The naming words and the doing words are where all the action is in prose. Look what happened when Blackmore brought the dog-noun and the bite-verb together: savagery. I love Blackmore’s poem for so many reasons, but today I want to read it in terms of nouns and verbs.
‘Dog Bite’, Elizabeth Blackmore
my dog did this I grab my arm to keep it shut no blood
but from the holes ooze yellow worms of fat you got rid
of the dog of course a question from the stern intern as he
patches and sews the greyness of shock spares me from
After the stitching my arm sprouted black whiskers.
The actions, the verbs, are few but suggestive, and convey the necessary immediacy: the intern ‘patches and sews’, the holes simply ‘ooze’. The consonant-heavy sharpness of the triad of words ‘sprouted black whiskers’ is brutal and visual.
The juxtapositions of action and images are abrupt but clear, beginning with ‘my dog did this’, shifting without punctuation, without a comma (which would introduce a pause and thus slow the reading) to ‘I grab my arm’. Or, if you prefer to read without a pause, ‘I grab my arm to keep it shut’. (This is another aspect of this poem that enriches it: the varied ways that you can speak it, the emphasis determined by your own understanding of the words and your use of breath. Read the poem aloud and you’ll see that a variety of readings are possible.)
Notice that Blackmore relies on only a few adverbs and adjectives: the ‘worms’ of fat are ‘yellow’; the intern is ‘stern’, the shock has ‘greyness’ and the whiskers are ‘black’. Nevertheless, there is much imagined colour and movement. In the word ‘blood’ for instance, the reader will imagine hues of red, and even in the ‘yellow worms of fat’ the reader might see the whiteness of fat. When we’ve discussed this poem in class, students have said that the ‘stern intern’ conjures hospital coat colours of blue and white.
Your Noun and Verb Challenge The challenge is to find a small, discreet and possibly shocking incident, and in your writing focus your thoughts on your choice of nouns and verbs, using very few adjectives and adverbs. Strip the event back to its essentials. What is essential? Mull that over. Take nothing for granted.
Alternatively, take a page of your own current manuscript, copy it to a new document and begin to revise it with this challenge in mind. You may need to strip out a lot of words, actions, even characters, while introducing some new ones. Be fearless, it’s just an experiment. Through writing experimentation, come new questions and writerly solutions.
In your reading (what are you reading? I’ve just finished Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies), focus your attention on the nouns and verbs. Pay attention, be alert to how these language components have been selected and arranged.