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Using the Word Suddenly
– originally posted to the PDC Apr. 24, 2013
– edited on blog, Nov. 24, 2013

A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.

"Five White Birds" by Catharine Savage Brosman – Poetry Daily, 2/1/13


from Southern Review (Spring 04)
poem found here

first lines:
Having seared the sky, the sun – a brazier –
Smolders though the crmbling clouds.



suddenly, no depth


A word on the word suddenly (line 5).

Rarely is the word suddenly of value, in either poetry or prose. It is terrificaly over used word, not unlike just. The great fault with the word is revealed in a simple question: why, as a manipulator of words, is the poet using the weak word suddenly instead of creating for the reader the actual experience of surprise? Such is the very point of creative writing, no? Many of you, I am sure, are thinking now that equally over used phrase "show don't tell": and I say "equally over used" to precisely the same end: hack phrasing in place of depth.

I have much to say on "show don't tell." Most of it is critical, pointing out how that phrase, and the workshop meaning attached to it, exactly misses the point, and is in fact more perpetrating bad writing than developing good. Here, I will speak indirectly to the phrase as I speak directly to the word.

The word, in essence within the context of narrative, functions like a stage direction: where the latter tells the actor how to act, the former tells the reader how to experience, eliminating from the direct experience of reading the 'actor' of the poem, which is, in the end, the poem itself. Rather than stage directions, the reader should be being offered direct experience. Create the experience of suprise: don't cue it.

Curiously, most of the time suddenly is misused, it need merely be deleted. The natural context – which is usually some kind of shift in the ideational moment – is sufficient to the event. The shift itself creates a notion of surprise. Such is the case, here, where the ideational flow shifts from scenic description to focusing on birds. All that might be changed is the verb, rise: perhaps to something that carries a connotation of suddenness. Don't overdo it, however; it is an equal error to cue the reader through exaggerated wording. You must maintain the gestalt of the piece-as-a-whole.

Of course, there are exceptions. When the point of the text is not experiential but informational, for example. Also, where the experience of suddenness is created without the word, but the word is successfully used to a separate purpose, either with rhythm, rhyme, or subtle manipulation of the experience. Keep your eyes open, you will occasionally see such.

Another way too look at this – the way that leads to the examination of "show don't tell" – is to recognize that the use of the word is the creation of a surface effect. Though, as a creative writer, a poet's every word should be crafted and dedicated to the creating of the depth of the poem. But I'll save that for another time.

To note, the use of the word "signifying" is to similar fault. (Compare with Shakespeare's more semantically alive "signifying nothing.")


Other, smaller notes:

(1) I do not like the use of the word scrim: I do not think the semantics are correct for the word. In fact, I find that whole sentence to be something of a mess. (There are other moments here and where I find word use weak or improper to the semantic whole, as with pentimento.)

(2) Is there not a conflict of events between "crumbling clouds" and "signifying rain tomorrow"? (That is, between diminishing humidity and increasing humidity?)