Thursday 8 June 2023

To contract, or not to contract, that is (or that’s!) the question...

The decision whether to use a contraction (e.g. who is or who’s) might seem insignificant at first sight, but like any syntactic choice, it’s pivotal to how a poem works. As a consequence, it’s one of the initial things this poetic geek notices when reading a poet’s work for the first time, taking it as something of a signpost to how they treat language, to their love of detail.

For a start, one thing appears clear: we should never turn our back on any resource when attempting to achieve poetic effects. There’s no fundamentalism along the lines of always going either for the full or abbreviated form. Instead, the strongest poets seem very aware of the importance of their choice in each case.

A major factor, of course, is register, i..e. contraction for an informal tone and avoidance of it for a formal turn of phrase. Mind you, some writers like to mix their registers up for specific effect, dropping a contraction into a formal sentence or avoiding one in an informal line. This can work well, generating tension, making the reader pause and have a linguistic think, although it can also appear scattergun unless kept under control.

However, on certain occasions, I can’t avoid the feeling that the poet has made their decision on arbitrary grounds. Or they’ve chosen to contract or not purely on the basis of scansion or musicality. At that point, especially if the long form has been selected, a risk of syllabic/metrical padding kicks in, and certain editors would be readying their red biro.

All in all, this supposedly simple issue becomes a poetic hand grenade once we start looking at it up close! But what about you? Do you contract…?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. I think most contemporary poets aim for a conversational mode i.e. they don't want to write in a form that sounds 'literary'. They want to sound 'natural'.

    However, most people (including me) instinctively formalise slightly in sync with a subconscious sense of poetic register. So people tend to write 'cannot', for example, instead of 'can't', and 'will not' instead of 'won't'.

    Some contractions make no difference to syllabic form e.g. 'couldn't' v. 'could not', but there's a metrical difference because the stress falls on the 'could' in the first of these and the 'not' in the second. This is very nerdy but something I think about a lot.

    If the poet is writing in a conversational register, I prefer 'couldn't' and 'wouldn't', simply because we only say (in speech) 'could not' if we're emphasising the 'not'.

    However, increasingly I note people writing 'could've' and 'would've' in poems. This I don't much like, though I'm not sure my feeling is rational. I won't mention 'could of' and 'would of', although I can see both are going to become grammatically acceptable (through dint of common usage) in the near future.....