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The Virtues of Simplicity

There are audiences for whom perfervid sesquipedalianism is transcendentally apt. Other audiences prefer plain speech nailed down with brass tacks. The real skill in words is to be able to use the ones appropriate to what you're doing.

In poetry, simple is almost always best.

One of the teachers who had the greatest influence in my life was the one I had very briefly at the tail end of fifth grade, when my family moved just before school ended. After observing me for awhile, he sat down with me and said, "I can tell that you put a lot of work into choosing exactly the right word, whether you are writing or speaking. You can pick a single word that expresses what someone else would take a paragraph for. But if the person you are talking to doesn't know what that word means, your point is lost, isn't it? Here's a new challenge for you -- for every big, rich, eloquent word you know, find a set of small and widely known words that expresses exactly the same idea and feeling."

He was a clever devil. By putting it as a challenge, he hooked me. Years later, I could even write computer manuals in English.

In this exercise, I'm passing on the same challenge. I'll list some abstract Big Words and multidimensional distillations of eloquence, and invite you to translate them into clear-cut images in simple words.

Then, go on to scan over some of your own poems. Which words are like great big diamonds that could choke a horse, and could be cut down into a handful of smaller and more affordable gems?

Take a look at published poems too. Did Wordsworth or Whitman ever get sequipedalian on you? Can you come up with simpler phrases? Look at it the other way around. Was there ever a line when you though Elizabeth Browning could have said it all in a lot less words? Try it -- which alternative seems best?

This exercise can be done in combination with Big Words, to help develop your flexibility, to be able to choose for yourself where a big word or a smaller one will fit best.


Simplifying sample words:
  1. amelioration of affectional starvation
  2. languor lures linguistic lapses
  3. transcendental fervor
  4. cantatas of calumny
  5. cantabile concatenations of cant
Try translating these into more concrete images in simpler words; the real challenge is to keep intact all the connotations and the tone, including the effects of the sound echoes. You can expand as far as you want to -- you can turn "cantatas of calumny" into a 300-line epic description of a Marine's all-night swearing bout if you want to, just include a warning label in the subject line.

Simple or not in your own poetry.
  Are there lines in your own poetry where you wove a rich and complex word that can perhaps be unraveled to cover more territory?
  Are there sections described in simple words that could be condensed into multi-layered words?
  Try it both ways. What is the effect of each?
  If you don't have examples to work with in your current poems, try writing a poem in both simple and complex words.

Rewrite the Masters
  Is there any old poet that seriously annoys you for sesquipedalianism? Any that awe you with simplicity? Post some examples -- and play with some alternatives of how they could have been written.
  What is the effect -- of the originals, and your alternatives?

Guidelines for Critique

  • What was the effect of the words chosen?
  • Can you suggest alternate choices? Simpler, or more complex?

very eager
"containing a foot and a half" -- humorous description of very long words
climbing above and beyond
suitable, appropriate, fitting
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