Copyright © by
Neil Hester, 5/31/11
On Writing Poetry
writing poetry, brevity is bliss.
said, I think I’m done writing this.
Okay- so there's also such a thing as a lack of substance. But, far more
common than underwriting, overwriting is a problem that plagues a lot of
writing, poetry or otherwise. If you read some of the This Old Poem
entries at Cosmoetica, you'll notice that one of the most common fixes to make a
poem better is to simply excise parts of the poem that add little to nothing
(e.g., description for the sake of description) or actually hurt the poem (e.g.,
clichés, unmusical phrasing). Since I mentioned the This Old Poem series, I
will pull an example from it to show what I'm talking about. Here's the two
drafts of a poem by Thomas Hardy:
the Present is behind me,
And May makes its leavings,
will others see
I was one who noticed such things?
I pass, during some warm night,
When hedgehogs grace the lawn,
may say, ‘He strove so their plight
Would have worth- but now all are gone.’
who will say, when now is dumb,
Paused from its outrollings,
will return, and these words come,
‘He was one who noticed such things?’
the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,
And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,
as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,
"He was a man who used to notice such things"?
it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,
The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight
the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,
"To him this must have been a familiar sight.
I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,
When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,
may say, "He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,
But he could do little for them; and now he is gone."
when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,
Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,
this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,
"He was one who had an eye for such mysteries"?
will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,
And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,
they rise again, as they were a new bell's boom,
"He hears it not now, but used to notice such things"?
You probably caught onto the switch-up—revised first, original
second—once you saw the second version (and, perhaps, got tired of reading it
by the third stanza). Here's the link
to the full article. Some comments on the original- for one, some of the music
is forced and overdone (read the 1st and 5th lines aloud to see what I mean).
Also, some of the modifiers and phrases are redundant or unneeded.
"Nocturnal blackness" is one- nights are typically dark, and there's
no reference to any other potential "blackness" or
"nocturnal" thing, so there's no need to specify otherwise. "Mothy"
does nothing, and "full-starred heavens" is better than "starry
heavens" but still contributes very little to the poem. If you're writing,
and not sure whether or not to keep a phrase or word, try this: weigh the
benefit of keeping the phrase or word against the benefit of tightening up a
line or sentence, and thereby maintaining the momentum of the primary thrust of
the piece. Chances are, if the description is not important in some way, then
you'd be better off cutting it.
Next, I'll talk about a good strategy for improving one's writing by
focusing on brevity (with an example):
Ever considered how musicians play
etudes and scales to work on certain aspects of their technique? Or, how
athletes run drills to improve their performance in particular areas? The same
can apply to writing poetry- you can target a certain aspect of writing, apply
relevant rules to the act of writing, and improve that particular thing.
In this case, we'll look at ideas and
rules for improving concision- that is, "exercising brevity" (oh ho!).
If you tend to write really long poems, whether they be free verse, formal
verse, or something in between, then obvious rule is obvious- limit the number of lines you have! For example, a sonnet
accomplishes this. Take something that you could (and would) probably write 30,
40, 50 lines about, and write 14. That's it. Doesn't necessarily have to be a
classical sonnet (it can be modern), but you only have so many words, so use
them more effectively.
From the basic rule, you can also add
other rules or try tougher forms to make the process more technically
challenging (especially if you tend to write free verse). Villanelles, for example, are challenging-
sure, you have 19 lines, but you also have a refrain that has to repeat multiple
times, and to write a good villanelle, that refrain has to be written in a way
that lends itself to multiple meanings, which is something that, in general,
helps with concision. Or, for additional rules, you can cut down further on the
lines (from a sonnet benchmark), impose a rhyme scheme, take a longer work (like
a short story or fairy tale) and condense it while still retaining most (or all)
of the force and meaning, etc.. Here's an example of how a fusion of these
Thieves and the Cock
thieves broke into a house and found nothing worth taking except a cock, which
they seized and carried off with them. When they were preparing their supper,
one of them caught up the cock, and was about to wring his neck, and cried out
for mercy and said, “Pray do not kill me. You will find me a most useful bird,
for I rouse honest men to work in the morning by my crowing.” But the thief
replied with some heat, “Yes, I know you do, making it still harder for us to
get a livelihood. Into the pot you go!”
(Translated by V.S. Vernon Jones)
Thieves and the Cock
The silent party made their break
And stole a meal. Then cried the cock:
“Please let me go! I’ll help- I wake
Good men each day!” Of this he talked
Till a thief replied and grabbed his bill:
“Yesyes, you silly bird, I know-
you make our jobs even harder still.
Now— into the pot you go!”
Lessee- cutting down on lines? Check- only 8. Rhyme scheme? Check- abab,
very standard, and appropriate for this kind of material. Taking a work and
condensing it? Check- 107 vs. 62 words, and every important element of the story
is still there. Is this a really great poem? No, but it's definitely solid, and
it does stand on its own, apart from the prose version. And, the lessons learned
by working within such restraints can easily translate over to longer and more
complicated works, which is essential.
side note, since I've talked quite a bit about imposing rules on writing to
improve: if you tend to always write with formal rhyme schemes, or always write
really short poems, the opposite rules can also apply. Make yourself write free
verse, and work on expanding ideas and adding extra layers and nuances to give
the words meaning and maintain interest. But, the more common problem (as noted
earlier) is overwriting, which I chose to mainly address.
Although certain things are very
difficult to practice, such as the development of interesting and fresh ideas,
other things can be systematically improved upon, such as the presentation and
execution of ideas. And that, in itself, is worth something. A piece with an
interesting idea, but poor execution of that idea, is mediocre at best- and who
doesn't want to strive for something beyond mediocrity?
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