Exercising Brevity

Copyright © by Neil Hester, 5/31/11


On Writing Poetry


When writing poetry, brevity is bliss.

That 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:






When the Present is behind me,

             And May makes its leavings,

Delicate-filmed, will others see

             I was one who noticed such things?


If I pass, during some warm night,

            When hedgehogs grace the lawn,

Who may say, ‘He strove so their plight

            Would have worth- but now all are gone.’


And who will say, when now is dumb,

            Paused from its outrollings,

All will return, and these words come,

            ‘He was one who noticed such things?’






When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,

            And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings,

Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk, will the neighbours say,

            "He was a man who used to notice such things"?


If it be in the dusk when, like an eyelid's soundless blink,

             The dewfall-hawk comes crossing the shades to alight

Upon the wind-warped upland thorn, a gazer may think,

             "To him this must have been a familiar sight.


If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,

             When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,

One 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."


If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door,

              Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees,

Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more,

              "He was one who had an eye for such mysteries"?


And will any say when my bell of quittance is heard in the gloom,

              And a crossing breeze cuts a pause in its outrollings,

Till 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 suggestions works:




The Thieves and the Cock 


Some 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)




The 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. 

  A 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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