In defense of “is”

Contemporary poetry favors compression–perhaps all poetry employs that approach, condensing out of prose whatever has most vitality in terms of imagery, metaphor, emotion. Symbols, metaphors, actions, neologisms, wordplay, rhythm, whatever gets us to the kernel of the poem. My cultural inspiration began among biblical and metaphysical poems, however, and popular song lyrics (the lyrical narrative). Only later did I stumble upon the influences of Eastern poetic strategies, haiku and tanka, the Imagists, and the vividly imposing demand that writers of all kind, but especially poets, should avoid the “to be” verbs.

How would philosophy–or Hamlet–manage without to be? How shall a writer whose work often deals with the quandaries and paradoxes of being (namely: life, death) compose avoiding those verbs, verbs of existence? Existence has active components to it, to my way of thinking; and some of us need the to-be verbs, with all their various conjugations, to express the more inexpressible activity of being-ness.

During my long years of writing and of having my writing critiqued, I’ve been advised more than once to watch my verbs. I recognize the stylistic impulse and agree that too much to be, too much is, was, or has been, can slow or decompress a poem.

Sometimes, exactly what the poet intends to do.

Other times, exactly what the colloquially convincing narrator or character would say.

A time and a place for every verb.



“There is a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is a not yet beginning to be a not yet beginning to be a beginning. There is being. There is nonbeing. There is a not yet beginning to be nonbeing. Suddenly there is being and nonbeing. But between this being and nonbeing, I don’t really know which is being and which is nonbeing. Now I have just said something. But I don’t know whether what I have said has really said something or whether it hasn’t said something.” (Watson, trans.)


I wrote this post not as an encomium for the to-be verbs but as a suggestion that they exist for good reason and possess action in their compressed sayability, that to be does not sidestep to mean. I defend “is” and its siblings. The important thing? Use them well.


5 comments on “In defense of “is”

  1. John Looker says:

    A thoughtful piece, and (as I can testify) a thought-provoking one too! (I’ve had to rework this comment to erase two instances of the verb ‘to be’ in a single sentence).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dave Bonta says:

    I’m as into micropoetry as anyone, but I think this notion of avoiding forms of “to be” is baloney. Sometimes in editing I take out some of my action verbs and replace them with is/am/are just to dial down the kinetic energy a bit.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Allyson says:

    I remember a craft talk Sharon Olds gave at the Poetry at Round Top festival in 2015. She talked about how she prefers to avoid simile, and simply say “x is y” instead of “x is like y.” Slightly tangential to what you’re talking about, but this post reminded me of that moment. I haven’t dropped simile entirely, but that talk had a profound effect on my relationship with simile and with to-be verbs.

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