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Where have all the adjectives gone?

I wonder if anyone else feels there is currently an obsession, in both poetry publishing and in workshop settings, to cut and reduce all poetry to the barest minimum in terms of expressive or descriptive language? Many of my favourite poets are minimalists, and I totally appreciate the need to weed poems of unnecessary verbosity or meaningless pretension, but I fear that there is an obsession with hacking away at almost any linguistic innovation in favour of poems which are barely descriptive at all, and simply come over more like boring lists or prose-like "I did this, I did that," monotony. Over the last year or so I have moved almost entirely away from UK poetry and find that poets from elsewhere in the world seem to operate much more freely and are unafraid of language. At one time, the world of British poetry seemed characterized by a sort of "can do" attitude, and you would hear creative writing tutors telling you that "anything goes" and it was all about finding your own individual "voice." But there has been a gradual transition towards this boring uniformity whereby almost all prize winning poems in major competitions seem like they are written by the same author; the style is so uniformly dry, and it seems as though linguistic innovation has been drained away. At writing groups we are constantly encouraged to cut adjectives or "fancy words" to the point where I often come across published poems which read more like objective newspaper reports, often with no more than a single adjective in a whole poem. Why do we not hear the opposite advice - where are the calls to cut boring, functional words from poems? Why are we never criticized for the abundance of words like "the" "in" "to" "that" "this" which seem to get a free pass, while it really does seem like many poets are literally afraid of adjectives? I've not provided examples as I don't want to set one poet/poem against another, and I'm not out to score points about any particular poet's style (or lack of it).
Fri, 27 Apr 2018 11:12 am
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"But there has been a gradual transition towards this boring uniformity whereby almost all prize winning poems in major competitions seem like they are written by the same author; the style is so uniformly dry, and it seems as though linguistic innovation has been drained away".

They've possible all done the same creative writing course Simon!
Sun, 29 Apr 2018 11:56 am
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Simon, I totally take your point. I still make an effort to make words 'sing'. IMO, a good poem is still much reliant on finely-tuned adjectives and exact verbs that create inherent music. Even 'precise point' poems fare best with imaginative vocabulary.

Sun, 29 Apr 2018 12:43 pm
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To stand up for the minimalist point of view I think some of our national treasures could be improved by a bit of pruning. For example,
“Nice daffs”
“Summer’s day? Thee? No contest”
“If. So what?”
“Mind the canons!”
“Bloody Autumn again!”
They’d got no idea, them poets.
Mon, 30 Apr 2018 08:56 am
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The general modernist 'rule' is "adjectives bleed nouns", nouns and verbs being the 'engine' of poetry. But like all these rules it can be over-emphasised to the point of ridiculousness.

They can weaken a poem if they're not tied to strong nouns, or are just there to pretty up the poem. But if they add to the sharpness of the description, like the row of four adjectives in WC Williams' 'On the road to the contagious hospital' just describing the grass verge, they can be very effective.

Make your adjectives work: "green tree" tells you nothing much. But "old, crabbed hornbeam" makes it much sharper.
Mon, 30 Apr 2018 01:34 pm
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Absolutely Steven, it is all a question of language, the importance of which is often overlooked in poems - as absurd as that may sound, it seems to often be the case. I can't stress enough how much I genuinely appreciate and love minimalist poetry, just as I love all poetry that is well crafted and has innovative or sensitively chosen language at its heart. Victoria Gatehouse, whose recent collection Light After Light I can highly recommend, is a poet who, while not an ultra-minimalist, tends towards a style that is pretty much the polar opposite of my very wordy, adjectival way of writing, and not only do I enjoy her work as a contrast to my own, but she has helped me to painstakingly trim a lot of the distracting over-wordiness from many of my poems, which have been enhanced as a result. So I think what I am really trying to focus on is not so much minimalist poetry, which can be and often is acutely moving, imageistic and linguistically rich, but frankly the boring type of poem I now seem to find in almost every poetry journal, where there seems to be a pathological fear of any language remotely vivid or celebratory, but a total immersion in everyday language or purely factual wording, "this," "they," "its," "what" etc. A lot of modern poems read more like insurance documents, or certainly like uninspired prose that has just been chopped up into stanzas seemingly for the sake of it (but the stanza issue is a whole other debate!)
Mon, 30 Apr 2018 11:53 pm
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I very much agree Cynthia. A lot of the most effective, poignant, funny or engaging poetry (and prose) I've read has been simple and brief, but with particular, well chosen words that just "sting" at the right moment. When you say "a good poem is still much reliant on finely-tuned adjectives and exact verbs that create inherent music," I can think of no better descriptions of effective poetry!
Mon, 30 Apr 2018 11:56 pm
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<Deleted User> (18980)

