Jump to most recent response

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
message box arrow
"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
message box arrow
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
message box arrow
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
message box arrow
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
message box arrow
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
message box arrow
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
message box arrow
Interesting discussion. On the one hand poetry is thriving but on the other it seems to be slipping into divisions of formulaic styles. I have long wondered about the role of creative writing courses in all of this as I have come across many examples of former creative writing pupils producing very similar work. Online journals invariably only want what the editors like and competitions are won by whoever ticks the judges' boxes. Of course there is nothing very wrong with any of this (to a point) but there is perhaps a growing predictability to the poetry scene. Even, dare I say, performance poetry may have found its 'groove' - but how long before the needle gets stuck in said groove and that too becomes well-worn and predictable? Fashion? Fad? Like music, nothing is popular forever. So where to next? And are we at the mercy of the publishers? If we play their game just to get published - which many do - then poetry output is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Is poetry, through its rise in popularity mainly propelled by the internet, becoming yet another safe, homogenised commodity?

Simon, would love to read more of your work here on WoL.

Tue, 1 May 2018 09:01 am
message box arrow
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
message box arrow
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
message box arrow
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
message box arrow
Get your adjectives here! Get your adjectives here! Free pronoun with every ten adjectives!
Fri, 4 May 2018 09:06 pm
message box arrow
Sat, 5 May 2018 07:16 am
message box arrow
Simon, as you are a teacher of creative writing I would be genuinely interested to learn whether there are any grounds for truth in mine and Graham's concerns about such courses as you appear to have neatly sidestepped responding to our comments.

I'm sure there are other factors at play but from general observation there does appear to be something going on. I'm all for education in all forms and at every level but I'm also not an expert on what may or may not be going on out there in education land.

As this discussion thread is overlapping with a previous one on writing courses I'm sure some readers would be interested to learn just what are the best options. Hopefully you might have some insight for us?
Sat, 5 May 2018 09:04 am
message box arrow
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
message box arrow
No worries Simon - I appreciate your response. I do think though that anyone starting a discussion thread does have an obligation to respond to comments especially when they are directly linked to the question posed. Hence my assumption, after reading you were teaching creative writing, that you were sidestepping. But it's no big deal. Hopefully someone else will take up the thread and shed some light on the pros and cons of creative writing courses or any other writing courses for that matter? I'm sure it would be helpful to a lot of people.

To bring the conversation back to your original point, you're obviously not happy with the current state of poetry output for the reasons stated but we don't seem any closer to finding out why. I wonder whether certain areas, like creative writing courses which have perhaps become the popular norm, have now also become the proverbial elephants in rooms which we don't discuss or question?
Sat, 5 May 2018 01:59 pm
message box arrow
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
message box arrow
It really would (just to stick up for the adverbs).
Sun, 6 May 2018 09:25 am
message box arrow
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
message box arrow
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
13 days ago
message box arrow
oh I don't think it needs to go in WoL guidelines Greg...

but, if we want more than the regular Wollers to engage here and elsewhere on the site then we should all perhaps make the effort to acknowledge and respond to comments even if it's just a quick thank you.

I do think if you have the time to start a discussion thread you should find the time to see it through and try to answer questions that directly arise from your original post. But that's just my personal opinion and the way I would go about it.

An interesting article btw.
13 days ago
message box arrow
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.
13 days ago
message box arrow
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!
13 days ago
message box arrow
I've just scratched a comment on Ray's 'school desk' to the effect that I had a terrible secondary education up to O level after which I dropped out. I've never felt inclined to go back into formal education. It's amazing how one carries bad experiences through life to the point that it dictates later decisions. However, despite all that I will always encourage anyone to seek an education in any form and am currently helping my two boys start their journey through university for which I am brimming with excitement and enthusiasm for them.
13 days ago
message box arrow
Colin, I'm loving the word "Wollers." And the fact that by using this site I can presumably categorize myself as a Woller.
12 days ago
message box arrow
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:

SWIMMING IN THE RESERVOIR

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.
12 days ago
message box arrow
I reckon you have earned the right to use the much coveted Woller title now that you have succumbed to our nagging and posted a poem Simon 😉
12 days ago
message box arrow
Simon...as Woller is a noun I've no doubt you'll come up with a suitable adjective for it.
12 days ago
message box arrow
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.
12 days ago
message box arrow
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.
11 days ago
message box arrow

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

Find out more Hide this message