Verbs: Taking Your Poetry from Vague to Vivid

Samuel Taylor Coleridge is attributed with one of my favorite quotes about poetry:

"Poetry is the best words in the best order"

Digest that for a moment... what a simple and lovely way to look at a poem! And how true. The best poems, no, the best writing, gives off the impression that the words on the page are the only words that could have been chosen. So right are the words, so good, that using other words in their place is unimaginable. The best words, in the best order, is what makes poetry, poetry.

And so it is with verbs. The best verbs take poetry from vague, to vivid. They have transformative power. They make the mundane, magical. They inject energy into poetry and make it move. Make it interesting. Make it surprising. Make it memorable.

Does this praise sound undue? I promise it's not!

First, what do I mean by verbs?

Verbs are action words! While this post is not a grammar lesson, as a poet you should familiarize yourself with verbs and their grammatical function, because grammar--words and how they work--is one of the greatest tools a poet wields. Imagine a gardener not understanding how to germinate seeds, or an electrician not knowing the basics of electricity. The results would be disastrous! And so it is with poetry. Know and respect the tools of your craft!

Grammatically, verbs impart tense, person, and number. Verbs can be in present, past, or future tense; they can be in first, second, or third person; and they can be singular or plural.

They can appear in their infinitive form, for example: to run. They can also appear in their conjugated form: for example, I run, you run, he/she/it runs, we run, you run, they run. They can also appear in gerund form: for example, running.

As for types of verbs, there are action verbs which can be intransitive or transitive, linking verbs, and helping verbs.

How to use verbs as a poet

Draw your reader in with great verbs in the first sentence

To the poem, verbs are crucial. They are how a poem makes the reader imagine! They spark interest and draw a reader in. The right verb makes your poetry irresistible. Think about the lines of poetry you remember off the top of your head--I bet that they have interesting verbs.

The first line of poetry that comes to my mind is "tyger tyger, burning bright / In the forests of the night" from William Blake's poem, "The Tyger." Imagine! A tiger's vivid orange as a flame, the fur "burning." What energy this line evokes!

Verbs inject action into the images you create using nouns (learn more about nouns and imagery in my post "Enchanting Your Poetry Using Concrete Nouns"

Use unexpected verbs to infuse your poetry with movement

An exercise you can do to begin to think like a poet about verbs is to pair everyday nouns with unexpected verbs. Perhaps rain doesn't fall, it dives or surrenders. And maybe grass doesn't sway in wind, it wobbles or cowers. Always consider tone when selecting a verb! A precisely placed verb sharpens the image and tells the reader exactly what you mean and what the mood of the poem is.

Let's take for example something normal, expected. Something we see everyday--like clouds. For practice with this--have a look at the image carousel of clouds and come up with unexpected verbs that fit the mood, tone, and action you see.

What verbs are normally associated with clouds? What do they do? They drift. They float. They laze. They wisp. They fluff. They puff. They roll.

But what if they meandered? What if a herd of clouds stampeded across the sky? Can clouds somersault? Tumble? March? What of a cloud that tinkers? Or simpers? Or whimpers? Imagine a splintering cloud. A whittling cloud!

How new the clouds are with these verbs, how different. How interesting! The possibilities are endless.

Always avoid cliché. As poet it is your responsibility to find the connection between verb and subject that no-one has thought of before. It should be your desire to make your reader see nouns in a new way, from a fresh perspective, and one of the best ways to do this is by using unique, precise verbs. Invite your readers see the world how the poem sees the world!

Pay attention to the verb "to be"

The verb "to be" is both the backbone and the bane of the poet's existence. Poetry thrives on metaphor, and so this verb is the backbone of poetry because poets compare concepts, objects, and ideas to each other all the time. Thing A IS thing B. If I say you have "the heart of a lion" I am saying, "your heart is strong and proud like a lion's." This is the "to be" verb in action.

But sometimes, poems can become bogged down by repetitive verb usage. Check over your work for overuse of the words is, am and are. When these words are abundant, there is a good chance you are overusing the verb "to be."

If you must use the verb frequently in the first draft just to get the poem down, that's just fine. But don't be afraid to experiment and swap the verb out later for a more precise verb that fits the tone, mood, image, and action of your poetry.

Notice how often you use infinitives

Using a verb in it's infinitive means using it in it's "to" form. So the sentence, "I like to write," uses the infinitive form of the verb "to write." Just like the verb "to be" used in it's conjugated form can be repetitive, so too can always using verbs in their infinitive forms.

Finally, brazenly defy everything I've just told you

Here is one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems from her book Devotions, called "I go down to the shore:"

I go down to the shore in the morning and depending on the hour the waves are rolling in or moving out, and I say, oh, I am miserable, what shall-- what should I do? And the sea says in its lovely voice: Excuse me, I have work to do. (45)

(I've highlighted the verbs "to have" and "to be" in purple, & all other verbs in blue)

Why does this poem--that proudly shirks all the advice I've shared--still rank on my list of favorite poems? Because, these words are the best words in the best order. In this case, the verbs "to be" and "to have" are exactly the right verbs for the poem. All the verbs used have the right sounds, they evoke the right emotion, and the simplicity of them wholly fits the mood of the poem, the simple wisdom imparted. Overzealous verbs that call too much attention to themselves would only detract from this poem.

The problem with simple verbs--like to do, to have, to make--comes only when they are overused, used reflexively... or worse, used lazily. But when they're right, well, they're right.

Let's look too at a poem called "Water" from Patrick Lane's book The Bare Plum of Winter Rain:

Sometimes it hurts to be water. Listen to the creak on clay, the lap the water in the ditches makes, the way it stirs in mud. I get down on my knees beside water, listen to the drench and drone, the thud a stone makes sinking in the clay. And the water, because it sings a song so old no one remembers it, drags its beauty slowly. How hard to carry so much inside. How much it hurts to be water. (9)

(Here, I've highlighted verbs used as action verbs in blue, and verbs used as nouns in purple)

At first glance, it might look like this poem is drowning in verbs. However, the technique that Patrick Lane uses don't overwhelm the poem in the least. Instead, the usage of verbs as both verbs & nouns interacts with the reader's perception of time--creating both action and movement in the present as well as the illusion of movement suspended in the infinite past or future. He layers the poem with subtle movement, like memories. Though it is in the poem's present that he gets down on his knees to listen, it feels like "the drench and drone, the thud a stone makes sinking into the clay" has been happening forever, and that water will continue to carry that sound, those movements, forever. It is a subtle and beautiful technique that adds incredible depth to this small poem.

The term for using verbs as nouns is nominalization. Also, gerund verbs (verbs in their 'ing' form,) are also frequently used as nouns. And though I won't go any deeper into the techqnique in this post, just know that it can work beautifully for poetry!

A simple scene can be transformed by picking the right verb. I would would pay money for a good verb. Verbs are, dare I say it, fun!

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