Saturday, April 11, 2009

Strunk and White and Seidel

After reading a long, unsparing piece on The Elements of Style this morning, I found myself hung up on a sentence in a long, reverent New York Times profile of the poet Frederick Seidel. The context for this sentence: whether poems ought to include references to expensive hotels and restaurants and rare motorcycles:

The poetic propriety of such inclusions has, by a certain kind of commentator, been questioned.
That's the sort of sentence to which Strunk and White's (overly simple) rules apply: "Use the active voice." "Keep related words together." Possible revisions:
Some critics think poems should not refer to such things.

Some critics think such things have no place in poetry.
Or if you want the alliteration (which to my ear sounds stilted):
Some critics have questioned the poetic propriety of such references.
I'm not sure what the fuss is about: poetry long ago made room for Achilles' shield, an object far grander than any motorcycle. The question is not whether motorcycles belong in a poem but whether the poem is good.

And if you're wondering: I'm no fan of Seidel's work, which I find, well, boring. (It's funny how quickly shocking turns boring.) Some years ago I turned down an invitation to review Seidel's My Tokyo (1993). I wish I had a copy of the letter I sent back, which quoted a few choice bits of the poems.

[This post is no. 24 in a very occasional series, "How to improve writing," dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

Two posts on The Elements of Style
Hardly [adverb] convincing [adjective]
Pullum on Strunk and White

All "How to improve writing" posts (via Pinboard)

comments: 5

Slywy said...

Is the question about the use of brand names in poetry (vs. a noble warrior object like a shield)? I am not familiar with the poet, but I'd have to agree—reference to brands makes me think "product placement" vs. poetry.

Geo-B said...

So, do you agree with Pullum?

Michael Leddy said...

With brand names, I'd say that context is everything. Frank O'Hara can mention Gauloises and Picayunes (in "The Day Lady Died"), and these cigarette brands are details of dailiness.

I can't venture any general opinion about Pullum and The Elements of Style (which I haven't read in years), but I've long thought that many of Strunk and White's precepts ("Omit needless words") are less than helpful to a developing writer.

But I just read the section "Use the active voice," and I'd say that Pullum's discussion is very misleading. Strunk and White do not present as examples of the passive voice the sentences that Pullum cites. The passage preceding these sentences in TEoS mentions there is, and the three sentences Pullum cites as mistakes are all sentences with forms of to be, all then revised with active verbs. So on this point at least, Pullum is misreading the plain sense of the text.

Matt Thomas said...

When I first read Pullum's piece, I thought it was a joke. Upon reflection, he strikes me as a humorless, distinctly British fuddy-duddy. See also John Gruber on Strunk & White's critics.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the link to Daring Fireball, Matt.

I'm going to try to form some further thoughts about Strunk and White and Pullum later today.