B of A

html 101: the “code” we use to pack and unpack our knapsacks –

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
– William Wordsworth


Piggy Bank. 2005. Photo. McLeod, Wikimedia.

Starting An Account – in a rhetorical bid to cash in on then President George H.W. Bush’s “kindler, gentler” conservative response (that is to imply “tepid” by connotation) to the prevailing recession of the late ‘80’s and early 90’s, Bill Clinton coined the oft-since repeated phrase “It’s the economy, stupid!”

By parsing the sentiment of the entire nation and articulating it in a single (albeit pithy) catch-phrase, “Slick Willy,” a speaker as charismatic as he is scholarly, has effectively demonstrated for us the poetic principle known as word economy. By definition, word economy involves squeezing as much profit (i.e. meaning) out of as few words as possible. However, this is an enterprise that is not without effort, as it requires the skillful manipulation of a personal “word collection” or lexicon.


from Savingsbuddy.com

Savings – while word economy is a marketable skill for sloganeering, its use in literature adds to a work’s artistry and grace. Regardless of whether a writer practices poetry or prose, boiling an idea down to its most essential expression and rendering it in its most concise form with precision and clarity is the ends – the means is in the savings account, that is, one’s personal lexicon or “word bank”. The best thing about starting a word collection is that it is the most frugal of all possible hobbies: it costs nothing. And yet, the payoff is great: acquiring an extensive word collection allows an author a wide ledger and nearly limitless resources from which to draw when writing.

Establishing a Line of Credit – the primary source of language comes, of course, from reading. However, budding writers should not restrict themselves to books alone. In a literate society, language litters nearly everything: blogs, billboards, brochures, clothing tags, product instruction manuals, social networking websites, store fronts, even fridge magnets. Once you begin looking for fascinating bits of language, you’ll find them all over the place. Interesting words or lexical items that are pretty or unique become part of a rare “special collection.”

Safe Deposit Box – some writing teachers suggest buying those prefabricated poetry fridge magnets and playing around with the words; however, I think it’s more valuable to make your own. In Poemcrazy, Susan Wooldridge advocates making “word tickets” – essentially the same thing as those magnets, but you print words from your own collection on them. Another method, promoted by one of my professors, Dorothy Barresi, is to keep a language journal – like a diary, except the entries record the details of your word inventory instead of (or perhaps as adornments of) personal narratives.


Artist's Notebooks. 2010. jpg

Personally, I like the idea of keeping all my treasures in an artist’s notebook. Drawings, dream imagery, fabric scraps, symbols, dried flowers, metaphors and personal observations fill the pages of mine, in addition to any irresistible word-crumbs I may find. Since color wakes up the brain, I use a variety of crayons, colored pencils, markers and highlighters to bejewel its otherwise stolid inked pages.

Checking – Once your collection begins to grow, it can be tempting to show off; however, underwriting the basic premise of word economy is that no unnecessary words are used. In order to avoid temptation, therefore, good writers float their prizes thriftily, occasionally dropping a one-hundred dollar bill out of the clear blue sky, as in this sentence, drafted from the cache of Virginia Woolf:

"On Being Ill"From her essay “On Being Ill,” this sentence is quoted and discussed by Francine Prose in Reading Like a Writer. To some, this sentence may seem too wordy, a run-on sentence, perhaps. However, as Ms. Prose points out in her discussion, the sentence is, in fact, a display of Ms. Woolf’s prowess: in her economical efficiency, she has not presented a single superfluous word in this 181-word deposit, and cutting any of them would sacrifice the sentence’s overall clarity. Frugally interspersed among what is otherwise mostly ordinary language, we strike pay-dirt in these judiciously uncovered jems: precipice, obdurate, annihilation.

Withdrawal Slips – in all writing, the prime objective is to score a piece that is clear and concise. Leaner still than prose, poetry seeks to eliminate all words that add no meaning, without becoming so spare as to sacrifice clarity. Toward that end, prepositions, (of, on, in, to, for, with, etc.) questionable or manipulative modifiers (aka adjectives), vague nouns, imprecise or inactive verbs, useless repetitions, and passive voice constructions are all targeted for line-item veto. Let’s take a look at “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, for example:


excerpted from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot

If we injudiciously withdraw all of the prepositions, for example, “through certain half-deserted streets” becomes “Let us go, certain half-deserted streets” — which no longer makes sense at the sentence level — thus, Mr. Eliot’s precise use of language would be lost, much to the poem’s detriment. While the predictable use of the modifiers insidious, restless, and tedious help conjure up what Virginia Woolf may have been referring to with her bristling surmise of “Mr. Eliot and his four-piece suits,” they nonetheless help characterize the bureaucratic title character. More interesting are the atypical modifiers, i.e. half-deserted, and muttering (both verbs, although used adjectivally) and sawdust (a noun, used adjectivally). Better still: the simile — like a patient etherised upon a table — an image that forms an unlikely comparison to evening in the analogous relationship Mr. Eliot sets up for us, despite his patented choice of the British, (“s”) rather than his native American (“z”) spelling of the word “etherized.”

Capital Contribution – it’s also worth pointing out that unlike prose, sentence fragments are budgeted within poetry’s household expenditures. For example, Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” more than likely the shortest poem in the English language, (at least, of which I am aware) consists merely of two phrases:

PoundThe first fragment describes the subject: the apparition of faces in the crowd; and while the second fragment gives us its analogue: (look like) petals on a bough, it does not give us a predicate. Certainly, a poet as grammatically grounded (in several languages, no less) as Pound intentionally juxtaposed these two fragments, to “crash the market” with properly Modernist ambition. In fact, the two fragments strung together in analogy do indeed form one complete thought: a metaphor (sans verb) that is one of the most exquisite examples of word economy extant.

ATM – unlike sloganeering, sound bytes, or even prose, the ultimate goal of poetry is to pack as much meaning into as few words as possible by extending the principle of word economy by way of figurative language (i.e. allusion, imagery, metaphor, etc). This allows for ambiguity, and requires the audience to “unpack” the poem’s language, opening the work up to multiple readings and myriad interpretations including (but not limited to) literal, figurative, symbolic and/or allegorical levels of meaning. In this way, a writer makes a deposit, kind of a “loan” that, with interest, a reader collects on — a “savings” no other banking institution can mortgage, broker, borrow against, repossess, or lock away in its vault.


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