(First published on ThanetWriters.com on 2018/05/17 by Connor Sansby)
In the margins of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, there is a comment—an editor’s note—that speaks to me as much as the celebrated poem it comments on: “Perhaps be damned.”
While words like “Perhaps” and “Maybe” have their place in poetry, they are weak words, used to state an idea but not to commit to it. A writer should have the strength to stand behind an idea they present. Using “Perhaps” is an attempt by the author to detach themselves from judgement, the fear that their idea is not good enough. That’s not to say that the use of “Perhaps” is a complete sin, sometimes a poem needs a measure of vagueness or non-commitment. The right use of “Maybe” can add a hazy, uncertain quality to writing but usually, it is a crutch.
In Ezra Pound’s editing of The Waste Land, he removes “Perhaps” at every opportunity. He is never wrong, he cuts with assurance and confidence, and the poem stands as it does today because of his commitment. It is fine editing because it anchors an otherwise dreamy poem into the real world.
Consider being forced to listen to someone else’s dreams. Ultimately, it’s futile and dull. It is impossible to connect with because it is not real. There is no repercussion or resolution to a dream but the story itself. The account of a dream is self-serving. Poetry should be about more than the poet, it should be a sharing of experience, and that requires committing. All your poetry should exist in a real place, a place where fantastical things happen, the impossible is everyday and anything you speak comes into being. When you live in this real place, you invite the reader or listener onto stable ground so that they can begin to experience the poem.
Above “Perhaps” and “Maybe” I have another word that I will not allow to stand: “So”
I do not mean “so” as a conjunction, but as an opening to a line or sentence; the pause or comma that follows is a vital part of the word. It’s often found in the work of spoken word poets, looking for an extra syllable to make their line flow, but it too is a word without confidence. “So,” is a word that speaks nothing. It is filler and lazy.
If you need the extra syllable, revisit the content of your line; find breathing space and extra syllables outside the words themselves. When a poet uses “So,” I instinctively know that the work will be unpolished or easily written. Poetry should make you sweat; it should a labour, even if the soul of the poem comes easy. The poet must ask themselves ‘why have I used this?’ at every chance.
“So,” is the dangling space between people who don’t know what to say to one another. It is a hand into the void that poets should avoid. Consider the following:
“So, I was walking down the street.”
“So,” is the writer speaking for the sake of it, it adds nothing but by dropping it the sentence becomes more concrete a robust.
“I was walking down the street.”
The author becomes more empowered and the actions become solid. With “So,” at the start, the sentence is a lazy recollection of an event, poorly structured and lacking in planning. It is the recalling of a dream or, worse, a lie.
A writer should be committed to the words they use in their final draft. If not, how can we expect other people to love them? Once we rid ourselves of our weak words, we are left with powerful ideas and actions. An example of a master of this was Hemingway. A journalist originally, his style tells of facts, it is committed to the existence of everything it speaks of, and therein lies the believability.