Notes from the Submission Box: Tautology 2 Comments

Our submission box at Voiceworks is always overflowing with inventive writing. It’s been said before but it is a damn hard task choosing which submissions to publish. The editorial committee has a few things that crop up again and again as a way of separating good submissions from better ones. One of these, particularly in poetry, is the issue of redundant language, combinations of words that overlap, saying what you’ve already said or tautology. (See what I did there? Yikes)

Identifying what makes some poetry good and not others is always tricky, but a helpful note is included in our very own poetry submission guidelines. It says, ‘Go for concision and contraction. Poetry is about distillation.’ This is why redundancy strikes poetry editors as a grave sin. Phrases like ‘absolute perfection’, ‘green in colour’ and ‘ghostly pale’ will weaken almost any poem. If we appreciate poetry for its ability to distil language and the world around us then tautology falls into the category of anti-poetry along with jargon and cliché.

Of course like all assumptions about good writing, this one can collapse upon close examination. Poetry is also frequently playful and inventive with words. Good poets can ignore the rules and it is true that skilful repetition and building words and images upon each other is often the core of a good poem. Would Shakespeare’s ‘the most unkindest cut of all’ be better without the superlative tautology?

The issue with tautology though is that it is often used by accident because it is such a common part of our language. Consider your latest job application. Does it include the phrase ‘past experience’? What about ‘grateful thanks’? There is also a lot of redundancy in language that we exploit for stylistic purposes. Certainly absolute perfection holds greater weight in a sentence than mere perfection. It gives the hearer more time to absorb the idea. Redundancy in writing though is a greater sin than in speech. This goes doubly so for poetry because it is assumed that the reader will take the time to digest all of the language. Fillers and helpful repetition to keep the reader on task can be abandoned. They can be thought of as background noise and this is precisely the noise that poetry aims to distil from language.

  • phill

    Some good points made here. I think one reason that young poets might get caught up with repetition and the ‘just making sure you get it’ stance is due to the way a lot of people read poetry. I’d say (perhaps cynically) that the majority of poems in Voiceworks or in any other literary magazine aren’t examined closely, or read more than a couple of times, or even read out loud.

    Another issue with a phrase like ‘absolute perfection’ is that it is a prime example of an abstraction. What perfection? Whose definition of perfection? Physical perfection, or ideological? We should be able to understand that the narrator considers an object perfect through the way it is described, without the explicit statement. ‘Absolute perfection’ doesn’t hang in the mind easily–there’s nothing to attribute to it–while an inventive, illustrative, or novel turn of phrase might stick with the reader for years.

  • Saba

    This reminds me of something Peter Bakowski once said – something along the lines of “for every word I cut out of my poems, I think of it as one dollar”. Of course, if you’ve ever read his poetry, you can see that’s exactly what he’s done – the poems are almost entirely devoid of adjectives, and every word is chosen with startling precision. His poems don’t deal in overly-abstract, “background noise” phrases such as “absolute perfection”, but instead aim to create an (often absurd) image in the reader’s mind. One poem, ‘In the Hardware Store, is only three lines long –

    “Bald men admire
    The heads
    Of mops.”

    … snappy, sharp, and well, just brilliant (IMO, at least). Of course, it’s really difficult to distill poetry like that. Most of my own poems end up rambly and not nearly as tightly composed as I would like. -sigh-

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