Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sometimes, More is More: A Fan Letter to Tony Hoagland

A friend of mine recently shared some poems with an associate, a fellow poet and editor. The pieces came back with some praise, but also with critical notations marking up elements of description, along with general caveats warning against adjectives -- point after point where, the editor felt, the piece needed to lose some descriptive weight. Gone were certain colors, elements of dress, textures of objects.

I looked at the poem again, loving many of the very adjectives my friend had been smacked down for. And I wondered, not for the first time, when adjectives became the redheaded stepchildren of writing. (Of course, I should probably simply say "the children" of writing, as both "redheaded" and "step" are descriptive, and as all trained writers know, descriptions are lazy, and a waste of words.)


I realize I am taking on a literary sacred cow -- sorry, a cow. But really: Why do we hate adjectives? Should we blame it all on Ernest Hemingway?

He certainly did some damage, but he's hardly alone. Mark Twain ("When you catch an adjective, kill it"), Ezra Pound (“Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something"), George Orwell ("Whoever writes English is involved in a struggle that never lets up ... against the lure of the decorative adjective") and even Stephen King ("The road to hell is paved with adjectives") have all taken their potshots.

OK: There are some reasons to be wary. Recently, I re-read Pat Conroy's bestselling The Prince of Tides -- a book that, when I was 16, I believed was the best novel I would ever read -- and was struck by how much adjectival fat it was dragging around. One of the first paragraphs:

I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat...I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders. As a boy I was happy above the channels, navigating a small boat between the sandbars with their quiet nation of oysters exposed on the brown flats at the low watermark.

(That whizzing sound you hear is Hemingway spinning in his grave.)

While I still love Conroy's book, I think it could have lost about 50 pages of adjectives and schmaltz and been a stronger, tighter novel.

And yet ... "the sandbars with their quiet nation of oysters"? Lovely, vintage Conroy. Even that "quiet" matters, softening a description that might otherwise read like bivalve jingoism.

The notion that any problem in a herd of words can be solved by thinning--and that adjectives are the crippled baby gazelles in the pack--is so ingrained in the idea of serious writing these days that I have started to look for exceptions to the rule.

It's not to be contrarian. It just happens to matter to me that we live in a world where things are rough, blue, steamy, grease-smudged, blue, cheap, and occasionally pickled. And sometimes when you're writing about that world, more is more.

I recently finished reading Tony Hoagland's marvellous latest collection, Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. I can't remember the last time I was simultaneously so moved and so amused by a book. Oh, wait: yes I can. But in poetry, snortingly funny and heart-rending rarely go together.

And Hoagland is crazy for adjectives. Very frequently, he piles more than one adjective onto a single noun. Clouds are "creamy and massive." People wear "oddly sexy running shoes" and drink from "blue polyethylene water bottles." The sun, in one poem, "is a brassy blond novelist of immense accomplishment." And his adjectives work, layering onto each other and driving the humor, the tenderness, the wryly bemused and sensual and often heartbroken voice that make his poems so great at capturing the complicated, absurd, product-filled, media-and-money-saturated here and now of being -- dare I use this adjective? -- (a certain kind of) American.

As he puts it in the poem "Muchness": "Description,/which lingers,/and loves for no reason."

Given Hoagland's disgruntled affection for (or at least addiction to) the physicality of the places and people and things that make up the world, it's not surprising that the collection starts out an ars poetica called "Description," which addresses the limits of language, and yet might be a kind of rebuttal to that constant dictum to cut, cut, cut.

There is some sense to the urge to make a noun nothing but itself--but what if its core essence has to do with being "blue polyethylene"?

The last lines of Hoagland's "Description," below:

In all of this a place must be
reserved for human suffering:

the sick and unloved, the chemically confused;
the ones who believe desperately in insight;
the ones addicted to change.

How our thoughts clawed and pummeled the walls.
How we tried but could not find our way out.

In the wake of our effort, how we rested.
How description was the sign of our acceptance.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Hunt in Childhood

I was walking into the local library on a warm summer evening a few years back, when the door burst open, and a little boy and a girl ran out into the lawn, carrying paper shadow puppets they had just made (I could see the rest of the kids inside, the teacher picking up the scraps of paper and sponging paste off the desks). The little girl was chasing the boy; they were clearly exhilarated, laughing and flushed and enjoying the game.

Watching them, I remembered chase games from my own childhood, how much I loved them--the physicality, the sense of quest, the occasional sense of terror when you were about to be caught. (Margaret Atwood captured this beautifully in the last lines of her poem "Game After Supper": From the shadows around/the corner of the house/a tall man is coming to find us.//He will be an uncle/if we are lucky.)

The terror--that was always an interesting element. For these were just other children I was playing with, and yet sometimes in that split second before one of them would tag me--or, in rougher versions, grab hold of a sleeve and hang on till it stretched or tore, perhaps sling me to the ground, perhaps tickle or punch me--the terror of that contact was real and visceral. It seemed life might hang in the balance, that being caught could mean actual violence would befall me, that I was in real danger.

Watching those kids, I was struck by the idea that they were happily and innocently enacting a ritual--one that could go on for the rest of their lives, but never again so visibly.


This poem was hacked up with safety scissors.