Friday, June 10, 2011

Poetry Revision 101, Lesson Four: Do I Sound Fat in This Poem?

This post is dedicated to Dinkinish, who writes with an airbrush.

The wild roses are very red,
and the violets are dark blue,
while the sugar is extremely sweet,
as sweet as you.

Eh? Bizarre. Forgive me for using the same old rhyme to elucidate, but the familiarity of the way this is supposed to go should help you see how unnecessary words and phrases can make your poem fat.

We all know fat is the enemy. According to Market Research News, the global weightloss market will be worth 586.3 billion in US dollars by 2014. We spend money on pills, on treadmills and trainers, on diets and gurus, all trying to lose the fat. Meanwhile, your poetry might be fatter than your thighs, and much easier to fix.

There are eight parts of speech: verbs, nouns, adverbs, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. To the poet, however, these are not all equally useful (prose writersreally good onesare equally biased, by the way). Lean writing, writing that is super-concentrated and packs a wallop of nutrition, is verb and noun based. All other parts of speech should be used only when absolutely necessary. Think of them as the carbs and fats of writing.

The opening revision is a good example. The first thing I did to plump up the rhyme was add “The wild” to “roses.” Instead of just a noun, a nice, simple noun, now we have two adjectives and a noun (articlesa, an, theare a kind of adjective, in case you forget). Three words doing the job formerly done by one. Is the poem any better for it? No. Articles are one of the most useless of all words in poems. They clutter up your line, and have a tendency to fall at the beginning of the line, as above, which is a coveted spot. The opening word of a line has particular emphasis, and to waste it on an article is tragic. “Wild” also adds nothing here, although it might somewhere else. The result? The line is weaker, watered down. “Roses are red,” is simple, to the point. Clear. “The wild roses are very red” is unnecessarily burdened with extra fat.

Focusing on verbsthe leanest, meanest, best of wordsis a good way to put your poetry on a diet. A strong, well-chosen verb can instantly drive home meaning. Consider:

I felt the blackness closing in on me
and made my way to the nearest chair,
where I sat down heavily and tried
to regain my breath. (27 words)

I wilted and collapsed
into a chair, panting. (8 words)

Which lines grab you more? The first four lines are wordy, fat. The last two are immediate, striking. “Felt the blackness closing in on me” is not only a cliché, it’s imprecise. The one wordwiltedimmediately conveys the sensation in a fresher way. “Made my way to the nearest chair, where I sat down heavily” is especially flabby. Why do people “make their way” anywhere, anyway? Don’t they just “go”? Better yet, skip to what’s important, and just get there. Does it matter that it’s the “nearest” chair? “Sat down heavily” is weak verb + adverb + adverb. You mean collapsed, which is the best kind of verb, an action verb. “Sat” is also an action verb, but it’s plain. “Collapsed” combines both the action and the description of the actionheavilyinto one effective verb. Not all verbs are equal. “Felt,” for example, is not a great verb. I felt sick or I was sick is not as great as I barfed. Don’t “feel” sick or “think you might be” sick or “suspect you are” sick. Barf. Retch. Vomit.

A phalanx of tulips.
Nouns also need to be precise to be effective. “The flowers bloom” is not as great as “the roses bloom.” Better yet, have the “tulips salute.” You expect flowers to bloom. Having them salute is better because it’s a fresh way of thinking of tulips, with their erect heads and stiff stems.

Overuse of adjectives and adverbs can be combated by better noun and verb choices, but some of these other parts of speech are necessary for clarity. The good thing about poetry as opposed to prose, however, is that you can accomplish much through placement. Consider:

I went to the market and picked up some chicken, which I put into the oven with potatoes and rosemary I had just picked.

Blech. Lotsa fat here. If I were to take out every junky word, it might look like this:

I went to market and bought chicken, roasted with potatoes and fresh-picked rosemary.

Some of the revision is good. “Picked up some chicken” is now just “bought chicken,” which is leaner. “Put into the oven” is simply “roasted.””Rosemary I had just picked” becomes “fresh-picked rosemary” (which might be even better as just rosemary). But “went to market” sounds British, so I think we need “the market” here in the US. Eliminating the “which” has also altered the meaning of the sentence. Did I roast the chicken myself, or did I buy it roasted already?

Here we have two conundrums. First, don’t eliminate so many junk words that the lines go from lean to stiff or unnatural. If you don’t say “go to market” or “to hospital” in your country, leave in the article. Think about style as well. Are you a minimalist? If not, you might want to retain some of the natural feel of your syntax for the sake of preserving a certain tone. Beyond that, however, note that the placement of your words on the line in poetry can accomplish some of the grammatical exigencies of prepositions, conjunctions, and other “service” words necessary in prose:

Went to the market
bought chicken
roasted with potatoes
fresh-picked rosemary.

You get it, don’t you? Because your brain is in poetry mode, it supplies the missing conjunctions. Meanwhile, the line is not watered down with tiny globs of fatcellulite.

Trimming the fat is one of the best ways to revise your poetry, and something you should consider even when you’re pretty satisfied with your draft. You can always put back some of the words you take out later if you don’t like what it does to your style. Most times, however, you will, and you’ll be surprised by how good the same words can look when they’re not surrounded by clutter. Editors don’t like clutter either. Overwriting is the mark of the insecureyou think more is better, and so you pile on the adjectives and adverbs. You think you are clarifying, but really you’re blithering. Clarity, if you’ll allow me a heinous cliché, is not a matter of quantity, but of quality. The best words in the best order, as Coleridge so wisely said.

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