I must go down to the raging foam laden seas again

To the lonely brooding vermillion blue sea and the cumulus nimbus laden sky

And all I need is a close rigged three masted ship

And a pinprick of pure light, light years old to steer her by
Tue, 1 May 2018 08:25 pm
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It's not just poetry. The whole literary landscape has been cultivated with rules. A foundation is one thing, but in my particular experience with those teaching writing, I have found that they prefer for you to use their design for walls and a roof as well. It comes down to the idea of standardization, which in the US is our very own homemade noose, squeezing the life out of the whole spectrum of our arts educational system.
Wed, 2 May 2018 05:11 pm
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Wow, I totally agree - didn't expect that this problem extended beyond the British poetry scene; interesting, if unfortunate, to hear it does! You're absolutely right about it squeezing the life out of the arts in education - I sometimes run poetry sessions with school classes and teach creative writing, and I'm going to bear this in mind and take pains not to introduce the "walls and roof" approach, unless introducing a specific type of poem etc.
Wed, 2 May 2018 07:50 pm
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Get your adjectives here! Get your adjectives here! Free pronoun with every ten adjectives!
Fri, 4 May 2018 09:06 pm
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Sat, 5 May 2018 07:16 am
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I haven't neatly sidestepped anything, just don't have time to go through and answer everything. I run occasional creative writing sessions where I teach mainly poetry writing to school groups, but have no contact with the current world of adult writing groups, I don't even belong to any as a student at the moment, so I'm afraid I've no idea what the trends are in that sector.
Sat, 5 May 2018 12:22 pm
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<Deleted User> (18980)

Simon do you post on WOL? I can't see anything and it would be good to see your adjective laden work.
Sat, 5 May 2018 10:07 pm
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It really would (just to stick up for the adverbs).
Sun, 6 May 2018 09:25 am
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I will upload some poetry as soon as I get chance. In the meantime, some of my poems can be found on my blog http://simonzonenblickcaterpillarpoet.blogspot.co.uk/
Sun, 6 May 2018 08:38 pm
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I'm not sure anyone starting a discussion thread DOES have an obligation to respond to comments. Is that in the Write Out Loud guidelines? Surely it's just as useful to set the ball rolling ... I know I have in the past. I also can't offer a comprehensive survey of creative writing courses, but I do remember my esteemed colleague and former Gig Guide editor David Andrew often muttering, not very inaudibly, "Workshop poem!" at regular intervals when we attended poetry readings together. I also reported on a discussion involving three poetry magazine editors back in 2014 when one observed that he had once received a sudden rush of poems about horses, and swimming pools, and speculated whether these subjects had recently appeared in workshops or on creative writing courses. I can't remember seeing many poems about swimming pools on Write Out Loud ... https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=41110
Wed, 9 May 2018 08:56 am
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I did a masters degree in creative writing, graduating in 2000. My tutor told me that writing poetry was 'probably not your forte'. I stopped writing about anything that meant something to me at that time. Just completed the academic essays and portfolio work. No joy and little creativity. Fortunately I had no interest in being published so did not feel an on going need to please once the course was over.
Wed, 9 May 2018 10:38 am
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I have always avoided any form of adult education. I learn from reading books and listening to the radio. The wider the subject material the better. Make your own mind up!
Wed, 9 May 2018 10:48 am
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Colin, I'm loving the word "Wollers." And the fact that by using this site I can presumably categorize myself as a Woller.
Wed, 9 May 2018 06:39 pm
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Hi Greg, interesting examples, especially the swimming pools one. I have heard this sort of thing before, a sudden craze for specific themes and certain words which have gained prestige via creative writing groups and competitions.
I am surprised that I do not have any poems about swimming pools, given how much I love using them. But, I do have a poem about swimming. As its been suggested that I share more of my work, I think it may be time to take the plunge, if you will pardon the pun, on a swimming poem. This was written nearly four years ago, after a spot of outdoor swimming at Gaddings Dam, Todmorden. It was a blazing August day but we still had to keep getting out of the water every five minutes or so, as it was utterly freezing. Yet that aspect of it doesn't feature in the poem, because all I could think about at the time was how natural it seemed, and the experience created a sense of kinship with aquatic creatures. Here is the poem:


