Sunday, April 4, 2010

Language Economy

Poetry is language at its simple best. Each word carries weight, drawing readers nearer to the sublime.

Poetry is language at its most pure, elemental form. Every word counts; any extraneous word has been severed.

Poetry challenges. It delights, it inspires, and it can be found anywhere, even in your own journals, essays, and letters.

While you practice learning to recognize the power of language, pause to invent a “found” poem. Here’s how:

Locate a highlighter. Open to any page from a newspaper, magazine, or your own work. Highlight the most specific, concrete nouns; alive, active verbs (more about these in today’s GUM lesson); and vivid adjectives. What remains will become the elements of a poem.

For example, here is paragraph from one of the samples posted on my website at

Standing for Hassan with Sohrab is Amir’s greatest challenge and finest act of redemption. The child is broken. He desires death rather than return to Afghanistan or spend a moment in any orphanage. His sorrow is greater than any adult can imagine bearing, yet Sohrab is a mere child. Amir falls to his knees in humble prayer, asking for strength, guidance, help, and each arrives. Soraya facilitates a way for Sohrab to immigrate to the U. S. while Amir humbly seeks a way to make amends to a child so damaged. Then Grace intervenes, and Sohrab sees a kite, long since banned in Afghanistan. The sight of something light, borne high against a sky by the winds from the Pacific over which the Golden Gate spans, captures the boy’s heart. The kite provides a bridge between Amir’s past and his present, between Hassan and Amir, between Amir and Sohrab. The kite represents Amir’s final triumph for he promises to run the kite for Sohrab “a thousand times over,” giving the gift of humble service to a friend in need, his foster son.

From this paragraph, I pull or highlight the following powerful words: redemption, child, broken, sorrow, imagine, humble, prayer, ask, strength, guidance, help, amends, Grace, light, captures, bridge, triumph, promises, friend, need.

With these words, I will illustrate a writing practice by inventing a haiku poem, consisting of 17 syllables, organized in three lines: 5 for the first, 7 for the second, and 5 for the third.

Sorrow. Child broken.
Pray. Ask for the light of Grace.
Imagine triumph.

Like the exercise last week, using classified ads, this exercise requires that you identify words that have power, then organize them to deliver a powerful message in very few words.

GUM: Grammar, Usage and Mechanics.

Last week and this week, I referred to alive, active verbs. In this GUM lesson, I would like to review active and passive verbs because in general, good writers should prefer active over passive.

Active: The batter hit the ball. (5 words)
Passive: The ball was hit by the batter. (7 words)

The same action takes place in each example, but the emphasis differs. Why would anyone not want to focus attention upon the batter? What would anyone want to use 7 words when 5 will do nicely? Well, sometimes, we like to use fuzzy English so that the person responsible is less obvious. For example:

Active: Today, the Committee passed legislation for progress. (7 words)
Passive: Legislation for progress was passed by the Committee today. (9 words)

In the first sentence, the “Committee” is front and center. It is the focus of the message. In the second sentence, “legislation for progress” is the focus, taking attention off the group responsible. Here, passive voice becomes not only a wordier construction, but one that obfuscates or at least de-emphasizes what the committee did.

Occasionally, however, passive voice adds a desirable effect. For example:

The boxer recoiled. He danced away on the balls of his feet while keeping his gloved hands high and ready. He moved closer to strike, but he was knocked out instead.

In the example above, the focus is consistently on the boxer even when the verb form switches from active to passive. Switching to passive at the end communicates the boxer’s defeat with an end punch in language.

Choose passive voice infrequently and only for a very good reason.

Reading Challenge:

Read the translated haiku of Basho, available online. He has mastered the art of word economy while making moments come alive.

Writing Challenge:

Use your own writing or that of another writer to create haiku that brings alive for the reader a moment, emotion, or idea.