AA for Poets

…and I don’t mean Alcoholics Anonymous


Though more than a few poets might benefit. The anonymous program I’d recommend would be Adjectives Anonymous.

Poets frequently send me their poems (which I enjoy) and the one flaw that seems almost universal is an addiction to adjectives. There are oodles and oodles of examples across the internet, much of it from beginning poets but plenty from older poets and poets who should know better. I won’t pick on any of the younger poets. Every poet deserves a break when they’re just starting out. I’ll do better. I’ll use myself as an example  – something from one of my very early poems.

Gone are the colorful breezes of summer
Tussling the green grasses thick in the field;
Gone is the orchard’s ample verdure
And the cherry-red ripeness of its yield;
Gone are the pinks of the water lily
Adoring the lake’s azure reflection;
Gone — the deep lucence of a turquoise sea —
Wistful memories to ease dejection.
.
Yellowed are the grasses and brown the trees,
Black are the fields and white the drifting snow;
Frosted are the lakes and ice-blue the seas,
Grey are the clouds and metallic their glow.
….The shadings are stark on a winter’s day,
….
Though budding colors are never far away.

Thomas Lux

This is the “sonnet” that I showed to the poet Thomas Lux. He wouldn’t let me study poetry with him (he was only teaching graduates), but told me one thing that made this poem the last of my juvenilia. He said: “There’s a difference between writing poetically and writing poetry.”

And that’s the best advice any poet can give an aspirant. When you can recognize the difference between writing poetically and writing poetry, you will begin writing your first poems.

Many of us, when we first begin writing poetry, believe that poetry differs from prose in its evocative power. That’s only partly true. Prose can be equally evocative. But there’s also an element of compression and in this respect the best poetry does differ from prose. The prose writer has time. The poet, generally, doesn’t. The best poets create a world with a handful of words.

What is the shortest route to descriptive evocation and compression? – the adjective. Beginning poets (and bad poets) use adjectives with a vengeance. Let’s look at my own poem:

Gone are the colorful breezes of summer
Tussling the green grasses thick in the field;
Gone is the orchard’s ample verdure
And the cherry-red ripeness of its yield;
Gone are the pinks of the water lily
Adoring the lake’s azure reflection;
Gone — the deep lucence of a turquoise sea —
Wistful memories to ease dejection.
….Yellowed are the grasses and brown the trees,
Black are the fields and white the drifting snow;
Frosted are the lakes and ice-blue the seas,
Grey are the clouds and metallic their glow.
….The shadings are stark on a winter’s day,
….Though budding colors are never far away.

11 adjectives (“winter’s day” would be a possessive adjective). The words in blue are complements (thinly veiled adjectives) [complement as opposed to compliment]. Throw this into the mix and there are, effectively 21 adjectives. That’s way too many. By comparison, here’s Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
..If this be error and upon me proved,
..I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

5 adjectives. Which is the better sonnet? Shakespeare’s sonnet is poetry. Mine is poetic. Notice how much Shakespeare accomplishes with a minimum of adjectives. He has something to say. (Not having anything to say sometimes leads to an over-reliance on adjectives.) The thing to notice is that Shakespeare’s sonnet is tremendously evocative through the use of figurative language – and that isn’t synonymous with adjectives. If you don’t know the difference, or haven’t thought about it, now’s the time.

Here are a few, among many, sites that describe Figurative Language:

Shakespeare’s genius resides in figurative language. Metaphor came easily to him; and he made extended use of personification. In fact, almost the entirety of Shakespeare’s sonnet rests on the personification of Love. Here’s a sonnet by Robert Frost:

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
..In the capriciousness of summer air
..Is of the slightlest bondage made aware.

Frost makes use of 10 adjectives. The difference is in their importance to the content of the poem. Take out the adjective silken and the poem is lost. But who camps in a silken tent? The whole notion of a silken tent is a poetic contrivance – and Frost means to play on that contrivance, analogy and metaphor. Sunny summer is a nice piece of alliteration (a facet of figurative language) that perfectly captures the bright ease and playfulness of the woman he is describing. In other words, these aren’t just adjectives for the sake of description. He takes the whole a bit further through alliteration – creating mood as well as description.

