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Old 01-21-2003, 03:27 PM
Clive Watkins Clive Watkins is offline
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In a recent comment at The Deep End on Richard Wakefieldís "High Desert, Winter", Wiley Clements (Golias) applied his "Razor" to the relationship between Richardís modifiers, verbs and nouns.

It would be of interest to me - and perhaps to other members, too - to have Wiley set out the "rules" for the use of that critical instrument.

With Timís permission and support, I therefore invite Wiley to describe his Razor and to set forth for us its rationale.

Clive Watkins

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Old 01-21-2003, 05:08 PM
Curtis Gale Weeks Curtis Gale Weeks is offline
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Yes, I'm particularly curious to know how passive verbs and pronouns figure into the equation.

Perhaps Golias could make it clear by giving some examples, perhaps his sweet Autoepitaph or, especially, his delicious Memento Mori?

Curtis.
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Old 01-21-2003, 05:29 PM
Golias Golias is offline
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[This message has been edited by Golias (edited February 21, 2003).]
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Old 01-21-2003, 05:47 PM
Curtis Gale Weeks Curtis Gale Weeks is offline
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Quote:
Originally posted by Golias:


A fore-modifier delays the reader's formation of a mental image of the object or activity being described. This delay, however brief, has a weakening or blurring effect on the reader's perception. When a series of two or more fore-modifiers are used, the delay is enlarged geometrically, and the weakening effect is increased porportionately.

All that said, there are occasions when a fore-modifier is clearly necessary to the sense and/or the sound of a line or phrase. That's why the razor cuts at 3/1 rather than lower.


An excellent occasion for the use of a series of fore-modifiers is displayed in "Memento Mori." The penultimate stanza ends with leafy list--a description of Frost's oeuvre--

<dir>...who thought to find more verse, but donít complain
at this one line from all your leafy list.

How quiet, fresh and warm this upland glen
to stop within for sleep.
I think it must be warm here even when
the snow is drifted deep.</dir>

For the span of quiet, fresh and warm, the adjectives seem to be describing Frost's "leafy list," or at least the one line from the list.

Curtis.



[This message has been edited by Curtis Gale Weeks (edited January 21, 2003).]
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Old 01-21-2003, 06:02 PM
Roger Slater Roger Slater is offline
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I suppose in the future there will be computer analysis of all sorts of sytlistic and grammatical constructs, and that we might develop "rules" for more things than just modifiers. Already the programs used to "compress" data have been applied to do textual analysis that permits computers to recognize who wrote the text in question based on the frequency of certain words and word combinations that a human critic would not have been able to notice. And so there may be a germ of truth in Golias's Razon. But my first reaction, which I offer respectfully to a poet whose work I admire, is that the razor is just a fanciful and fun bit of thought-inducing hokum, and that its foundation in sound advice ("avoid too many modifiers") doesn't mean, nor should it mean, that the numerical approach is sound.

Among many other things, it occurs to me that one formula covering dimeter lines and heptameter lines alike is unrealistic, since there's a lot more room in longer lines for modifyers than there is in shorter lines. It's possible to write an entire poem without modifiers, but not without nouns and verbs, and so shorter lines need to use fewer modifiers. The fact that nouns and verbs are mandatory, and modifiers are "optional", doesn't necessarily suggest that modifiers are to be avoided.

Of course, there are countless instances of fine lines of verse that use modifiers, and there's no confusion or disconnect in "deferring" the noun until after the modifiers have run their course. "Oh that this too, too solid flesh..." My mind can hold "too too solid" and register the terms even before I know that Hamlet is talking about flesh. "Oh stormy, stormy world!" is clear enough even though I have to read through a repeated modifier before I know what it is that Frost thinks is stormy. The reader's perception isn't "delayed," in my opinion. Words have to come one at a time, of course, and my perception isn't "delayed" but ordered by the poet. If "world" came first, then my perception of "stormy" would be "delayed."

