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Notes on Modulation

In my efforts to respond to poetry submitted, there seems to be one pervasive error among many otherwise promising poets. It is the error of over-decoration, as if the more "fresh" words one stuffs in a line, the better. Simply put, to say "nut-brown squirrel" is better than to say "nut-brown thick-furred rain-wet squirrel." The former suffices to kindle the imagination; the latter offers so much unnecessary detail as to squelch it. I see so much of this I blame M.F.A. programs to a degree — at some level of instruction, or imitation, poets have confused clear imagery with profligate embroidering. Often when I break their images down they dissolve into metaphorical vagaries, sometimes laughable.

I think the New Criticism was right about one thing: don't write nonsense. Make sure that tropes, however absurd in themselves, are internally consistent, like "a patient etherized upon a table," not "a patient anesthetized in a wheat field." Beyond this, the law of parsimony applies: every adjective dilutes a noun, every adverb dilutes a verb. Modifiers must be used when the range of verbs and nouns in the language does not suffice to describe, or create, the picture one seeks. Nouns and verbs are almost always safe, provided they are appropriate to the tone and subject. Adverbs are a dangerous temptation, adjectives worse still.

If one adds more than one adjective or adverb to a line, the overall effect is usually a diminution of impact. "A red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water" uses one three- letter adjective, "red." Suppose it were, "A rusty red wheelbarrow with black tires finely glazed with fresh rain water?" Here again, the limit is the human mind. The mind can only encompass so many words in striving to build a picture of what one reads. There is a point, and it must differ between readers, where overload of language makes a person want to run to the bathroom and scream. No one who likes good poetry wants their images over-defined; it leaves nothing for them to do, as the pleasurable generation of images in the mind is shut down by the proliferation of unnecessary words meant to assist them. Words are a means to an end, the end being an imaginative experience. As such, they should not get in the reader's way but "make their paths straight."

Very few exacting realists in the visual arts have been embraced for their technical perfection. Rather it's those who get a feeling across, who imbue their subjects with life, that we embrace. This is not an easy thing to do. Most can learn to draw passably; what is hard is to make drawings live. The same is easily said of poetry.

I really don't know where this misconception comes from. I can't think of many contemporary writers who employ this kind of lushness in their work, though Seamus Heaney crosses the line for me sometimes, but then my ignorance is vast. I see this error in Shelley, Hart Crane and Dylan Thomas, though their best work transcends it. I have seen a lot of it on the web, even encouraged by editors. The effect of such exaggerated verbiage is cartoonish. It also says of words that they aren't enough, they must be dressed up, tattooed, multiplied until the reader is overwhelmed. Psychiatry has a term for uncontrollable verbal prattling: logorrhea. It sounds like what it means: diarrhea of the mouth. What's worse is diarrhea of the pen, when a poet actually plots these overwrought offerings in advance.

I think what I most admire in poets is clarity. Leavis said Eliot could make a phrase that "rings in the mind like a silver coin." Notice, again, one adjective with two nouns and a verb make up this critical felicity.

It would be interesting to have a word processing program that totaled adjectives, adverbs, nouns and verbs in some final count. Without looking at a poem, I bet I could predict if it was any good based on the count. If the adjective count exceeded the noun count, I would bet it was a bad poem. We should never forget t hat modifiers are modifiers; they are not the movers and shakers of verse, not the characters, more the special effects.

A second, related subject is compression. Here I think a formula could be arrived at. It's quite simple: the longer the poem, the less compression is necessary. A haiku is compression; a sonnet is compressed; a longer narrative should leave more breathing space between incendiary images and flourishes of sound than a short poem allows. In other words, the need for compression is inversely proportional to a poem's length.

It may be my weak 20th Century mind that craves such breaks, but I don't think so. Even "The Waste Land" has long sections of dialogue and comparative prosody to modulate effect. If one of Shakespeare's sonnets were 140 lines instead of fourteen, I would need a break by line fifty or earlier. And this is only natural. If poetry is the highest exercise of language, as I believe, no good poet stays on top of Parnassus too long or the reader runs out of oxygen. All of this concerns the importance of pacing and contrast.

Contrast is big with the deconstructionists, but they do have a point: words are defined, not only by the reader's passive dictionary, but by their relation to other words around them. I don't agree with Derrida and others that the text is all, which is the conclusion of deconstructionism. But I agree that the meaning, sound, and impact of words is largely determined by their setting. Jewels must have settings, and in every poem there are peaks of sound and sense corresponding to jewels that must be set off by the more prosaic context that surrounds them. One sign of a good jazz player is their ability to play with empty spaces. What they leave out is as important as what they put in. Charlie Parker, whom I admire, could play with restraint and feeling, but at times he fills too many measures with consecutive riffs. This is overkill and becomes boring, no matter how good the artist. This is akin to the overstuffed lines I see so frequently today, especially on the web. Better one good verb than three good adjectives; better one haunting image than a profusion of incidental ones.


"You say that my poems are poetry. Well, they are not, and until you understand whythey are not, you will never understand their poetry." — Ryokan

"The wisdom of humility is endless." — Eliot

      — C.E. Chaffin