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A Blog by Poet Elizabeth Oxley

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  • Elizabeth Oxley

Pronouns, Articles, & Socks: Day 2 - Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Poetry Retreat

June 16, 2020


Welcome to the second day of our online writing retreat.

I once knew a girl who had over thirty pairs of socks. I'm not saying it was my daughter, and I'm not saying it wasn't. Either way, she had too many socks.

This happened in the usual way. Over time, her closet grew cluttered. Because her socks were lost—and yet perfectly present—they were replaced. What wasn't actually needed became needed, and the socks that couldn't be found were rendered useless.

Poetry is like this: a room for words, organized according to our unique aesthetic instincts. Sometimes we create an airy salon, sometimes a cluttered closet. As poets, we get to arrange our words and images any way we'd like. There's not much to stop us. If we hope to share our writing with others, however, we can make a basic assumption: Our readers don't want to be suffocated or impeded. They want to be able to make their way through the room of that poem.

In pre-quarantine days, I met regularly with three other poets at East Simpson Coffee Company in Lafayette, Colorado. It's one of those places: high tin ceilings, creaking wooden floors. These days, we meet via Zoom to workshop each other's poems. At one of these virtual gatherings, one of our members pointed out that I'd used pronouns in my poem more than twenty-five times. From his small Zoom room, he wondered aloud about the degree to which an excessive use of pronouns might distract a reader from the poem's essential content.

I found my poet friend's comment intriguing but didn't immediately regard it as critical to my poem's evolution. I'm glad I changed my mind. He was absolutely right. Reviewing my poem, I found ways to delete several pronouns and restructure my sentences for the better.

Would a reader know I'd done this? No. But it's like the deep-cleaning you might be doing during quarantine—nobody knows you've dumped crumbs from the toaster and sorted your cupboards, but your kitchen feels better once the job is done.

One of my writing instructors advocates for removing unnecessary articles from a poem: a, an, the. In the early days of our work together, I was hesitant to follow his suggestion. Wouldn't I sound crazy, I wondered, if I allowed nouns to stand on their own?

In hindsight, I was being a helicopter parent to nouns, unwilling to give them space to breathe. Removing all articles might make a poem sound gimmicky, but it's amazing what some selective trimming can do to increase a poem's momentum and allow its remaining content to shine.

Pronouns and articles are just two elements that can clutter a poem, but they're great places to start in your editing process. You might be surprised to discover how many pairs of socks you find—and how your poem becomes a room in which readers love to linger.


Empty Pitchforks

by Thomas Lux

“There was poverty before money.”

There was debtors’ prison before inmates,

there was hunger prefossil,

there was pain before a nervous system

to convey it to the brain, there existed

poverty before intelligence, or accountants,

before narration; there was bankruptcy aswirl

in nowhere, it was palpable

where nothing was palpable, there was repossession

in the gasses forming so many billion ... ;

there was poverty—it had a tongue—in cooling

ash, in marl, and coming loam,

thirst in the few strands of hay slipping

between a pitchfork’s wide tines,

in the reptile and the first birds,

poverty aloof and no mystery like God

its maker; there was surely want

in one steamed and sagging onion,

there was poverty in the shard of bread

sopped in the final drop of gravy

you snatched from your brother’s mouth.


  1. Read the sample poem above, noticing there are nouns in the first three couplets that are not preceded by articles (prison, hunger, pain, poverty, etc.).

  2. Now, read those lines with articles in front of the nouns.

  3. Consider how the inclusion of articles changes the momentum and/or meaning of those lines. Does anything change? Is it for better or worse?


This one's simple. Find one of your own poems that contains several articles and several pronouns. Read it out loud, then do the following.


  1. Every place you see an article, remove it.

  2. Read the poem again, considering how the meaning/momentum of your poem has changed.

  3. Carefully reinsert articles where you feel they're needed.


  1. Remove at least two pronouns from your poem, rewriting as needed in order to accommodate the changes.

  2. Consider whether the changes have benefited your poem. Has removing the pronouns tightened your language and made it more efficient? Keep or reverse the changes as you see fit.


Submissions to Mom Egg Review are currently open until July 15. The journal has this to say about submissions: We publish poetry, flash and short fiction, creative prose, and hybrid works (up to 850 words). We also seek mother-themed art. We seek literary works that reflect or focus on any aspect or phase of mothering, from pre-inception to later life. Many of our contributors are themselves mothers, but you need not be one to submit if the subject matter of your submission is mothers or motherhood

Click here for more information about this submission opportunity.


Speaking of socks, check out these socks for writers and these fantastic creations for book lovers on Etsy. (My favorites are the fingerless gloves.)


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