Off With the Adjectives!

I was taught that in developing one’s voice a poet should master the use of verbs and then move on to adjectives.  I was curious then to come across this.  In it, Jabal al-Lughat suggests (kind of) that we get rid of adjectives altogether.

This is lingustics talk, so the reading may seem a bit ponderous, but it hooked me.  How would our language change if we got rid of adjectives?  More importantly, how would our poetry change?  I decided to experiment with Walt Whitman’s “I hear America singing.”  Below is the full text of Walt Whitman’s poem  followed by a Lughatian alteration of the poem.

I hear America singing

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or
at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of
the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows,
robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

by Walt Whitman

Now, here’s what happens when I mucked around with the adjectives in the poem.  Whitman purists, avert thy eyes!

I Hear America sing

I hear America sing, the carols vary, I hear
The mechanics, each one sings blithely, strongly, as it should be.
The carpenter sings as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason sings as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatmen sings what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
sings on the deck of the steamboat
The shoemaker sings as he sits on his bench, the hatter sings as he stands,
The song of the wood-cutter, of the ploughboy in morning, or
As noon recesses or at sundown,
The mother delicious-sings, or the wife, she is young at work, or of
the girl who sews and washes
Each sings what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows,
sings robust, friendly,
Sings with their mouths opened, sings melodious, strong.

So, what did I learn?  Don’t mess with Walt Whitman.  I wouldn’t even throw up this butchered version of the poem if it didn’t (hopefully) serve a scientific purpose.  To that end, I was struck by how judiciously Whitman uses adjectives, specifically the sort that Al-Lughat wonders about.  The participial “singing” is a thematic constant, and there are obviously prepositional phrases, “of young fellows,” and predicative adjectives, “she is young.”  However, Whitman is careful in his use of adjectives from the “separate class” Al-Lughat singles out in his post.  Of the places where he does use them, “steamboat deck” stands out as functional.  Both “noon intermission” and “delicious singing” are striking and unusual.  That leaves “varied carols,” “young wife,” and “young fellows,” also “robust, friendly,” all of which seem slighter in effect.  Of course they work here, but that’s because Whitman uses these kinds of adjectives sparingly.  Many poets could benefit from this practice, trimming the adjective “fat” from their poems for a line that is leaner and more muscular.

by Martin Woodside

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2 comments

  1. Hi! As a self-taught poet who was influenced by Poe (among others) I thought I was good (Performed weekly, won a couple of awards) until an older poet I let review my older stuff told me my problem was the use of too many adjectives and he inquired if I read a lot of Tolkien (which I did). Also I never learned iambic pentameter as I preferred rhyming free verse and alliteration. So I changed my style. My question is should I learn the “proper forms” first so to have discipline or should I take his (masterly) advice with a grain of salt? I want to be the poet I can be, to Hades with everyone else. Thank you very much

    • Probably everybody has a different answer about writing in form–in fact, there are a few earlier entries on this blog about the subject! Personally, I write in form but only as an exercise–the results are always pretty shoddy, but they often prove valuable in developing a leaner final product.

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