You feel like an otter
each pawed wave
splays spray
in diamond sprinklings

Sun's an apical bud,
spiked cornflower edges widening,
the afternoon ablaze,
the water's all absorbing, its embrace
the love that dare not speak its name on land.

Congratulations. You have now become an otter.
Wed, 9 May 2018 06:44 pm
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<Deleted User> (18980)

Simon...as Woller is a noun I've no doubt you'll come up with a suitable adjective for it.
Wed, 9 May 2018 09:43 pm
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Simon, thanks for the poem. Does swimming in a reservoir count as 'wild swimming'? I think it does, especially if you turn into an otter in the process. Going back to adjectives in poetry or prose, I have a poem about an early hero of mine, Hemingway, which ends rather abruptly, thus:

Then one day the thing you’ve discovered
turns into a formula. You notice
adjectives, adverbs creeping under the door.
It’s time to blow your head off.

Rather drastic advice for a creative writing student, I suppose. Don't do this at home, folks.
Thu, 10 May 2018 09:35 am
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Fantastic - I love the ending, if you know what I mean. I also find that "You notice / adjectives, adverbs creeping under the door" has fired up my mind in the writing direction.

You're absolutely right that reservoir swimming isn't wild. Outdoor swimming would be a better term.
Thu, 10 May 2018 07:17 pm
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Hi Steve, I hope you don't mind me coming back to this particular point, but three things struck me on thinking back to it. The first is that I largely agree with you, and I like the examples you use. But secondly, I wonder if it is actually because "adjectives bleed nouns" and nouns and verbs are considered the engine of poetry that breaking these rules is sometimes so effective. To use a musical comparison, the music of Schoenberg, or certain pioneering modern jazz records, were startling to listeners precisely because they went against the grain and sounded discordant, illogical or downright wrong in terms of melody, tone or rhythm. But thirdly, when you say adjectives can weaken a poem if they are just there to pretty it up, well, maybe I'm just a hopeless Romantic, but I honestly don't see what's wrong in "prettying up" a poem. I write a lot of quite grim stuff myself and we are bombarded with bad news and the ugly side of life in both the regular media and in poems. I think there is a place for prettifying language. I suppose you probably mean the "Moon and June" variety of writing though, in which case I totally agree. But then that tends to be very weak and thin on adjectives its self.
Sat, 2 Jun 2018 09:53 am
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Thing is, Simon, I think part of the poet's job is to discomfit the comfortable and pretty adjectives can get in the way of that. Try reading the poetry of Paul Celan some time - it is never an easy read because he makes you look straight into the abyss caused by Aushwitz (which he survived and he didn't.) He rejected his early poems like Death Fugue for essentially prettyfying horror.

That doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't write pretty verses because we can't all be that intense all the time.

Sun, 3 Jun 2018 04:49 pm
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I agree re Celan and similar poetry. I equally agree with your closing statement. But also, not everyone has the sort of experiences to evoke such poetry, nor does everyone's particular collection of poetic skills guide them in that direction. I would hate someone to be put off from writing poems because they couldn't channel a sufficiently challenging or political mindset to find a discomfiting voice or style. For me, it is ultimately all about finding the right language - an ingredient lots of poets seem to be almost ignoring nowadays. Quite a few poets don't even like to be described as poets any more. Its as if we are becoming afraid of language.
Mon, 4 Jun 2018 05:25 pm
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Alan Pascoe

Simon, write to the very edge of where your talent lies, then you'll push it even further. But, as a writer, one has to have something to say. Do you?

Each art form is inseparable from another art form. Try and do what Goya did two hundred years ago. Say something about art and life, about love and death. Otherwise it's just messing about.

As you're aware, you can write about something even if you haven't experienced it. It's called imagination and talent.

