Economy of language.
It’s a phrase thrown about in praise of poems. What exactly does it mean?
Does it mean the poem doesn’t sound like everyday speech or dialogue? Because there are some great poems filled with dialogue and spoken phrases.
Does it mean that small words – articles, conjunctions – should be avoided whenever possible? Not unless you want all of your poems to sound like haiku.
I looked up the phrase “economy of language” and found a great article, “What is Poetry?” by Mark Flanagan.
Flanagan writes: “One of the most definable characteristics of the poetic form is economy of language. Poets are miserly and unrelentingly critical in the way they dole out words to a page. Carefully selecting words for conciseness and clarity is standard, even for writers of prose, but poets go well beyond this, considering a word's emotive qualities, its musical value, its spacing, and yes, even its spacial relationship to the page.”
Yet, Flanagan goes on to advise poets not to “shackle your poetry with definitions.”
There’s another favorite phrase in the writing-class world, “Show me, don’t tell me.”
Today, I’d like to show you a master of economic writing.
By Samuel Menashe
For what I did
And did not do
And do without
In my old age
Rue, not rage
Against that night
We go into,
Sets me straight
On what to do
Before I die—
I love the way the poet plays with sounds, re-mixes a famous phrase from Dylan Thomas, and stays (no matter what William Carlos Williams says) in the world of ideas, rather than things, in this twelve-line poem.
The poet Samuel Menashe died at the end of August. He was 85.
|From the Poetry Foundation, which gave Menashe a Neglected Masters Award.|
Menashe had a gift for pulling key ideas out of language, without tipping into explication and losing the poetry. He was the first poet to be given the Neglected Masters Award from the Poetry Foundation (2004).
Menashe’s obituary in the New York Times includes a paragraph describing how he came to poetry.
After serving in WWII, including the Battle of the Bulge, “’I came back, I heard people talking about what they were going to do next summer,’ he told The New York Times in 2003. ‘I was amazed that they could talk of that future, next summer. As a result, I lived in the day. For the first few years after the war, each day was the last day. And then it changed. Each day was the only day.’”
That was when he began to write.
The obituary I liked most (for its descriptiveness) comes from The Economist, which says of Menashe’s work:
“They were very short poems. Many were only four lines long. He began with more, but then worked to make them as concise as possible. They were honed down to the essence, sculpted like stones. He left them on scraps of paper all over the apartment.”
If you happen to be teaching economy of language with your creative writing class, instead of giving them a definition, show them Menashe’s work. They will see poetry with new eyes. You can find more of his poems at Archipelago magazine.
Enjoy your Poetry Friday, everyone. Today's host is Amy at The Poem Farm.
I'll be getting ready for the Baltimore Book Festival and 100,000 Poets for Change this week -- both are next Saturday. Hope to see you there!
I invite you to my new blog.
Terrific post and tribute, Laura - thank you for sharing. Loved the story about your encounter. And, "Each day was the only day" - so much to ponder in that quote.
i went completely minimal this week with my own poetry friday post, with poems based off some of aram saroyan's minimalist poems.
i am, alas, an aging novice with so much to learn. menashe is new to me. time to make a visit to the library...
Hi, Robin. I agree. It's a good quote to sit with.
David -- I'm glad to share Menashe's work with you. Off to check out your minimalist poems. Did you see Kurious Kitty's quote of the day? We seem to have a theme going.
There is a great thread here this week! Less...oh less... Thank you for introducing me to Menache. I, too, love the story of how he plucked a title for your (beautiful) poem! A.
I noticed the thread too, Amy. Many of us are thinking "less is more." Could it have to do with the busy-ness of back to school, wanting to *do* less?
I think one of the really great gifts among poets is their capacity to capture the barest essence of what you wish to say and find the perfect word for it - it's beautiful how he was able to come up with a title for your piece. and such a privilege to be sharing an 'open mic' with him. I miss attending poetry readings. I also love how comprehensive your post is.
Thanks for a new poet.
Wonderful, wonderful lines of verse. Thanks, Laura, for the introduction.
So funny how we all have our different tastes. I really enjoyed this poem, but I was SO grateful for those last two lines, that finally included things, not just ideas. I really like poems to be grounded in things, or else they start to sound like philosophy lessons to me. I like this one for the other reasons your pointed out, though!
I agree with you, Laura. Those last two lines lift the poem up and make it a poem.
There's also an embedded allusion to the High Holiday liturgy ("What I did/ And did not do" echos the lines we say every year to repent for our collective sins).
Wow. Amazing poet, thanks for introducing him to me! I have a BA in Creative Writing (with a poetry emphasis) but hadn't come across him before.
Thanks, Alexis. I appreciate your comment about religious tradition echoed in this poem.
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