Poetry for Engineers, Part 4 – Finding Words

December 12th, 2011 § 3 comments

In Part 3: The Essence Of Things, we thought about remembering, and the way in which some special memories seem to capture a certain time, place or experience perfectly and completely. Such memories are laden with meaning. Each little part of them seems significant. We realised we could use this kind of densely-packed event, together with the form of emotional language we discussed in Part 2, to convey the experience of falling in love to our very serious and sensible friend Earnest.


However, we are left with the problem of finding, selecting and editing such an experience from our ill-fated romance with Julia. Here, I must cheat a little, for I know all sorts of particular details about how we met and fell in love with Julia, and you (even though I’m sure you have been reading very carefully), know only a few.

As is common to many young men (and you must imagine, for a few moments, that you are a young man who falls in love with young ladies), we fell deeply in love with Julia at first sight. We were too afraid to tell Julia how we felt about her (as is also far too common). Although we eventually summoned enough courage to ask Julia to the dance (and she refused), we always wondered if things might have turned out differently had we acted sooner.


To capture our experience, the memory we choose for our poem must contain the essence of:


    • Seeing Julia and falling in love
    • Missing a vital moment during which to act
    • Attempting to act too late with no success
    • Wondering if things might have happened differently


It just so happens that when we think of falling in love with Julia, a particular memory pops into our mind:


On a certain evening I walked by the river just as the sun was going down over the horizon. As I turned a corner in the path, I saw Julia and a friend of hers standing by the water. Julia reached to pull a pomegranate from a low branch. She looked very beautiful; I felt excited to see her. I greeted them and the three of us walked together for a time. Julia began to eat the pomegranate. She offered me a portion. I refused; my hands were dirty. I had fallen over a tree root. We came to the river and I washed my hands, but by then Julia and her friend had finished the fruit. It quickly became dark. I asked if Julia would like for me to walk home with the two of them. She told me they lived nearby and could see well in the moonlight. I turned to walk home alone through the trees. I felt very sad.


How lucky we are to find such a suitable memory that matches our needs so closely! (It is almost as if it had been constructed for this very purpose, but that would be a more complex form of poetry-writing that we shall save for another day.) It contains the essence of our experience with Julia:


    • We see Julia for the first time
    • We miss the chance to share the pomegranate with her
    • We try to share the pomegranate after we have washed our hands, but it is already too late
    • We are left alone to wonder how things might have turned out differently


This experience shall make a fine foundation stone for our poem. However, although we have discussed the way in which each little part of such an experience seems important, if we consider how to best communicate with Earnest, we can edit our memory of Julia a little.


For instance, the fact that Julia’s friend was there at the river bank that evening doesn’t add much to the experience that will be meaningful to Earnest. It may mean something to us–perhaps how frustrating it was not to be able to talk to Julia alone–but those same feelings are contained more neatly in other parts of the memory. Removing Julia’s friend will make the poem easier to understand; it will be more obvious that the feelings and thoughts we are trying to capture are caused by Julia and not anybody else. Because every word and sentence in our finished poem must be full of meaning, we have to remove any excess material that will dilute our writing and confuse poor Earnest.


Similarly, the fact that we muddied our hands by falling over a tree root may be significant to us–perhaps it seemed like the world was conspiring against us that day–but it is not necessary to understand how we fell in love with Julia. Earnest, despite being a very serious and sensible young man, has climbed enough trees and played in enough river beds to be well acquainted with the many ways in which a young man may get his hands dirty. We can remove that unnecessary detail.


We can also add a little to our memory. As we remember, we left Julia and her friend to walk home across an open pasture. However, much of what we want to express to Earnest is the feeling of wondering what could have happened if we had acted differently. A fork in the path by the river, rather than an open pasture, might represent that to Earnest rather better.


A further problem is that parts of our memory are feelings. As we learned from Part 2, it will be more effective to use language to recreate those feelings in Earnest’s mind rather than simply describe them to him. We must work to recreate the feeling of “exciting” at the beginning of the memory and the feeling of “very sad” at the end. This is a difficult task that we shall cover in more detail later on; for now, we shall emphasise how warm, light and fragrant the evening seemed as we met Julia (to try to create the feeling of excitement), and how cold and dark it seemed as we walked home alone (to try to create the feeling of sadness).