I think the main "problem" with modifiers is that they often cause the poet to choose a noun that isn't up to snuff or specific enough. "A stupid man" isn't bad because "stupid" is a modifier, but because "fool" could have been used instead, and it would have encompassed both the "stupid" and the "man." If you then wrote, "a sly fool," however, the modifier would start to get very interesting, since the phrase becomes an oxymoron of sorts.

So I'm skeptical of treating the matter as a question of ratios. Not all modifiers are alike, of course, or are used with equal skill or appropriateness.

Anyway, my mind is certainly not made up, and I suspect that my views may be modified in the coming discussion.
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Old 01-21-2003, 07:44 PM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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I'm delighted to be hosting this discussion, because I love Golias' Razor, which I'd never heard of, of course, until Wiley introduced me to it here. I think it is not infallible, but I'll be damned if I can think of a great poem which would flunk the test. I just ran through Nightingale in my head, checking out the lushest of the lush. I haven't enough fingers to count very far, but the first two stanzas pass with flying colors. Then I did a couple of Shakespeare sonnets. Same result. I suspect I could find some Hopkins which would flunk, although so many of his modifiers are OE kennings, containing nouns, that surely some allowance must be made.

I can't say I've made use of The Razor, but I'm partial to it perhaps because I always score so high. Here's the shortest poem in The Deed of Gift:

Center Pivots

Fields of canola
on the plains of Montana:
slices of banana
in a bowl of granola.

Here, with no modifiers (no verbs even!) the Ratio is Infinity. I think it was Bob Clawson who posted Last Sodbusters over at Mastery, and Wiley pointed out that it scored 23. And yes Roger, there is less room for modifiers in short lines. Thinking about that I counted some pentameters, such as this poem in Deed I wrote 20 years ago:

Razing the Woodlot

Here stands the grove our tenant plans to fell.
The homesteaders who planted this tree claim
fled North Dakota when the Dust Bowl came.
Their foursquare farmhouse is a roofless shell;
their tended shelterbelt, a den for fox
and dumpground for machinery and rocks.

The woodlot seeds its pigweed in our loam,
and windstorms topple poplars on the field;
but for a few wasted acres' yield
we'll spare the vixen and her cubs their home
and leave unburied these decaying beams
to teach us the temerity of dreams.

Correct me if I've miscounted, Wiley, but I think it's 40 to 8 or 5 to 1. (Lineation freak that I am, I notice that by age 32 I've a poem in which ten lines end in nouns, two in verbs, none in modifiers, or God help us, pronouns or prepositions.) So I thought hard, and searched old drafts, and sure enough, most of the pentameter I wrote in my twenties flunks the test. You don't see that in the book, because when Alan edited the Early Poems section of Deed, he cut most of the pents to tets by eliminating guess what? The excessive modifiers.

When I was 28 Wilbur told me "Just because you're writing on the themes of Cavafy doesn't excuse from the charge of sufficiently charging your language." At the time, that comment felt like a bullwhip in the face, but I set about taking his advice, and I succeeded in no small part because over the course of five years my Razor Ratios rose from, say, a flabby 2.5 to 1 to an austere 5 or better. A very useful tool, old friend, and one which I think we can all profit from.

Forgive me for simply talking about the poet I know best. I challenge our members to identify some great poetry which proves the fallibility of the Razor.
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Old 01-21-2003, 07:47 PM
Golias Golias is offline
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[This message has been edited by Golias (edited February 21, 2003).]
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Old 01-21-2003, 08:07 PM
grasshopper grasshopper is offline
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Does this mean that French verse, say, is automatically more effective than English, because the natural position of the adjective in that language is not as a fore-modifier?
I feel that the idea that a fore-modifier somehow delays the impact of an image is not borne out by the way we read. I think we take in more than a word at a time.
Regards,Maz
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Old 01-21-2003, 08:24 PM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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We cross-posted, Wiley. No, don't even think of rewriting the tribute to Frost, it's an exception to the rule. I was hitherto unaware that you made a distinction between fore and aft modifiers, so I'd better let you tackle grasshopper's question.
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Old 01-21-2003, 08:56 PM
Golias Golias is offline
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[This message has been edited by Golias (edited February 21, 2003).]
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