Sunday, February 12, 2006

Leaving out 'the'

Recently on an internet forum, I suggested a poet replace the articles in her piece - it was a lovely piece and to my mind, the missing articles (mostly 'the') detracted from its grace. I've never understood why poets remove the articles from their works. I was enlightened, however, by a response to my 'crit' from another critter (names aren't important here so I'm leaving them out) :

"I'd use caution in adding all the articles Jude suggests, as I feel the result becomes increasingly prosaic. "

and the poet's rejoinder:

"Jude, thank you for your comments on including more articles such as "the." I tend to use them sparingly because I'm always concerned about making the poem sound too much like prose (as John mentioned)."

I understand, finally, why poets leave out their articles. To make their pieces sound more like poetry. As though poetry sounds like anything specific! And what, really, is the difference between Prose and Poetry? As far as I can tell there is only one difference: line endings. Here's a snippet from The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser:

"Prose poems require the same amount of care that lined verse requires, but the writer of a prose poem forgoes the tool of line endings, and a line ending is a powerful tool. ... Even though the prose poem author puts aside this important tool, he or she gains another tool, which is to take advantage of the ease and confidence with which a reader approaches prose as opposed to poetry. Lots of readers are intimidated by the appearance of poetry, saying to themselves as they come upon a poem as if they were about to step on a snake, "Uh-oh! It's a poem! LOOK OUT!" On the other hand, we are all so accustomed to the appearance of prose that we enter a prose poem without much fear. "

I'd like to take a moment here to define PROSAIC. It actually has nothing to do with prose.

adjective: lacking wit or imagination (also PROSY)
adjective: not fanciful or imaginative. Example: "A prosaic and unimaginative essay"
adjective: not challenging; dull and lacking excitement

How sad that this word is being associated with Prose Poetry! I'm not going to type it out here, but Kooser's book gives some brilliant samples of prose that are anything but prosaic.

Here is an item taken directly from the Gazebo's Poetry Primer under the section of 'General Dos and Don'ts'

Leaving out 'the'

We were tempted to give an example of what we're talking about but decided against it. There's enough examples of this kind of writing on the poetry newsgroups. Someone, somewhere, decided that leaving out the "the" articles in poems somehow made them sound more heartfelt and meaningful. It doesn't. All it does is make every piece written this way sound exactly like every other piece. It isn't clever, it isn't creative. It isn't even original. It's merely another sign of bad poetry.

Jude

10 Comments:

Blogger Bob Hoeppner said...

Perhaps some people use the word "prosaic" when they mean "prosey" (which, perhaps, is a neologism, but you know what I mean.)

As for the quote from Gazebo's Dos and Don'ts: that's a perfect example of what annoys me about some of the online experience: the dyspeptic absolute pronouncements of what is and is not acceptable, and, if you disagree, the labeling that you're a novice poet who doesn't know any better.

>Someone, somewhere, decided that leaving out the "the" articles in poems somehow made them sound more heartfelt and meaningful.

Maybe so, but there are other reasons to drop the "the", including making a poem less verbose, and for rhythmical effect.

>All it does is make every piece written this way sound exactly like every other piece.

This kind of absolutism, that all poems without "the"s sound like every other poem without "the"s, is such an outrageous generalization that its writer loses much credibility with me. And, even if that were true, then is it necessarily bad, for instance, in the same way that all poems written in iambic pentameter sound like all other poems in iambic pentameter?

>It isn't clever, it isn't creative. It isn't even original. It's merely another sign of bad poetry.

I would say that when to drop the "the" doesn't have to be clever, creative, or original to be a valid tool of poetic craft. Dropping the "the" when it has no benefit can weaken a poem, but a poem good enough in other ways may still be good enough to be saved from being "bad poetry." But, no, according to the pompous ass who wrote this drivel, if you disagree, then you're just bad. Seems very closed-minded to me.

1:01 PM  
Blogger Bob Hoeppner said...