The phrase supporting central cedar slows us down, but meaningfully so. The alliteration echoes the ‘s’ of silken and the ‘s’ sounds of sunny summer. To my ears, I’m constantly reminded of the sound of silk brushing silk; and I don’t doubt that Frost was fully aware of this affect. Think about the other adjectives. They all begin with the sibilant sound of ‘s’. Countless begins with a hard ‘c’ but ends with less.

My point is that though the beginning poet may argue that Frost uses many adjectives, he uses them with tremendous skill and purpose. These words don’t just fill the meter. They don’t just describe for the sake of description. They serve a thematic purpose. By way of comparison, try the poem as follows:

She is as in a field a canvass tent
At midday when a cool refreshing breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its strong and anchored wooden pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any hempen cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By endless unseen ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
..In the capriciousness of summer air
..Is of the least bondage made aware.

But, more to the point, you don’t need adjectives to write great poetry. Here is some of the greatest poetry ever written.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

But what about Keats? Keats was my model in my early twenties. Here is one of his most famous sonnets:

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art–
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors
No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,..
··
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,..
··
And so live ever-or else swoon to death.

15 adjectives. If Keats can do it, why can’t you? – you might ask. It’s not enough to say that Keats was a genius and you aren’t. Who knows, maybe you’re a genius too. Go for it. The point is that the artistry (the craft) of the great poets isn’t an ineffable mystery. You can parse it, examine it, and understand it.

Of all the poets (the great along with those of any talent) Keats made the most imaginative use of adjectives (and that’s good because adjectives were all the rage during this period).  (I’ve mentioned the following elsewhere but there’s no harm in repetition.) Keats was a tireless student of Shakespeare, and of all the techniques he appreciated, anthimeria topped the list. Anthimiria is the substitution of one part of speech for another. Sister Miriam Joseph, in her book Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, calls anthimeria a figure of grammar that, more than any other, “gives vitality and power to Shakespeare’s language, through its packed meaning, liveliness and stir.” (p. 62)

She goes on:

In the following examples, adjectives are used as adverbs, prepositions as adjectives, adjectives as nouns, nouns as adjectives, nouns as adverbs, verbs as nouns.

  • report That I am sudden sick. Quick and return! (A&C, 1.3.4)
  • shap’d out a man Whom this beneath world (Tim., 1.1.43)
  • All cruels else subscrib’d (Lear, 3.7.65)
  • his complexion is perfect gallows (Tem., 1.1.32)
  • Kingdom’d Achilles in commotion rages (T&C, 2.3.185)
  • It more imports me Than all the actions that I have foregone
    Or futurely can cope. (TNK, 1.1.172)
  • betwixt too early and too late (H8, 2.3.84)
  • goodness, growing to a plurisy,
    Dies in his own too-much. (Ham., 4.7.118)
  • And many such-like as’s of great charge (Ham., 5.2.43)
  • What you shall know meantime Of stirs abroad (A&C, 1.4.81)
  • To ransack Troy, within whose strong immures (T&C., Prol. 8)
  • I true? How now? What wicked deem is this? (T&C, 4.4.61)

Most striking are the verbs. As Alfred Hart, who recently made very careful and admirable studies of Shakespeare’s vocabulary, observes:

Most Elizabethan and Jacobean authors use nouns freely as verbs, but they are not very venturesome. . . . The last plays of Shakespeare teem with daringly brilliant metaphors due solely to his use of nouns and adjectives as verbs . . . . they add vigour, vividness and imagination to the  verse . . . almost every play affords examples of such happy valiancy of phrase.

Shakespeare uses prounouns, adjectives, and nouns as verbs.

  • If thou thou’st him some thrice, it shall not be amiss (TN, 3.2.48)
  • And that which most with you should safe my going,
    Is Fulvia’s death (A&C, 1.3.55)
  • Shall dizzy with more clamour Neptune’s ear (T&C, 5.2.174)
  • a hand that kings Have lipp’d (A&C, 2.5.29). . . . . . . . . . . (pp. 62-63)

And so on… check out the book if you want to see more examples. One of my favorites? This passage from Antony and Cleopatra, Act 4 Scene 12:

O sun, thy uprise shall I see no more:
Fortune and Antony part here; even here
Do we shake hands. All come to this? The hearts
That spaniel’d me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets
On blossoming Caesar; and this pine is bark’d,
That overtopp’d them all. Betray’d I am…

Does it get better than that? Maybe, but I haven’t read it. Modern poets could learn from this, but most have no clue. It isn’t the sort of thing that’s taught at MFA programs. But  this is the stuff that fired Keats’s imagination (along with Milton, Browning, Tennyson, Shelley and others).