When so-called tutors ask ... Write what you know...
It's utter bullshit. Write about what you don't know.
Take risks.

Read Joseph Brodsky's published literary essays. ON GRIEF AND REASON. Penquin. 1995. Also, Brodsky's LESS THAN ONE. Viking. 1986.

You may learn more from these superb essays than from the work of any English poet writing today.

Brodsky believed words possess specific gravity. The weight of a word is increased or lessened depending upon which word one places next to another.

Pretty words have no specific gravity. They have no earth. Ken Tynan knew that sixty years ago. Avoid them. I'm sure you know all this.

Use fewer words. Write in paragraphs. Begin a major work.


Mon, 4 Jun 2018 10:51 pm
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To each their own.
Fri, 8 Jun 2018 10:55 pm
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<Deleted User> (18980)


You are spending a lot of time discussing the theory...when are we going to see your work posted as blogs on this site?

That is the acid test...you'll find out how likeable they are.

Sat, 9 Jun 2018 07:12 am
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I don't see how that is relevant, though. I'm posting here in regard to a particular issue in contemporary poetry, and my thoughts on it as a reader, not as a writer. I did in fact post one of my poems earlier in the thread,and there is one on my WOL profile (with a link to my blog which features dozens of my poems) but then who is to say that my own poems have conformed to the standards of preferences I have as a reader? It happens that most people who have responded have tended to agree that modern poetry is decreasingly adjectival - some feel that's a good thing, others not, but they haven't appeared to need examples of my own work in order to make this judgement. And surely you are not suggesting that only those who write poems should have opinions on them? If you mean I should show specific examples then I could probably find various poems by famous authors which illustrate the point, but there hasn't seemed much reason to do so. And your suggestion of an "acid test" doesn't sound so appealing, to be honest. The fact that individuals on this site liked or disliked the poems wouldn't prove anything relating to the theme of the thread, and I didn't join this site with the aim of being "tested" - especially not in an acidic manner!
Wed, 13 Jun 2018 12:32 am
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<Deleted User> (18980)

That's a pity Simon, that we will not see the theory turned into practise in one of your own poems. Relatively few WOL members participate in these discussions, but they do post and read blogs. On this site you've got to be able to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
Thu, 14 Jun 2018 11:12 am
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I have no problem whatsoever with contributions offered in a poetry discussion by readers only. Thank God such readers still exist, and with a keen, critical taste. The idea of poetry for poets only is increasingly the bizarrre norm, as on our own WOL site, but it is self-limiting, and entirely too much like 'sour grapes'. I hope my work will always find discriminating 'readers' who have never penned a line, nor wish to. Otherwise, I'd stop writing.
Fri, 15 Jun 2018 11:04 am
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I can only assume you're being tongue-in-cheek Brian. Otherwise I've got to say I never expected to be told "on this site you've got to walk the walk..." - what do you think this is, a military training camp?
I still can't see any reason why examples of my own writing would strengthen my question. And I did, in fact, post a poem as part of the discussion. Yet the site guidelines say it is a forum "for people of all backgrounds," not that they have to be poets.
My question is one about the overall picture of contemporary poetry, whether others feel there is a move away from an adjectival style, and whether they think this is a good, bad or neutral thing. I'm not using it as a platform for my own work, just to enjoy a chat and hear from those who agree or disagree with me, in the hope that we will all gain something from a hopefully thought provoking discussion. But then, that's me all over - talking the talk since 1981.
Sun, 17 Jun 2018 08:43 pm
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<Deleted User> (18980)

Nevertheless Simon, we await your blogs with bated breath.
Mon, 18 Jun 2018 06:02 pm
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Gentlemen, this discourse has gone beyond 'humourous'. What started as a perfectly legitimate question about poetry generally has become a fiasco, like two pit bulls with a lovely silk scarf in their teeth. No point except a shredded scarf.
Tue, 19 Jun 2018 12:12 pm
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<Deleted User> (18980)

Nothing wrong with discussion creep Cynth.
Tue, 19 Jun 2018 02:14 pm
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I've been made to feel like my contributions are invalid, simply because I haven't posted many poems myself. I am trying to discover why it is deemed so important to do so. Brian may not have stated that in as many words, but it is strongly implied in his talk of "acid tests" and "walking the walk" etc. I feel such language could be off-putting to other potential contributors, who may not have poems to share or want to do so; nor is it a particularly constructive way of engendering discussion. As soon as Brian - or anyone else - makes clear why sharing my own work would make my question more valid or add weight to the discussion, I will do so. Otherwise I feel inclined to walk away from this site, it seems to have taken on a less than cordial atmosphere.
Tue, 19 Jun 2018 05:00 pm
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I hope you don't 'walk away', Simon. This is a site for poetry lovers, not just the publication of amateur poetry writers.