I just read a line in Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving which reminded me of the Gazebo quote. Fromm wrote Since one expected to find the ultimate truth in the right thought, major emphasis was on thought... In religious development this led to the formulation of dogmas, endless arguments about dogmatic formulations, and intolerance of the "non-believer" or heretic. And it made me think about the poetic dogmatism evident in the quote. I think some poets see poetry almost exclusively as a contruct of thought, so that the ultimate of their aesthetic is the poem of near scientific description, something written in a clinical blandness of minute detail. I can understand the craft of such a poem, so I won't say that it's bad poetry, but I find poems like that don't engage me in the same way a good poem by Blake or cummings or others engage me. It is as if thought has distilled passion from the subject, turning it into merely an object, an artifact to be cataloged in precise language. There is skill in that, but not something I'd necessarily find comforting on a desert island. My personal preference is for poetry that makes isolation more bearable. With such concerns, I'm unlikely to excommunicate anybody over the use of their "the"s. In the poetry of thought, woe be to you who don't think like the arbiters. I instinctively rebel against that.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Jude Goodwin said...

The whole issue with 'the' and other dropped articles is similar, in my mind, with things like capital letters at the beginning of each line, or the use of words like thy, and moreover, and forevermore or meter and rhyme. There are inexperienced readers who think a poem has to have these in order to be a poem - this comes from the bulk of their experience with poetry having happened in school, probably grade 12 and the History of English Lit. At least, that is the bulk of my own experience!

What I discard whole heartedly is any kind of boilerplate template approach to creative expression. I'm sure there are some great poems out there that are missing an article here and there. I am equally sure there are a lot of well intentioned poets who are deliberately dropping their articles in order to make their poems more poetic - similar to line breaks for emphasis and exclamation points - this is what I would discourage. And it is something I've seen a lot of online. Scooping out the 'the's and stuffing them in a drawer along with the 'like's (The simile has such a bad reputation nowadays that many poets are keeping them in but just not including the word 'like').

J

3:27 PM  
Blogger Bob Hoeppner said...

Funny you should mention "like". I must admit I dislike "like" in the first two lines of a poem, but I wouldn't discount a poem for containing it. Here are some Dylan Thomas quotes that could be relevant:

The best craftsman always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash, or thunder in.

I use everything and anything to make my poems work and move in the direction I want them to: old tricks, new tricks, puns, portmanteau-words, paradox, allusion, paronomasia, paragram, catachresis, slang, assonantal rhymes, vowel rhymes, sprung rhythm. Every device there is in language is there to be used if you will. Poets have got to enjoy themselves sometimes, and the twisting and convolutions of words, the inventions and contrivances, are all part of the joy that is part of the painful, voluntary work.

4:38 PM  
Blogger Jude Goodwin said...

Dylan Thomas, oh how I used to languish over him in my school years!

And the simile - of course it can be over used but nowadays I swear, if I put one in a poem, and post it, the first three critters will make polite and kind suggestions that I remove the simile - before they've even really had time to absorb the poem, with all its bits and pieces.

There is alot of pressure to comment and crit and leave intelligent and yes, even praiseworthy crit and comment at that. It's become a bit glib I'm afraid -

J

8:55 PM  
Blogger Hannah Craig said...

Stock critiques are almost always pointless, at some level, especially as a writer becomes more experienced. AND, I think, or I almost always think, that critics who can’t properly defend the logic of their “stock critique” ought to be hauled out at dawn and um…wait…ok…scolded lightly.

I don’t think the addition or lack of articles has anything to do with making a poem more/less “prosaic.” And I agree with Bob that the critic was probably misusing the word “prosaic,” instead meaning to insinuate that the addition of articles make a line more “prose-like” (and there is some truth to that, certainly).

I think there are good reasons for dropping articles, from time to time…and most of the poets we read/admire use that device freely. The first two lines of Dylan Thomas’ “Poem on His Birthday,” are a perfect example:

“In the mustardseed sun,
By full tilt river and switchback sea…”

In the first line, he places an article before his noun. In the second line, he omits.