The vigor of anthimeria is what Keats was aiming for when he deployed adjectives like “eternal lids“, “moving waters“, “priestlike task“, “soft-fallen mask“, “ripening breast”, “tender-taken breath”. Not all of these qualify as anthimeria and some are more novel (or original) than others, but Keats was striving for novel juxtapositions that would more powerfully suggest and evoke.

So, if you want to use Keats in defense of adjectives, then you’ll need to up your game. Make your adjectives sudden, quick and unexpected. Don’t write things like “clear, blue sky” or “white, puffy clouds”. These are extreme examples, I know, but as long as young poets are learning to write, they’ll show up.

Then again, maybe you should avoid adjectives altogether, at least for a time. Shortly after showing my sonnet to Thomas Lux he asked me to write a poem with no adjectives. That was when I wrote the poem The Evening Coming. A couple of adjectives snuck (I refuse to write sneaked) into the first stanza, but after that I was adjective free. When Lux first told me I ought to write a poem without adjectives, I was like a drunk being told to get off drink. I didn’t take it well. None of the poets with whom I’ve corresponded take it well. (I’m good at reading between the lines – it’s what I do.) That’s why there may be a place for intervention. To wit, here are the twelve steps of Adjectives Anonymous:

1. We admitted we were powerless over adjectives—that our poems had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore our poetry to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our poems over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless adjectival inventory of our poems.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our poetry’s wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove these defects.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove the adjectives.
8. Made a list of all persons we had poetically harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all (somehow).
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others (no throwing your poems, brick and apology attached, through the windows of your erstwhile readers).
10. Continued to take poetic inventory and when they were wrong promptly admitted it and corrected them.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry on without adjectives.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to adjectivolics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Try writing poetry with no adjectives, or try limiting your poetry to one or two adjectives per poem.

Bottom Line: If you can’t write poetry without adjectives, you might never learn to write poetry with adjectives.

  • After I wrote this post, I discovered this little gem by Richard Lawson. If you’ve read this far, you might enjoy it.

10 responses

  1. How did I do? For some reason, I seem to edit out as many extra words as possible. I like to have each line be able to stand alone whenever possible. Or to connect to the previous or next line making it read differently depending on the readers flow….

    SOMEHOW

    somehow
    we lay by the still waters
    souls drifting
    into peace
    the sound of lazy water

    the mist settled
    a drop of dew
    turned sunlight
    into colors
    dancing

    resting
    we became one
    motionless
    breathing as one
    our spirits mingled

    we’ve been here
    all along
    since before time
    and after time ends
    we’ll remain

    when I find you
    will you remember
    will you know
    though age has taken
    what it will?

    Somehow
    by the still waters
    sunlight softly dancing
    through the leaves
    such beauty in our eyes

    two spirits
    gently melting
    into one
    the peace
    of being
    found again
    eternal

    • For some reason, I seem to edit out as many extra words as possible. I like to have each line be able to stand alone whenever possible.

      Oh man… I’ve got all kinds of little quirks, including fussing over line lengths – and that’s when writing blank verse.

      Anyway,

      still waters
      lazy water

      into colors
      dancing

      motionless
      breathing

      still waters
      softly dancing (really an adverb but…)

      gently melting (another adverb but…you know… still has an alcohol content… kind of like Sangria)

      I don’t know… I don’t know… That sneaky little inversion “colors/dancing” is like one of those miniature whiskey bottles you sneak when no one’s looking. As to those adverbs… well… we all know about those little drinks… we tell ourselves they don’t really count. But if you’re going to use them, you’ve got to go Keats on them. Still? Lazy? Gently? Softly?

      But posting here took guts. One member and the AA meetings can start. :-)

  2. This inspired me to trim adjectives and adverbs from two different pieces. Other heavily-adjectived works of mine remain the same, though, I’m okay with them for whatever reason.

    Or the reason is preserving multisyllabic rhyme.

    • You know, nothing kills writing, let alone poetry, like too many adjectives. Sometimes though, as you say, there are other reasons to have them. That cuts both ways, though. :-)

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