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BANISH THIS WORD FROM YOUR POEMS!

Helena Nelson the Editor of HappenStance has kindly let me reproduce a post from her blog which is all about a two letter word. I’d like to know what you think…

It looks innocuous, sounds harmless, pops up all over the place – and it’s a killer. No, not ‘shards’. Not even ‘memories’.

What is the evil little beast? I would tell you right away but I won’t, as I’m sure you’ll guess. It is as short as your average monosyllable. It creeps up behind you as you’re thinking what to write next. It proliferates in school essays (as if they weren’t bad enough), as people feel they ought to sound formal.

What’s the word? You guessed. It is AS.

What’s so wrong with as? You can see above, it has at least three possible meanings and also at least three grammatical functions (adverb, conjunction, preposition). Often a poet drops it into a line and it’s not immediately obvious which function it’s about to take on. Well – it’s obvious to the poet of course, but that’s the problem. The person writing the poem always knows what she means. It’s the reader who gets confused. Lord help us – sometimes the word as even hangs on the end of a line before a line break. . . .

There’s:

  • as …. meaning like
  • as….. meaning while
  • as….  meaning because

And the common as phrases:

  • as of today
  • as if (accompanied by sniff)
  • as I said
  • as per
  • as regards
  • as though
  • acting as counsellor
  • as well as
  • as required
  • as needful
  • as ever

The worst of the ases – the absolute worstest of the worst – is as meaning because. Can you imagine somebody actually saying: “I am going to give up poetry as I find it too difficult?” It makes sense, yes. But it’s flat. Deader than a doughnut.

I am going shopping as I have run out of sugar.” Listen to the rhythm. Listen to the tone. That sentence died a long time ago. Now it stinks.

So, if you’re planning on using as to mean because, use because. (If you substitute since, it can also have more than one function and more than one meaning, though not as many as the fiendish as.) Better still, stop the sentence: I am going shopping. I have run out of sugar. Not exciting writing, but at least the sentences have perked up. They might even be going somewhere.

When it comes to as meaning ‘like’, for example as soft as silk – well, it’s not great. That way lies cliché country. Be careful.

And oh dear me, look at this:

As I walk into the graveyard
I think of my dead antelope

Okay – not really an antelope. Probably something much more poignant. But that construction (as + ‘I’ + present tense verb, linking to ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’ or ‘I wonder’) is a common pattern in weak contemporary verse. Poets take note.

Am I sounding narky? As if.

Oh well, then. Yes I am. I spend my editorial life dealing with the dead wood associated with as. Often it just goes. Delete as, stop the sentence, start another. Sometimes I stick in because. At least I understand what the person’s talking about then. Quite often a writer has used as in three different ways in one paragraph or stanza and not even noticed.

I can bear ‘as if’. In fact, I quite like it. But that’s because the rhythm briskly throws the stress onto the second word. ‘F’ is a good consonant for energizing language – one of our frequently used expletives can testify to that. As, on the other hand, sounds like cold scrambled egg. Yeuch.

Please don’t add comments telling me there are exceptions. There are exceptions to everything. I’m trying to make you so self-conscious about using the evil word as that you’ll stop and think twice (even three times) before you let it in. If my plan works, I’ll have done you a favour.

Trust me as I am a poet.

See?

Helena Nelson

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6 thoughts on “BANISH THIS WORD FROM YOUR POEMS!”

  1. This was great to read – oh I know I’m AS guilty AS anyone (comparative structure-sadly unavoidable) in having let this little word worm its way into my writing but I am always vigilant.

    Deirdre.

  2. Yes, a great article. Thanks. I ALMOST used the A-word in a poem I wrote today, but thanks to Happenstance I caught myself in the nick of time 🙂

    BTW, I subscribed to Happenstance (for the first time) a couple of weeks ago and just got my package in the mail from them – which I’m happily exploring and reading.

  3. The discussion about “as” has been on my mind. So I took special note of a passage in “The Triggering Town” by Richard Hugo, a book that I’ve been re-reading. In his chapter 5 “Nuts & Bolts” he gives some “rules” for writing poetry. I’d love to paste in the entire chapter but here are a few bits from pages 40-42. PLEASE forgive me for this long post but I love how he makes his points –

    Hugo writes –

    “Beware certain words that seem necessitated by grammar to make things clear but dilute the drama of the statement. These are words of temporality, causality, and opposition and often indicate a momentary lack of faith in the imagination.
    Temporality: meanwhile, while, as (at the same time as), during, and (implying “and at the same time”)
    [Ex.]
    But no one comes
    and the girl disappears behind folding doors
    while the bus grinds and lurches away.

    No one comes.
    The girl disappears behind folding doors.
    The bus grinds and lurches away.

    Here, the words “and” and “while” point up a relation that can be provided by the mind. “While” simply means that two things happen at the same time. Without “while”, they happen at the same time. What was funny about “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” was the superimposition of the words on the screen over a shot at the ranch. We were being told what was being demonstrated. It would be boring if not maddening to live in a world where all things are labeled. Where “house” would be stamped on a house.
    [Ex.]
    In my skull
    death echoes the song of the wind as it
    hands up each winter defeat.

    In my skull
    death echoes the song of the wind. The wind
    hands up each winter defeat.

    I’m not saying eliminate these words from your vocabulary. I’m saying don’t use them out of grammarphobia to make connections clear. Note in the above example the relative values of the two statements were eliminated by removing the “as”. With the “as” the temporal relation of the two statements was stated and the mind gave or wanted to give more value to one than the other. Now they are equal. … The imagination is a democracy…”

    [He also gives similar advice about Causality: so (as a result), because, thus, causing…
    …”Don’t put signposts to relationships”. and Opposition: yet, but…”Often the opposition is far more dramatic if you don’t call attention to it. Sometimes the opposition isn’t opposition.”]

  4. If I ever meet Richard Hugo, I will buy him a hot chocolate with whipped cream AND marshmallows. Or a best quality espresso, according to taste. Hugo first, that’s what I say.

  5. Dear Helena,

    I’ve checked and Hugo died in 1982, but I think you two would have gotten along great 🙂

    I first borrowed the book from the library about 6 years ago – just browsing. But he caught my attention with his ideas about “triggering” subjects for poems. And not long after, I got brave enough to start writing a few poems myself.

    I bet he’d go real fast for that espresso !!

    Elly

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