Lesson Two: Armored Prose–The Polysyllabic Prison©2010
An Essay by Jack Remick and Robert Ray
Armored prose is a metaphor for bad writing when you think you’re doing good writing. Armored prose comes from the intention of being proper on the page. Being proper and sounding educated, wise, smart, nice, non-threatening, safe, regular, normal (not crazy), even-tempered, and politically correct. Armored Prose smoothes things over. It contains, it crushes, it does not bend or twist. Armored prose smothers the life in your writing. Snuffs out the pale blue flame of creativity. You create armored prose when you combine abstract nouns (administration, consecration, illumination) with weak verbs (think, would think, would have thought, to think, to have been thinking) and a passel of LY-adverbs (methodically, tangentially, actually, basically, etc.).
Armored prose is the bane, the death pill of poetry. Poetry, the enemy of armored prose, is the language of freedom, of emotion, of depth, of cunning, of insight.
Poetry is not just language broken into stanzas. Poetry is craft raised, any craft, to its peak and perfection—and this is the paradox: an aircraft carrier is a work of art. All its pieces fit together, mesh together into an amalgam of killing perfection—a city of death at sea. But a computer chip is also craft raised to a level where the visual chip independent of its inner truth fits together in a perfect union and harmony with its other parts. Poetry is the language of the open window through which we see something we never imagined. Poetry is truth organized into stepping stones leading beyond the known into the unknown. Armored Prose, the Received Language of limitations cannot do that.
Poetry keeps us alive. Without poetry we, humans, the human race, are nothing but efficient bipedal killing machines. Our only rivals are the viruses—microbes hidden but so efficient they kill fifty million at a shot. They are waiting. They have no poetry. Until you look at them under a microscope.
Here’s the recipe for writing armored prose–
Mix abstract nouns (administration, consideration, and interdiction) with weak verbs:
- to be considered (infinitive)
- had been considered (passive voice)
- should have thought to have been considered (passive voice infinitival interior)
- might have been considered (passive voice subjunctive)
Clog this heady mixture with a batch of useless adjectives: nice, sweet, kind, honest, honorable, elegant, adorable, tasteful, thoughtful.
Pepper your paragraphs with an army of abstract LY-adverbs: truthfully, knowingly, stunningly, interestingly, modifyingly, totally.
Keep your prose slow-paced with the connectors of exposition: some-some-more; either-or; neither-nor; however, though, although; not only/but also; if-then-then-but if.
Mark Twain hated Armored Prose.
In a segment of a recent Ken Burns documentary on Mark Twain, Burns says: Huckleberry Finn caused a scandal. The novel was banned. Not banned because of the race relations in it or because of Jim’s relationship to Huck, but because, Burns says, Huck Finn’s language glorified an ignorant boy. The language, was raw and crude and uneducated and in dialect and it was, worst of all, true.
Mark Twain discovered, Burns tells us, the cure for Armored Prose. He discovered the cure for the received language, and that is why Ernest Hemingway wrote, in The Green Hills of Africa–it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since. Before Huck Finn, there was no American writing. In Huck Finn, Twain freed the language from Latin, he freed prose from the cast iron pot of enforced respectability, and he freed language to open windows onto worlds no one had seen before. In short, he discovered the poetry of the American language and set it free. He found a voice that spoke, as Jack Moodey wrote, “sunlight clear”. Twain shows us prose stripped of Latinisms, a language borne out of the speech and emotion of truth, a language rich in its ability to shock and to interrupt and to recast emotion in utter, complete abandon.
Modern prose writers too often forget these truths: Twain existed and he wrote to the heart. Jack Kerouac existed and he found the truth of Whitman’s poetry in a wild and crazy prose that thumbs its nose at the respectable to find the angel at the heart of the innocent, and Ernest Hemingway existed and he found the truth of cadence in this new language and he taught us how to write for the movies.
In Bladerunner, just as he dies, Roy Baty, the android, says,
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near Tanhauser Gate.
