Monday, November 10, 2008

The Trouble With Nouns



The first book my former teacher, Karl Shapiro, published was called Person, Place, and Thing--the old-fashioned definition of a noun. (He may have self-published a book before this one appeared.) I still think it's a heck of a title for a book of poems. It suggested that Shapiro was writing more or less in the vein of William Carlos Williams and other Imagists ("no ideas but in things," as Williams writes in Paterson), although Shapiro's poems tend to be robust, full figured, not spare and spidery like those of H.D. (for example) or Amy Lowell. To some degree, the poetry of Shapiro is where the poetry of Williams and Auden meet--an American view of things (sometimes literally things) combined with a British sense of language, irony, and poetic form.

Aside from "show, don't tell," the other most ubiguitous piece of advice people like to hurl at new writers is "use active verbs." (Forms of the verb "to be" are not considered active.) Verbs, verbs, and more verbs--that's the advice. One must look with suspicion of not disdain on adjectives and adverbs. One must be unimpressed even with nouns, allegedly. Occasionally, such advice (however well meant and possibly even useful) brings out the contrarian in me. Hence the following poem:

The Trouble With Nouns

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"The trouble with nouns," the man said,

"is that they just sit there, doing nothing."

I didn't know why he viewed this situation

as problematic. I like entering a cafe (for

instance) full of nouns that are just sitting there.

I don't want them to get up and accost me. I

like it when nouns keep to themselves, don't

open fire, don't start arguments or act out

an impulse to create conflict, as if

the Nounville Cafe were the scene of a one-act

play or the setting of a short story. I sit amongst

nouns with a kind of noun-like lassitude.

Someone enters the establishment, stares.

We stare back, we nouns. The look on

the newcomer's face suggests the nouns

and I appear to be menacing, although or

because we just sit there in our nounish diffidence.

Some people think nouns are trouble.

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Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

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