Finally, our memory is naturally in the past tense. Because we want to recreate our experience in Earnest’s mind as if it were happening to him, we shall write in the present tense. There are many reasons to write in the past, present and future tenses, but without a particular reason to choose differently, the present tense shall suit us very well.


After making those changes, we are left with:


It is evening. I am walking by the river just as the sun is setting; the light is golden and warm and I can smell many flowers in the air. I turn a corner in the path and see Julia standing by the water. She is reaching to pull a pomegranate from a low branch. She looks very beautiful. I greet her and the two of us walk together for a time. Julia begins to eat the pomegranate. She offers me a portion. I refuse; my hands are dirty. We come to the river and I wash my hands, but Julia has finished the fruit. It becomes dark. I ask Julia if she would like me to walk home with her. She tells me that she lives nearby and can see well in the moonlight. I turn to walk home alone through the trees in the cold, dark night.


We have made excellent progress! However, one problem remains. Imagine you are eating a very large bar of chocolate. What is going through your mind?


Perhaps you think:


I am eating a very large bar of chocolate. It tastes very nice.


But I don’t think that is what is going through your mind. Living would be terribly tedious if we thought to ourselves, “I am sweeping the floor.” or, “I am washing my face.” every time we were doing those things. I suspect that what you are thinking is:


This chocolate tastes very nice.


If we are trying to teach Earnest about enjoying chocolate (and that is, thankfully, one task we shall not be asked to do, for he is an interminable glutton), which description will be more effective?


If we are doing something very unusual or complicated, like dancing with a goat or learning trigonometry, it would probably be best to include “I am dancing…” or “I am learning…” to help Earnest understand what is actually happening.


If we are doing something common or simple, like eating chocolate, we can probably just describe the chocolate, as Earnest is clever enough to work out we must be eating it from our description. What’s more, by leaving out the “I am…” part, the thought becomes closer to what Earnest himself would think if he were eating the very large bar of chocolate. That makes it easier for him to recreate the experience in his mind, as we discussed in Part 2. In other words, it is better to describe things as we see them than to describe the act of seeing them. So, we shall leave out the “I am…” in those parts of the memory where it will not stop Earnest from understanding what we are doing.


The light of the setting sun is golden and warm. By the river, the scents of many flowers are in the air. I turn a corner in the path; Julia is standing by the water. She reaches to pull a pomegranate from a low branch. She is very beautiful. She seems pleased by my hello and begins to peel the pomegranate as we walk together. She offers me a portion, but my hands are dirty and would ruin the rest for her. At the river, I rub my hands in the cold water but she has already finished the fruit. She doesn’t want me to walk home with her; she lives nearby and the moonlight is bright. It is dark in the trees.


As you see, by removing some of the “I…” language we have cleaned up our description of the memory. If Earnest knows we can smell the air by the river, he can assume we are walking down there. By the same process, we have removed “It is evening” because Earnest knows the sun sets in the evening. We don’t need to tell Earnest that we refused Julia’s offer of a piece of pomegranate because it’s clear from the way we describe our dirty hands.


What’s more, by taking out the unnecessary language, we have uncovered and made room for more details that are important: Julia seemed pleased to see us; the river water was cold; we were worried about spoiling the pomegranate for Julia. We have changed the way some aspects of the description seem important: what Julia tells us isn’t important, but the fact she doesn’t want us to walk home with her is. Not only have we removed unnecessary words that aren’t full-to-the-brim with the kind of meaning we are looking for, but by forcing ourselves to use language differently, we have improved the focus and accuracy of our writing.


We now have our prototype poem; we have decided on a subject matter and drawn the outline of how to express it. In Part 5: Big Words and Little Words, we shall further refine our use of language, and investigate how and why different ways of describing things work.



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You are currently reading Poetry for Engineers, Part 4 – Finding Words, part of a blog about writing by Gabriel Brady.