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Some General Notes on Poetry

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Tue Oct 17, 2006 5:01 pm
Incandescence says...

Hi guys--

It seems I find myself repeating myself - a lot - both in the classroom and on the YWS. To help avoid that, at least here, I've collected some notes I've made that I'd like to share with you. Some general "do"s and "don't"s - but mainly "don't"s. As always, I'd remind you these are rules-of-thumb, not god-given commandments, but they're good rules-of-thumb and you should at least consider them when confronted with these situations in your own work.

The Three Words That Should Never Be Used

OK, I'll admit it: there aren't any words that should never be used, but there are some that should be avoided at all costs. Here's three of my favorites: nice, just and got.

Why these three? Look at them closely. What on earth does "nice" mean? Surely there must be a dozen better, more accurate words to describe something than "nice", aren't there? It works well in sarcasm, I suppose, or when something is so awful we simply don't know what else to say. "Oh. Your new poem? Very... nice." I can think of many situations when it works in everyday conversation ("Hey, nice putt!) but in poetry it always strikes me as laziness. Avoid "nice".

What does "just" mean? If you think about it for a second, it doesn't mean anything. "Only", perhaps. But more often than not, when you see it in a poem, the poem would work just as well without it. (As in this last sentence. Did you catch that?) Occasionally I'll see "just" pop up in rhymed and metered verse, along with another rhymer's favorite, "that", and in those cases it's usually because by throwing in a quick "just" or a "that" they can get the meter to work. Oooh, clever, no? Well, no. I see it all the time and know exactly why those words are there, and now, so do you. Lazy, isn't it? Cheating a bit, too.

The last of the three, "got", like "nice", is a word where there must be dozens of other, better choices. Off-hand I can think of a few poems where "got" was precisely the right word (no, I'm not going to tell you which ones, do your own research!) certainly more times than I've seen "nice" work successfully, but it should be treated with care and respect. We wouldn't want anyone to think you'd been lazy, would we?

Other Words That Should Never Be Used

Some words change all the time, as the use of language changes through fashion and idiom. I don't think anyone's said "gay" recently when they meant "happy", have they? "I'm feeling quite gay today!" No. The word's associated with homosexuality - at least for the time being - and really can't be used simply to describe happiness anymore without the risk of being either misunderstood or unintentionally funny. It was the same with the word "fabulous" back in the sixties. It was so closely identified with the Beatles, "the fab four", to use it, even in the most sincere and accurate sense, was to be perceived as having a rather limited vocabulary. "Ah. The Tut exhibit was fabulous, you say? How... nice." I don't think fashion should dictate what words can and can't be used, but it certainly has to be taken into consideration.

But the words I am really thinking of are the ones that have been used over and over until they've been done to death. A recent competition I was involved in was to use as many of some done-to-death words as possible in a single poem. The list included heart, soul, mortality/immortality, morn, beautiful, hallowed, awaken, lament, wholly, anguish, dwell, futile, void, abyss, ablaze, cherish, longing, and yearning. All perfectly good words in and of themselves but Lordy, Lordy, have they ever been done to death, especially in, say, (shudder) "love" poems.

I'm not really saying don't use these words, I'm saying think long and hard about them before you commit them to a poem. Then think long and hard about them again before sending the poem to an editor. And, especially, think long and hard about them before ever posting the poem to The YWS. Puh-leeze, or else you'll have to suffer one of my critiques.

Using Parentheses In Poems

When I see a poem that contains parentheses, my first thought is that whatever is between them is probably unnecessary information. And most of the time, I'm right. Parentheses are often an aside, a stage whisper, something the writer simply couldn't resist putting into the poem and more often than not - as I said - contain unnecessary information. By all means use parentheses if that's what the poem wants or needs but after having added them it's a good idea to pause and take a second look. Do I need this information in the poem? What is my reason for putting this in parentheses?

Using Ellipses(three dots)At the End of Lines

This one's easy. Don't. Ever. OK, maybe three times. In your entire life. And never more than once in the same poem. It's lazy. Three dots at the end of a line (much beloved by bad poets everywhere) implies there's something left unsaid, something presumably deep. Which begs the question: Why not say it, then?

Using Line Breaks For Emphasis

This is something I see often - and often in otherwise fairly acceptable poems. Breaking lines for emphasis suggests two things, neither of them good. First, it implies you don't have the wherewithall to say what you're getting at and second, it implies your readers are so ignorant they won't understand the import of what you're saying unless you emphasize it. This rule-of-thumb, incidentally, also applies to putting words in italics, bold face and/or CAPITALS, as well as capitalizing words like Death, Fate, Destiny etc. It's dumb, it's lazy and it's insulting to your readers. Why do it?

I will post the remainder of these notes later today.

Take care,
"If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders." -Hal Abelson

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Tue Oct 17, 2006 5:04 pm
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Firestarter says...

Awesome, Brad. Can't wait to see the rest of the notes. I'm guilty of the last one way too much, and overuse cliche words.
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