually have had this in mind.

  6. Extrageographic June 16, 2014 at 11:28 am - Reply

    Many thanks for your knowledgeable reply, Mr Cousineau.

  7. Nathaniel Drake January 12, 2016 at 10:04 pm - Reply

    I disagree with your interpretation of this poem. While I agree Beckett may have wanted to express empathy and solidarity the emphasis of the poem is not on the word “word” but on the word “what”. Literally, the meaning is in the most oft-repeated line in the poem: “WHAT is the word.”
    Beckett once responded to a question regarding the form of his work by citing his post-war experience as a hospital orderly. The cry of a patient in the dark, he explained “is the only form I know.” In a Beckett universe God’s first line is not “let there be light” but “what…”
    And for good measure he includes the title of his last play “What Where”–itself a chilling reduction of the beginning, middle, and likely end to human existence.
    Beckett himself at the end of his life was impeded by illness, strapped to a chair and fed oxygen. Like his friend, breath and vocal expression may have been mangled and yet the sentences..or at least the urge to make them continued..early in the poem he goes to “folly” and returns over and over and over yet again to it. “What..” we begin, and yet the consequences of the breath drawn to form that word, and the questions, hopes, desires which follow (folly!) it lead only back to darkness..what, indeed.

  8. violencefeeling September 23, 2017 at 6:26 pm - Reply

    Nice article, thanks. Cousineau remarks appreciated greatly. Drake also, fascinating interpretation. What could indeed the be the word. I’d argue that the poem seems as much about an existential or sensorial struggle as much as a communicative one. Perhaps it is each.

  9. Peter Dance February 10, 2018 at 7:14 pm - Reply

    Why does it need to be explained? Everything that one could need is there in the poem. Surely, to sit and read the poem to oneself is all that one needs.
    Your article was thankfully brief, but the description included from the New York Times was just plain ridiculous, and the bit from Wikipedia was, well, simple beyond belief.

  10. Sam Ayres November 5, 2019 at 5:49 am - Reply

    It explains nothing. The poem explains the poem. The poem explains nothing.

    • Balthasar Kübler September 17, 2021 at 1:16 pm - Reply

      Right you are! And note: The last line is not a question, but a statement meaning: what—this «what»—is the word.

  11. se lauzen January 21, 2023 at 6:47 pm - Reply

    why do you need it explained?!

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