Trevor Conway on Lazy Verbs: Time for the Treadmill
Trevor Conway, a Sligoman living in Galway since 2005, writes mainly poetry, fiction and songs. He’s drawn to write about nature, creativity, football and people/society, especially the odd ways in which we look at the world. His work has appeared in magazines and anthologies across Ireland, Austria, India, the UK, the US and Mexico, where his poems have been translated into Spanish. He has an MA in Writing from NUI Galway. He is a contributing editor for The Galway Review, and his first collection of poems was published by Salmon Poetry. Here he considers one way for writers to up their game:
One of the things I look out for most – maybe more than anything else – when re-drafting a poem is lazy verbs. I think we’re all familiar with the very laziest kind. It’s been dealt with by writers before, with familiar advice such as “Don’t simply say he or she walked down the lane – say he or she ambled or skipped or scampered”. But I think we can be more ambitious than that. We’re all entitled to be a bit lazy during the first draft, when we’re caught up in the heady flow of things, but sometimes, we can aim higher than ambling, skipping or scampering. I’m going to explain better what I’m talking about, but you’ll need to use these kind of verbs I speak of – what I’ll call “kickass verbs” – sparingly.
Why do you need to use them sparingly? Well, because they have the potential to be so damn good. And an overload of good things can leave a person lethargic, as when they’ve eaten too much rich food. It’s easy to become a lover of Galaxy Easter eggs, and the same applies to a writer indulging his/her creativity. Just don’t force-feed the reader dozens of Galaxy Easter eggs, okay? These observations can be applied to all kinds of writing, I suppose, but I associate them more with poetry, as word choice is an especially agonising issue in poetry, I think, maybe because the typically short length of poems lends itself to being able to withstand such torture.
To give an example of a verb that really stretches the imagination, consider how the following description could be improved: “He shifted in his seat”. I’d suggest that “He changed his posture” could be a slightly better alternative, but turning to the thesaurus could throw up something more interesting. Here are some synonyms for “change”: “adjust”, “alter”, “evolve”, “modify”, “reform”, “revise”. Ah! “He revised his posture”. I don’t know about you, but it works for me. The main thing, when striving for kickass verbs, is to surprise the reader, teasing out a verb that only you could come up with. And don’t be afraid of using the thesaurus to find that verb, of course.
Using words that are technically nouns, not normally used as verbs, can be another source of creative language. Often, these provide an image. Imagine your first draft includes the phrase “The wire bent around the door frame, into grandfather’s room”. Ask yourself the question: what is something that bends? Would you be happy to say it “rivered” around the door frame? Or it “elbowed” around it? Maybe the leap between the image and the reality is too far in some cases, but you get the idea.
I’d like to leave you with a poem where I tried to really, really concentrate on honing the verbs. There was a very specific reason for doing so in this poem, more than normal. The poem is about how strange it is to suddenly use the past tense about someone who has recently died, and I wanted to reflect that weirdness in the choice of verbs. You can decide for yourself whether they work or not. Maybe I’m guilty here of some of the things I warned you about, like overloading the poem. Before you read it, though, I’d like to say one important thing. If you’re lazy with your language, you don’t deserve to have your work read by others. Think of it like a job – would you expect to stay employed if it was clear to others that you weren’t putting in the effort? Get your thesaurus out and start scratching your head. Examine your verbs. Are they really good enough?
You will was me
Once this body has slipped from view,
After a glut of sorries.
You’ll verb me anew,
All other words immune to change.
Your language will disturb you.
In dusty rooms and back gardens buttered with evening light,
Your mind will surface my words, my face.
These will blanket you more than the mouths
Of those who cliché and euphemise.
Your words will outlet you, like tears,
Dripping the poison of loss from your blood.
The strained poetry and song of the altar
Will stun you, though temporary.
Funerals should be silent.
Sometimes, language fails,
Though all that’s left, when death pilfers our acts,
Children know the dictionary of dread:
“Failed”, “downhill”, “not looking good”.
You’ll say these words not far from my bed.
The radio newses the present, and you’ve heard
What can’t be unheard or flung to the future.
“The death has occurred”.
(c) Trevor Conway
About Evidence of Freewheeling
Trevor Conway’s debut poetry collection weaves startling imagery while exploring the creative impulse. With a blend of rhyme and free verse, human nature is analysed, satirised and sometimes glorified. Evidence of Freewheeling embraces key elements of modern life: technology, sport, human nature and the poet’s physical surroundings, particularly his native Sligo and his current home Galway.
Evidence of Freewheeling in in bookshops or pick up your copy online here!