Auld Lang Syne

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Value of Adjectives

The value of adjectives 

Most poetry I read today falls into two "adjective categories," the spare and the spoiled. As magazine editor (Pulse Literary Journal) I get a ton of submissions. In fact I am working on the latest edition to be up by the end of this weekend. What I notice and what I always notice like some blinking red light is a tendency to overuse the adjective. Remember that this part of speech is needed to separate one noun from another and to avoid confusion. There is a difference between a red, leather-bound book and a green, soft-bound book and if you are sending someone to fetch the book you want, they need to know. BUT, in poetry does it matter? Not so much. But I see poems where the writer has strung together a long list of adjectives to modify or explain a single image. Do I need to know that the waves are thundering, forceful, dangerous? Yes, but I like to think any reader can find out those three characteristics of particular waves by what those waves wreak. Or by the metaphor or simile created for them. EX: geraniums, burst open with the colors of fireworks. Isn't that more interesting than listing the variations of colors in a plant? Doesn't that expression convey more than color?

I belong to a wonderful poetry group. We meet in our local library every other Tuesday. We meet to look at rough drafts of our poems, give suggestions for revision, and talk about what works. We trust each other to take the long view, and to scrutinize the minutia too. One thing I notice is that we all have a similar problem in our poems: over-explaining. This comes via overuse of adjectives. It is a common affliction that stems from a desire to get the image clear, to paint a lucid picture for the readers of our poems. I firmly believe however that this lucidity is best achieved with a spare number of adjectives. If we say red, red rose is the rose more red? Not so much. And using an adjective in hopes an unclear image will become clear is just nuts. Is it not better to say the river is dying of thirst than to say it is dusty and low? Adjectives are getting too much work these days, and metaphor is underemployed. So the struggle for clarity continues.

There are of course any number of poets who have the problem solved. I recommend the following 8 poets/poems:

Richard Wilbur The Writer
BH Fairchild  Brazil
Anthony Hecht The Grapes
Dana Gioia Nosferatu's Serenade (Ellen's Dream)
Elizabeth Bishop Sestina, The Waiting Room
Patricia Smith Siblings
Dorianne Laux Girl in the Doorway, A Brief History of the Apple
Carol Muske-Dukes Love Song

These poems stand for the best of sparseness and yet are rich and lucid. I go to them again and again when I am feeling that my own poems are falling into the rut of adjectives.

What about you?

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