The Strangeness of the Present Tense

Copper bells, hanging in sunlight

I pick up the book in my left hand. With my right I riffle through to page 31.

I start to read. ‘She’s drowsy and deep,’ I read. ‘She’s drowsy and nearly asleep. She sits on the high chair and nods, like a little old lady, though she’s only two. She makes one weary cheep, a baby sparrow. From nowhere, in a flurry of perfume and patterned frock, her mother blows in, smothers her with kisses, and sweeps her up and away.’

That paragraph was in the simple present tense. Most novels and stories are these days. You get used to it, though in the nineteenth century (Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontës) they were all in the past, except for passages of direct speech:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.
           (First sentence of Jane Eyre).

Like stories and novels, poems used to describe experience in the past tense: ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o’er vales and hills’. In those Wordsworthian days, some words (o’er) were squashed to fit the metrical pattern. We regard that as seriously retro now, and most mainstream poems these days are in the present simple. It almost seems natural.

She’s drowsy and deep.
She’s drowsy and nearly asleep.
She sits on the high chair and nods
like a little old lady
though she’s only two.

However, it’s not ‘natural’ at all. It’s a literary device. We do funny things with verbs for creative reasons. When we’re just talking and not creating a literary effect, the simple present tense is what we use for habitual actions: I go to the gym on Tuesdays. I catch the bus and get off in town. If we’re describing what we’re doing ‘right now’, it’s the present continuous tense: I’m sitting down on the bus and I’m looking out for my stop.

But poets, for ‘right now’ descriptions, choose the present simple. It creates a sense of immediacy (and there are fewer ‘ing’ words). Sometimes the event happened ages ago, but the present tense is still hauled in, in which case it’s a ‘historic present’. We cheerfully buy into this literary device and forget it’s a stratagem.

A radio journalist would do it differently. Their immediacy would be summoned by the present continuous: ‘I’m looking at a little boy. He’s probably about two years old. There are sores on his arms and legs and I can see a bruise on his forehead. I’m going to talk to his mother in a moment. She’s coming into the house now.’

Another verb trick for poets (but not journalists or podcasters) is to bring the reader in with a series of imperatives:

Look at her. She’s drowsy and deep.
Look how she sits on the high chair and keeps
nodding like a little old lady.
Watch her mother sweep in now. . .

This can work – if not done too often. Tricks work best when they sneak up on you.

We prize a conversational tone in poetry these days. It’s part of our extended reaction against what was regarded as ‘Georgian’ or ornate in early twentieth century writing. So we do different things and think they’re not stylised. We do like to feel contemporary.

But we’re just as stylised as any age has ever been. It isn’t conversational to say ‘She sits on the high chair and nods like a little old lady’. It’s a cross between surreal dream style and the Janet and John books, ‘John sits on the chair. Janet nods. See, mother, see!’

Oh yes, I use the simple present tense myself in poems (especially in dream poems, where it’s great for capturing a sense of the surreal). It’s something I’ve learned, one of the devices of my age. Most poets use simple present at least some of the time. I’m not knocking it on principle. I’m just doing my bit for raising awareness.

Because sometimes I pick up a set of poems, and every single text is constructed that way. The ubiquitous I + simple-present-tense can wear thin.

There are changes that can be rung. Time for some ringing.

 Copper bells, hanging in sunlight

 photo credit: Of Tings and tongs via photopin (license)

7 thoughts on “The Strangeness of the Present Tense”

  1. Good points! Whenever someone takes a poem in the past tense to a workshop there’s always one, not always the same, who’ll say ‘You could try … It would add immediacy’. It’s be come a stylistic cliché but we all do it.

  2. Very well argued point. There are fads in poetry like any other artistic endeavour. Is it perhaps also that we seem to be increasingly living in the present via tweets and texts with less chance for analysing and thinking about what happens to us?

  3. Talking of ‘analysing’, Claire, I find it very strange to listen to post-rugby-match analysis, with present-tense analysis such as: “If he doesn’t pass the ball at this point, he has a clear run and scores a try.” (Instead of: “If he hadn’t passed the ball at that point, he would have had a clear run and scored a try.”) I feel as if I’m in a strange kind of time-warp combining past and future! I suppose that could work in surreal or dream poems!

  4. I like your point about syntactic monotony, at the end of your post. Recently I revisited Pound’s Pisan Cantos and was struck, above all, by the variety of syntactic structures he uses, so that each change is like a little shock – from phrase to sentence, back to phrase; past tense then present; imperative followed by interrogative etc. etc. Very refreshing, and worth looking at.

  5. Good article Nell about something that,as you say, has become a form of second-nature which might benefit from being questioned a bit more. I’ve done it myself when mentoring or running a workshop: ‘why don’t you change the verbs to the simple present? It can energise the line.’ Equally I suppose, it can add to a uniformity that will start to pall. Also, as you point out, this is almost a temporal fashion and we know what happens to fashion. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. Perhaps we simply needs to sing for the islands more ‘not to foster the ends / or be midwife to ends’. Something I see too much of.

  6. Interesting, Nell. ‘Why don’t you try it in the present tense?’ and ‘Have you thought of trying it in three-line stanzas?’ are the two things I find myself saying over and over again to students! (I blame Mark Doty for my new obsession with three-line stanzas but I do think they work really well to give a longish poem momentum…)

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