In the past few days I’ve been reading the late Mark Strand’s poetry. Truth be told, I’d never heard of the guy until he died. I think, for writers, that is a terrible fate (think Herman Melville, for instance), but I suppose it is better than readers never discovering one’s work at all.
What stands out about Strand’s poetry is how conversational and thrifty it is. Specifically, Strand uses adjectives and adverbs sparingly. This is a verb and noun guy — the muscle and bones of good writing. Yet when I write poetry, I often find myself trying to enrich the product with that all-too-tempting descriptive candy: adjectives melted over adverbs (42 grams of sugar).
So, there’s a lesson to be learned here. For instance, let’s take a look-see at the poem “Coming to This”:
Coming to This
We have done what we wanted.
We have discarded dreams, preferring the heavy industry
of each other, and we have welcomed grief
and called ruin the impossible habit to break.
And now we are here.
The dinner is ready and we cannot eat.
The meat sits in the white lake of its dish.
The wine waits.
Coming to this
has its rewards: nothing is promised, nothing is taken away.
We have no heart or saving grace,
no place to go, no reason to remain.
Mark Strand, “Coming to This” from Selected Poems. Copyright © 1979, 1980 by Mark Strand. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.Source: Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990)
Stanza One: two adjectives (out of 30 words): “heavy” and “impossible”
Stanza Two: one adverb (“now”) and two adjectives (“ready” and “white”) out of 26 words
Stanza Three: zilch (out of 28 words)
Total: 5 adj./adv. out of 84
Well, maybe I missed a few, but you get the idea. If your language is ornate (adjective!), it helps to read a writer whose diction is more Mother Hubbard cupboard-like. Bare those bones, people! Let your nouns and verbs carry that weight!