Poets are attentive to aspects of the line that aren’t always perfectly grammatical—the omission of an article may serve the purpose of sound, may imply a stronger/more direct connection between (as in the example above) modifiers or verbs and their nouns, may alter the speed/pacing of a line, may imply a generic rather than specific subject, etc, etc, etc. I think, given these reasons, it’s perfectly reasonable for a critic to suggest the omission of an article here or there…they just ought to give better reasons!

-H

2:06 PM  
Blogger J Malcolm said...

What a wonderful discussion. The use or lack of use of articles in poetry. The question is what exactly does articles or lack of articles do to a poem. Like every tool it has a definite purpose which can be applied in a lot of circumstances. In my own opinion, articles suggest distance from the writer and the subject. Lack of articles imply an immediacy of the subject to the reader. Simply that. If a poem benefits from immediacy and closness of subject to writer then the articles should be used sparingly, not cut entirely. If a poem benefits from distance then use articles. One example of the first type of poem is "Those Winter Sundays" by Hayden. If you don't know it look it up, You won't find many articles.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Jude Goodwin said...

This is indeed a lovely poem, however this poet freely uses 'the' as indicated below ( I tried to bold them). Below this poem, I am pasting the same poem written with the 'the's. It is a good example of the kind of omission that seems far more contrived. It is the contrived approach that I am referencing - there are clearly times in a poem when 'the' is not needed. This is a great thread, I'm wondering if it is linked from somewhere?

Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?


Those Winter Sundays
(without the 'the')

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear cold splintering, breaking.
When rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing chronic angers of that house,

speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

10:16 AM  
Blogger Hannah Craig said...

"In my own opinion, articles suggest distance from the writer and the subject. Lack of articles imply an immediacy of the subject to the reader."

I have to say that sounds, to me, an awful lot like saying articles make a line more or less prosaic. I.e., I don't have the slightest idea what it means. How one measures relative "distance" between subject/author/reader by articles. Etc. I.e., I never understand the phenomenon by which very literal/concrete devices are explained in extremely abstract, narrowly interpretive ways that assume…let’s say, a large shared vocabulary between the two parties. I think it’s exactly the same sort of problem that, in fact, Jude was complaining about in the beginning.

But then, I have a lot of opinions, as Jude can tell you.

How does this:

He holds the wire from the box of nerves
Praising the mortal error
Of birth and death, the two sad knaves of thieves,
And the hunger's emperor;
He pulls the chain, the cistern moves.

suggest more or less “distance from the writer and the subject…to the reader” than this:

He holds wire from the box of nerves
Praising mortal error
Of birth and death, two sad knaves of thieves,
And hunger's emperor;
He pulls the chain, the cistern moves.

2:03 PM  
Blogger David, Son of Walt said...

A few teachers and mentors over the years have suggested dropping more articles, but never really explained why. I suppose it is this fear of sounding like prose broken into lines. This theory always baffled me though. I agree with Jude that as far as technical definitions go, it is the line breaks that make a poem a poem and not prose. But then I suppose this is also why prose poetry confuses me. Sigh...

Of course there is also that hidden something that Emily Dickinson spoke of when she said that she knew it was poetry if she felt so cold that no fire could ever warm her, that her head had been lopped off. Perhaps poets are looking for that difference in the language and syntax, when really it comes from the poem's soul.

All I can say is that sometimes I found extra articles distracting and that it was sometimes more powerful to leave one out for a specific purpose. But often I have cringed at the same advice you have and thought that the articles were more conspicuous by their absence, and were therefore a literal speed bump that threw off the whole poem.

I'm with Bob; use what works for each poem, each line, each word. Ignore blanket advice like "cut out the articles," but don't be afraid to question the need of a few of them. Above all, listen to what the poem wants to say.

7:49 AM  

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