Neil Hester

All poems © Neil Hester unless otherwritten

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Location: North Carolina, United States

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Exercising Brevity, Part I

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:

~~~

Afterwards

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?’

~~~~~

Afterwards 

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.

That's enough for now- in a couple days, I'll talk about a good strategy for improving one's writing by focusing on brevity (with an example).

Take care,
~Neil

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