All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain.
Time to die.
As writers, we must not forget what Twain and Kerouac and Hemingway tell us about armored prose–
All that beauty dead.
All that truth buried.
All that power killed.
Killed in the iron clad coffins of the standard, received, respectable armored prose of containment.
If American writing is about anything, it is about Freedom. Freedom to explore the new experience of being a child in a new land. Freedom to play, freedom to find absolute beauty in innocence.
If American writing is about anything, it is about salvation through art. A language dies. Killed with every generation that measures its education not in newness and bright brilliant images but in the dead polysyllables of an antique armored prose. The received language is a language of death, a language of the graveyard, a language draped in black crepe, and this is why poets are outlaws, this is why artists are rebels, this is why writers must break free of the iron pants Hemingway wrote of:
The age demanded that we dance
And jammed us into iron pants.
And in the end the age was handed
The sort of shit that it demanded.
Example–a passage of Kerouac’s Spontaneous Prose-
“Marylou was a pretty blonde with immense ringlets of hair like a sea of golden tresses; she sat there on the edge of the couch with her hands hanging in her lap and her smoky blue country eyes fixed in a wide stare because she was in an evil gray New York pad that she’d heard about back West and waiting like a long-bodied emaciated Modigliani surrealist woman in a serious room.”
Example – a passage of Armored Prose –
The policy under consideration by the administration, which had been considered earlier by the previous administration, either for the purpose of further clarification during the designated period of time, or at the ultimate termination of the aforementioned attempt at interdiction, some, but not quite the totality of items being considered, transmitted the observation, after some intermediate but non-binding approximate calculations, to have coagulated the entire communication, which had been rendering itself to some clandestine, but nevertheless, conclusive termination.
Time-Jump: Dial Your I-Pod back to 1066.
Now that you know what dead writing is, ask yourself: How did this happen? How did we speakers of English, we descendants of Beowulf, how did we smother our writing with Armored Prose?
Check your dictionary for word-roots of any abstract noun ending in -ion
That deadly –ion ending came from Old French. And Old French came from Latin. And Latin came to us in a barrage of polysyllables dating from the Norman Conquest of 1066, a bad day for us writers with Anglo-Saxon roots. After 1066, Latin spewed forth from the pulpit and the throne. Latinate words like administration and defenestration took over the language. American writers forget this – we speak the language of a conquered people. Latin is our Received Language, thrust upon the English tongue by a foreign potentate, and every time you write a polysyllabic noun or a weak verb, you breathe new life into your received language. At the same time, you kill your chance to become an honest writer.
The language of containment, iron pants, is tainted and impure. It is a language of lies and half-truths that mask reality and pain and anguish while it inflicts those things upon you, the writer. It is a language of confusion and a language of emptiness and a language of euphemisms designed to avoid exactness. We are all its victims.
When you write, you must break the law of limitation. You must write to the edge and at the edge you must peer into the abyss and peering into the abyss you must leap into the dark deep ugly void and you must fall and in falling you will break your chains.
Thom Gunn, Jack’s second mentor, told him–when he was writing imitations of Wordsworth and Byron and Yeats– to build his own universe instead of living in theirs because theirs would always be a smaller universe than the one he built for himself.
So the writer must create a universe beyond and not be contained in the limiting restrictive, constrained, contained, constipated ironclad universe of polysyllabic, moribund armored prose.
How do you break free?
You look at the words on the page. Crush every word of more than two syllables, of more than two parts. Break the language into verb and noun. Break the language into image. Image is picture, picture is truth, truth cannot not be seen. Truth is self evident. Maybe. Maybe it is. Maybe if you write the hard true verb and the hard true noun, maybe your brain changes and maybe you change the brain of one reader and maybe you blast free for one second and in that second you create a big bang of your own and in that big bang a new world breathes, and its stars are images and its planets are verbs and its moons are nouns that say what they mean and mean what they say and hide nothing.