All comments relating to the expansive field of poetry should be welcome. In the same spirit as you might take any poem from any source, to study in a ''classroom' where certain criteria of 'writing verse' do apply. Poetry really is a defined art form that deserves ardent supporters and keen critics.

The bias of one's personal writing might well be a handicap, not a help.
Tue, 19 Jun 2018 06:13 pm
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Simon you do not need to publish your work here on WOL if you do not wish to. It does seem a shame that you are not enjoying the site as much as you could though. Sorry if the words of some of our WOLers have upset you.
Tue, 19 Jun 2018 08:31 pm
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<Deleted User> (18980)

I will make no further contribution to this discussion as I have clearly made Simon uncomfortable by suggesting that he takes the opportunity to influence other bloggers by posting his preferred descriptive writing.

Simon, I apologise.
Tue, 19 Jun 2018 09:30 pm
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Ok no worries Brian.
Fri, 22 Jun 2018 08:22 pm
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I don't publish my poems here. I did a bit once, but I want to publish in magazines including online ones so I reserve them for that. It doesn't mean I don't have an opinion.
Mon, 25 Jun 2018 11:47 am
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a complete non-discussion. as usual, a perfectly good discussion devolves in to nonsense. simons poetry happens to be excellent, but even if he didnt write poetry at all i fail to see how his opinion is invalid. especially because he asked the bloody question in the first place.

as for the actual topic, i agree and disagree at the same time. i love the immediacy and rawness of a voice when its spat out on the page as it would be spoken, with a lack of frills and lacey words.

i also love exactly the opposite.

i do agree that adjectives have been on the decline in 'popular' poetry lately, because the current climate calls for hardships and moving stories, and they tend to carry with them a sort of brutal honesty (confession) that doesnt require overtly poetic language.

its a good question, if we could get the discussion back on track it might yield some interesting opinions.

Tue, 26 Jun 2018 11:54 am
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Wed, 27 Jun 2018 10:01 am
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Alan Pascoe


You make a very interesting point. But people who may not have a total passion for an art form, deny, or dismiss it in others.

Rossellini and Truffaut changed European cinema - there were others - They changed it because they possessed that passion. Truffaut was utterly committed to celluloid, as Eliot and Nin were to the written word. It became inseparable from who they were.

Anais Nin, in her early journals advanced the art form of the journal. She changed our angle of consciousness to the sun and to ourselves.

If you haven't read them - read them. Especially 'Journals 1932 - 34.'

As Fitzgerald said... 'Use the experience of the thousands dead.'

Sun, 1 Jul 2018 09:01 am
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I do think, however, that there ought to be a WOL page where contributors could square up to each other like bantam cocks.
Mon, 2 Jul 2018 09:47 am
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"Cocks" is the right word for the macho idiots. But it might keep them off the more interesting discussions so we don't have to put up with them anymore.
Mon, 2 Jul 2018 12:02 pm
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Chill out guys. It's only the internet.
Tue, 3 Jul 2018 12:26 am
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Please everyone commenting, please keep the site friendly. It is perfectly simple to disagree and offer alternatives without using offensive or inflammatory language. Thank you.
Tue, 3 Jul 2018 01:16 pm
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Big Sal

You should have seen it a week and a half ago.?
Fri, 13 Jul 2018 05:17 pm
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Ferris, a terrific contribution. Plus an offer of inter-personal communication! You are a scholar and a gentleman.

And you have upped football and tennis! ?
Sat, 14 Jul 2018 11:43 am
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The problem with adjectives in verse, is that they are often akin to a living room floor that is scattered with a child's discarded toys, best kept in a box.

I must away and go now and clear the mess I've made
I must bend down and reach for
the words with once I played.

Sun, 29 Jul 2018 07:25 am
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