On adjectives

a continuation of my poetic love affair with Ellen Bryant Voigt

and because it makes me think, hard, about how language works

Nouns are the strongest parts of speech; without nouns, there is no poem, maybe no language: if language points to or names, then the nomen is language. The noun is the source of the image—a verb needs an agent. Nouns collapse the distance between language and the external world, and carry tremendous syntactical power.

Adjectives, on the other hand, can be weak, dispensable, hollow or predictable. If you consider an apple, are not all the usual adjectives assigned to already part of your image? Red (maybe yellow), crisp, sweet, tart, juicy—listing these adds nothing to our understanding of apple-ness. Discussing Robert Haas’s “Meditation at Lagunitas,” Voigt explains:

After all, “tender” is more amorphous than tenderness, “thirsty” less commanding than thirst, wonder more solemn and convincing that “wonderful,” despair a good deal more respectable than “desperate.” The debasement of adjectives is more widespread now than at the turn of the century, their descriptive prowess weakened by the direct image of photography, film, and television, their value judgments grown suspect in the sake of advertising’s unsupported claims. Anything, it would seem, can be GREAT! WONDERFUL! SPLENDID! if we say it is, whereas most people probably still wish to believe that “greatness,” “wonder,” and “splendor” have some objective standards, some specific denotations, even if we can’t agree on what they are.

But adjectives can be much more than this, can define more than they describe. Because adjectives can be subjective, not fixed, they can become vital to a poem’s tone and meaning. The lyric, in particular, needs adjectives, just as discursive poems need nouns and narrative poems need verbs. From Plath’s “Ariel,” for example, come these: substanceless blue, brown arc, dark hooks, black sweet blood mouthfuls, red eye. This list alone is the feeling, the tone, of the poem.

Adjectives can also reverse or alter the surface meaning of the poem. Voigt’s explanation of this, in a poem I love, is the string of three adjectives at the end of William Carlos Williams:

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

And which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Without that last sentence, there is no poem. In a brilliant arrogance, the final assertions—delicious/so sweet/and so cold—both justify and undercut “Forgive me.” Pleasure first, virtue second, oh surely you understand.

Adjectives can describe, they can limit, they can serve precision. They can contradict, correct, or amplify the possible meanings within the noun. More than that, adjectives restore the eye, and the “I,” to the poem: they supply tone, the context without which nouns can be imprecise, incomplete or misleading.

In short, adjectives not only annex precision and clarity, for more exact meaning, and add nuance and resonance, for evocation of emotion; in their amplifications of tone they acknowledge the poet’s subjective presence in the poem. […] Adjectives moderate between nominal fixity (the world’s facts) and mutability (change enacted on them); they strengthen the noun by adding response to fact, by limiting or expanding the noun, and by admitting into the poem the human sensibility that is apart from the world, thereby putting the yearning self in alignment with the world.


If music is both sound and feeling, then adjectives are a crucial source of music in our poems, meditative or narrative or lyric. […] Because of its subjective nature its presence in the poem is the hardest to earn; craft does not put it there so much as vision, intuition, temperament, perhaps even character.