Pinsky and Hirsch on adjectives

I read through a revealing and rich Robert Pinsky interview from SmartishPace—with his answers to about 25 questions submitted by readers. One reader asked for Pinsky's view on adjectives, and Pinsky replied with his characteristic blend of wittiness and insight:

A basic way to make a passage more vivid is to try it with all the adjectives and adverbs taken out. It's remarkable how much bolder and more physical the passage—especially if it's descriptive—can become. And you can deaden something you like, as an experiment, by addings some adjectives. Fulke Greville begins his elegy for Philip Sidney: "Writing increaseth grief; silence augmenteth rage." What if it were: "Mere writing eventually increaseth my severe grief; stony silence immediately augmenteth frantic rage."?!

Reading his answer reminded me of something Edward Hirsch remarks in his visit to Pearl London's class, about how adjectives can be effective if they do work for the poem, rather than just adorn it. He uses examples from his revisions of Wild Gratitude, the typescript of which he brought with him to the seminar.

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Pearl London: What about adjectival? How do you feel about adjectives? I always keep saying they are the stuffing in a big Victorian sofa. How do you feel about them?

Edward Hirsch: Well, I mean to some extent you're right in the sense that they don't usually do much work and that you're trying to have the language work for you, and that Pound is right to put them under prescription. Although when I say, "though I slip my hand into Zooey's waggling mouth", I don't say "into Zooey's mouth". "Waggling" seemed to me to do something there, it seems to do some work, whereas "the small clink of milk bottles" isn't doing any work. So you go back and you go, well "clink" does the work, you don't need the "small".


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