Avoid adjectives? Not necessarily!

Too much on to think about blogging, but I can’t resist a few words about a pet bugbear: the cliched instruction to cut out adjectives. It gets its plausibility from the fact that adjectives are so often used lazily, virtually as filler words to round out a cadence, or because the poet isn’t confident of having conveyed an impression adequately, even though he actually has done that without the overinsistent adjective. But you only have to read a few pages of good poetry in a variety of styles to see the absurdity of making a fetish of the idea of keeping the ratio of adjectives down. I quote a stanza that I’ve chosen at random in the sense that it’s the first my eye fell on when I opened Derek Mahon’s 1999 Collected Poems a few minutes ago:

Remember those awful parties
In dreary Belfast flats,
The rough sectarian banter
In Lavery’s back bar,
The boisterous takeaways
And moonlight on wet slates?

Every noun in the first four lines has an adjective attached; most have two if you think of “Belfast” as being used adjectivally here. And yet the stanza is pure gold, or magic. The adjectives and nouns do help round out cadences – not ornamentally but (in most lines) with a weary rocking movement. There is a sense of overinsistence but it’s part of the dramatisation of a speaking voice. Without the weariness and insistence preceding it we wouldn’t have that marvellous sense of stepping out of a claustrophobic space and lifting off in contemplation of something beautiful that the last line gives us. I think it owes something to grammatical contrast – we’ve got used to a rhythm in which every noun is accompanied by at least one adjective and then suddenly “moonlight” doesn’t have one, so that we seem to step into a space of imaginative freedom and the idea of moonlight seems to stand out more sheer and bare and absolute. The return to the earlier adjectival rhythm of “wet slates” preserves a sense of stylistic integrity but also, it seems to me, helps one feel that the visionary impact of the open air and the moonlight depends on the other things from which they are a release.

There’s a broader point I want to suggest, however sketchily. This is that the orthodoxy about keeping adjectives down, like any other orthodoxy, kills that sense of an individual voice responding to a unique constellation of emotional and imaginative pressures that makes poetry interesting. It coats the work over with the lacquer of a modern version of  poetic diction.

3 Responses to “Avoid adjectives? Not necessarily!”

  1. Gerard Woodward said:

    Feb 16, 12 at 12:33 pm

    Strongly agree. Good to see someone standing up for adjectives. So many people seem to have been brainwashed into avoiding them at all costs, after reading bad creative writing manuals.

  2. Zoe said:

    Apr 25, 12 at 11:08 am

    Another one in agreement here. Think of someone like Larkin – an ordinary-language, plain-speaking poet if ever there was one – but the poetry is absolutely stuffed with adjectives. It’s just that all the components come together so strongly that you don’t tend to notice them or feel overwhelmed by them; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, etc.

    I’d even defend the occasional adverb in a poem as long as it was being used for a reason.

  3. Steven Waling said:

    May 04, 12 at 9:56 am

    All along the road the reddish
    purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
    stuff of bushes and small trees
    with dead, brown leaves under them
    leafless vines-

    Above is a verse from William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All in which we have a line of five adjectives before getting to the noun! I think it’s good to say ‘pay attention to your adjectives. Make sure they’re actually adding to not bleeding the noun.’ But here the noun is ‘stuff!’ which is in itself a pretty bold choice: deliberately bland to describe a bland environment.


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