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On Modulation

In my efforts to critique submitted poetry, 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 MFA 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. 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 it reads. There is a point, and it must differ between readers, where an overload of language makes one want to run to the bathroom and scream. No one who likes to read good poetry wants their images over-defined; it leaves nothing for them to do, as the pleasurable generation of images in the reader's 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. On the contrary, 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 how to draw passably; what is hard is to make a drawing 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, but then my ignorance is vast. Perhaps someone can clue me into models of this sort of verse so I can attack them directly. I see this tendency in Shelley, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, even Seamus Heaney, though their best work transcends it. I see 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 intends his overwrought constructions, not merely as a symptom of mental illness.

I think what I most admire in poets is clarity. Leavis (or was it Brooks?) wrote that Eliot could make a phrase "ring in the mind like a silver coin." Notice, again: one adjective, with two nouns and a verb, make up this critical felicity.

I wish I had 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 had the chance to be good based on such a count. If adjectives exceeded nouns, and adverbs, verbs, I would be willing to bet it was bad. We should never forget that modifiers are modifiers; they are not the movers and shakers of verse, not the characters, more the special effects.

A second, related quality of verse, after clarity, which I value, is compression. Here I think a simple paradigm is instructive: 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 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. 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 think 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 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 that require a more prosaic context for a proper setting.

This principle obtains in improvisational jazz as well. One sign of a good jazz players is an appreciation of empty spaces. What to leave out is as important as what to 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, and akin to the overstuffed lines I lament. Better one good verb than three good adjectives; better one haunting image than a profusion of incidental ones.

C.E. Chaffin Editor, The Melic Review

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