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Today I want to cover what I see to be one of the biggest issues in poetry, and one that even professional-level poets struggle with. If I had to choose just one aspect to write on, this would be it: redundant phrasing. Words, phrases, lines, stanzas, even, that are unnecessary. Every word in a poem must earn its place, every single one; no matter how poetic/ clever/ aesthetically pleasing it may be per se, if it is not adding anything to the piece overall, then has to go. There is no such thing as neutral; if it’s not contributing to the piece, then it is actively detracting. At best, it is cluttering, at worst it can make a poem almost inaccessible in terms of its content/ theme/ message because it is so shrouded. It is counterproductive in laying bare the essence of our work. Coleridge famously gave his definitions of prose and poetry –


“prose,—words in their best order; poetry,—the best words in their best order.”

As poets we want to use the craft to help the art sing more clearly, and at a greater volume. Without losing sight of the artistic vision, we can use the craft of poetry to greatly enhance the power the content has to touch, excite, entertain, elicit that emotion we intend from our readership.

Redundant phrasing is a tripartite problem – first, tautology: unnecessarily repeating the same meaning over using different words. It’s amazing how much can be stripped away when we look carefully for only what’s required for the meaning/Narrative (and subtext, where applicable). Choosing the right words is important, as Coleridge said; more on the ‘right words’ in a moment.

Second – overuse of adjectives (the words that describe a noun, such as beautiful/keen/dark etc.). We often feel the need to, and enjoy, using a lot of adjectives to enhance the noun. If we choose the perfect nouns and strong, active verbs, very few adjectives (or adverbs) are necessary. Even with weaker nouns, three adjectives to enhance/qualify are almost certainly too many. We’re heading increasingly towards leaving only what is needed, for the sense, and for the poetry – succinctness without losing sight of artistic expression.

What do I mean by the ‘right nouns’ and making adjectives redundant? I can say right away that throwing in some proper nouns (names of places, people, products), if warranted in context, will always lend interest and give the reader something get their hands on. Often we can relate to proper nouns, those places, things, names, and they characterise a Narrative, bringing it specificities that make it interesting. Proper nouns aside, as a blatant example, ‘terrifying banshee’ would be to use a redundant adjective, as banshees are normally thought of as terrifying. ‘Rose’ is a loaded word. It has associations with beauty, love, the love-hate that the thorned stem and exquisite flower can represent, the crown of roses/thorns Christ wore, etc. Almost always, though, it is correlated with beauty, so unless stated otherwise, ‘beautiful rose’ would be redundant.

Further, several adjectives can, if badly chosen, pull away from each other, and force the noun out of focus, rather than enhance it. A little like mixing metaphors. An adjective can be a wonderful thing and enrich a poem greatly, but in overused can put it six feet under.

Thirdly – too many small words – articles (a/the), conjunctions (and/but/though, etc.), prepositions (to/for/after, etc.), pronouns (I/he/she, etc.), possessive adjectives (my/your/our, etc.). Today we almost never write in full sentences; many small words can be stripped to aid the flow and sharpen a piece without losing the meaning or a noticeable amount of grammar. Pronouns and possessive adjectives, in particular, are to be wary of, because too many of these (the dreaded ‘I’ especially), can make the Narrative feel so personal to Narrator/Author that a reader may find the content harder to identify with. Stripping too many, though, may result in it feeling too impersonal.

Below is a mostly awful poem I wrote eleven years ago at University. It contains much redundancy. I’ll put that in [brackets] –

[You look like] an oil painting
[With your] pouting
[And] surreptitious smiles.
[Do I need to] squeeze myself [into] two dimensions
To explore your allure?
Sleek hair, chic as a siamese
You don’t ooze, you leak.
Drip, drip, drip
Leaking from your face like sweaty make-up.
[You look like] an oil painting
But [you’re] no[t the] Mona Lisa.

[You look like] an oil painting
[With your] perpetual posing,
Your ‘good side’ offered in ostentation
Like the light side of the moon.
When you alight on my Chesterfield
[I can’t decide whether] you[’re] sitting on it
Or modelling it
[So] I’m silent as I drink my drink
[And think other thoughts.
I wish you’d drink yours -]
[But] you sip, [a dainty kitten and milk,]
A dignitary and cognac, the Dean’s wife and Cinzano Bianco
Sip, sip, sip
Inching down your glass
Like a virgin skier.
[You’re like] an oil painting
But Botticelli wouldn’t have bothered.

Some rewording and line/stanza-breaking also needed, end result looked like this –

An oil painting
surreptitious smile

Squeeze myself
to get what
you got:

Sleek hair, chic as a Siamese
you don’t ooze, you leak

Drip, drip, drip
leaking from your face
like sweaty make-up

An oil painting
but no da Vinci

An oil painting
perpetually posing
fat harvest moon

on the Chesterfield
are you sitting on it,
or modelling it?

I swill my glassful, silently as possible.
You sip:
a dignitary and Cognac,
the Dean’s wife and Cinzano Bianco

Sip, sip, sip
inching down your glass
like a virgin skier

An oil painting
but Botticelli wouldn’t have bothered.


As last week, post a poem, old or new – one you’re needing help with, or one you more generally want feedback on. In light of today’s discussion on redundant phrasing, it is worth going over it with a fine-tooth comb before posting, checking for anything that you may see now as redundant and cluttering the essence of the piece.

A brief reminder of basic protocol and tips for commenting critically:

▪ Use tact. Always. There is no room for abusive or needlessly harsh critique.

▪ Double-check with yourself that you really aren’t ‘precious’ about the poem you are posting. Know that all critique is meant in the best interests of the poem, and never directed at the poet personally. I like to say we ‘leave our egos at the door’.

▪ State points as opinion, never fact. If it helps you to do this, use the term ‘in my opinion’ (IMO).

▪ Be objective as possible in terms of the poem/poet at hand. And though a poem may not appeal, stay open to its merits (such as original metaphor or clever wordplay).

▪ Be honest. If you see an area you feel is weak, call it. Similarly, point out the strengths of the poem. Why did/didn’t it work? Suggestions?

▪ ‘Sandwich Technique’ – An excellent approach as it is systematic, and feels constructive/positive to those on the receiving end. It’s simple: start with what you thought worked/what you liked, move on to aspects you felt could be improved on, and finish with an encouraging comment that extrapolates the positives to encompass the poem as a whole.

▪ I forgot to mention this last week – if you don’t yet feel confident/comfortable with commenting critically, please comment the normal way (rather than refraining altogether).

Onboard with me this week are talented poets and critiquers Beth Winter, who runs her own crit group on AllPoetry.com, and Julie Watkins (Carys) and Christi Moon, both of whom are admins on our Crit/Discussion Group Facial Expression Poetry Circle. They’ll be helping me visit you all with constructive feedback.

Let’s get started. Just click on the Mr Linky button below to share your poem, and to access the others already linked.

Look forward to a fine session of reading and collaborative crafting effort!