Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A case of the missing article

Over the years, I've noticed a tendency for grammatical articles to go missing in poems that I would otherwise consider well-written. Sometimes the omission seems perfectly fine – it creates a nuanced effect that demonstrates an awareness of both sound and grammar in the structure of a compelling poem. Sometimes this practice might even create a sense of dissonance, working to develop a poem's mood, voice, or submerged problematic in a way that enhances the conceptual structure of what's being advanced in a poem's complicated sense of meaning.

Too frequently, however, the omission seems like a fad, a pretense toward style  as if this purposeful violation of English grammar were only an excuse to demonstrate an edgy sort of experimentation with language. In other words, a superficial emphasis that distracts from a poem's over all effect rather than integrating with its structural, semantic, or aesthetic substance.

Almost as often, though, I suspect that I might not be reading some poems closely enough, thus allowing my biases to interfere with a genuine appreciation of what's really going on. For instance, I'm about to embark on a long sentence-by-sentence conversation with an essay by Adam Fieled ("The Conspiracy against Poems," published in The Argotist Online) and thought I should at least look at a few examples of his poetry first. Which led me to "Concentrate!" – found here (among other poems by this writer) at Moria Poetry.

Because I felt that Fieled's essay was rather biased, I suspect I let my own biases and irritation bleed over into an initial reading of his poetry, particularly when I detected an example of my own pet peeve in these lines:

streets surreal w/ coffee-shops (open at eleven),
      so we go, get coffee, a brownie, sit
on curb / baltimore ave. near clark park--

Despite this poem's consistent deployment of minimalist grammar, notation, and abbreviation – which I found interesting and effective, by the way – the result of "sit / on curb" (and a few other similar examples that were softened by context and the addition of modifiers) was, for me, an immediate sense of irritation. As in, "Oh Christ, here we go again with the trendy stand-alone nouns."

But in this case, I was moved to re-think my bias against the missing article. Is it really such a trendy pretense toward style, or is there something else going on that I need to evaluate? Looking at the poem as a whole, I notice that I tripped over its grammatical dissonance in just the right place. With my attention settled on this curb, I now get a very effective sense of perspective in which the poem's earlier images are allowed to coalesce, as well as a contextualized position that heightens the verbal imagery of the poem's later observations. In other words, the omission of an article serves this poem by directing me to sit down and "experience" a poetic environment of efficiently sketched imagery and human involvement.

And it's a very pleasant experience, I might add.

So, what's the point of this post? I really haven't changed my opinion on the trendy omission of articles before singular-tense nouns, but I might think twice when encountering this device, especially when I recognize my own knee-jerk tendency to prematurely dismiss a poem for reasons that can sometimes be attributed to aesthetic or intellectual bias.

Which is to say, if we really care about poetry, we need to be aware of the blinders we sometimes wear while reading it. And then we need to take them off.


  1. It is always a pleasant kind of surprise to find your own ego and peeves can be pushed to the side easily if the moment and motivation are right. I struggle with the dropped article as well, and with "trendy" poetry....pieces that begin with something inflammatory or obscene just for the sake of shock. But then I find myself trafficking in it as well. It's a juggling act. Glad to see your were able to unlock your jaw and swallow what is a pretty sturdy poem.

  2. Thanks Kimberly. It seems like most poems don't really open up until they've been read at least a couple of times. The challenge for me, more often than I care to admit, is to actually read something more than once ...