Thursday Thoughts: To Be or To Do

17 Mar

9:09 am, Thursday — Atlanta

Verbs. No part of speech communicates as effectively as a richly active verb. Whenever you come across a dull being verb (am, are, is, were, was, be, being, been), try to reorganize your poem so as to employ, instead, a better and more active verb. You want the reader to interact with the poem and that happens with active verbs.

Here is what Moat and Fairfax, from The Way to Write, have to say: “Imagine you were around at the moment the rudiments of language were being discovered. First came the grunts in the shape of names — MAN. WOMAN. FIRE. Then from outside, MAMMOTH! One big name, speaking danger. But with it a new need, the need to name something entirely different. ‘What’s that mammoth up to?’ The verb was born.

Dependent on nouns, but powerful.

Not so powerful when the mammoth is merely being, when for instance he’s sleeping; but when he’s acting, when for instance he tosses you over his head, very powerful indeed.

Nouns may be the most loaded words, but verbs are the most dramatic.

‘The mammoth is asleep under the tree.’ That expresses a state of being; a calm observation — you might say it gives a false sense of security.

‘The mammoth sleeps under the tree.’ That’s more powerful. You get the feeling that the mammoth is putting his back into it. His sleeping has almost become an act. The reader is put on the alert.

‘The mammoth has gone to sleep under the tree.’ More powerful still. That really does suggest action. It also points out that the mammoth was awake beforehand. Now the drama’s creeping in. He might wake up.

All three statements are in the present. They all say the same thing — to the untuned ear. And that’s the point. The tuned ear detects the difference. A difference of meaning, and a difference of power. The writer must have an ear; and by discipline he must tune it to register where the power, and so the meaning, lies.”

Active vs. Being

This is not to say never use being verbs. Sometimes we want to have a state of being, but too much being leaves the reader with a fuzzy, and often dull, image. There is nothing to see when something is, as opposed to something running, singing, breaking…When you use being verbs, do so with deliberation and an awareness of the effect.

A friend, Kaspalita, who is part of a duo who created a network for writers, Writing Our Way Home, wrote a poem this morning that illustrates my point and he kindly allowed me to use it as an example.

I snort up the letters in your poem
enjoy the soft edges of your vowels
your consonants draw blood

I’m spraying ink onto the page
nothing is wrong/nothing is right
the paper skits under the speed of my hand

in the morning
illuminated in a pool of dawn
I see a heap of broken words, and
on the floor, dark letters cast aside in last night’s frenzy

the only things moving are motes of dust
caught by the sun

by Kaspalita, March 17, 2011

Note the active verbs and how they set the tone and drama of the poem. Be conscious of the images they give you. Find the being verbs. The speaker is speaking of a state of being in all cases. The being verbs are necessary, but are, as they should be, a small percentage of the verbs.

Go through one, or more, of your poems and highlight the active verbs and the being verbs. See how many being verbs you can make active and if you leave a verb of being, do so because you know it is the right verb.

Thank you if you stayed through to the end. There was no way I could shorten this [and I could have made it longer!]. If you have questions, or something you wish to comment on regarding verb use, please do comment.

I will see you tomorrow for the Friday roundup of prompts and exercises and Tuesday for the next phase of dialogue poems.

1 Comment

Posted by on 17/03/2011 in poetry, writing


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One response to “Thursday Thoughts: To Be or To Do

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