Friday, March 11, 2011

The Passive Voice (Moonmad)

Max Ernst, The King Plays With A Queen, 1944 (bronze cast 1954)

        Last night in bed, while I was wrestling with an upsetting late-in- the-day development, one of Tom Clark’s short “parts of speech” poems came into my head.  Called “Verbs”, it  goes: “Verbs/ do/ the heavy/ lifting.”

        I think about this one often because it hits the mark as a description of good writing (at least in terms of one of its indispensible ingredients).  It also says something important about life.

        As I recall, it was during Watergate that political discourse seemed suddenly to shift from the active to the passive voice.  People no longer acted.  Instead, things simply "occurred" without anyone "doing" them. "Mistakes were made" became a kind of news mantra. When prior descriptions and explanations required revision, they weren't specifically withdrawn and then replaced or supplemented. They became "no longer operative”.  

        Eventually, we all washed up on the wretched shores of “plausible deniability”, the logical result of people refusing (without saying so) to take affirmative responsibility for actions and consequences.  

        The "occurrence" I mentioned was of this nature.  The passive voice usage in question was “fell through the cracks”. Its context was a teacher’s insufficiently embarrassed explanation of her apparent total inattention to an important aspect of my daughter’s life and education. 

        Although the situation isn’t hopeless or even life-threatening, it is maddening.  

        Given the choice, I would like to drop the polite act and give this teacher a vivid piece of my mind.

        It’s 5 am and I just encountered Caroline in the kitchen, something that hasn't happened since the long-ago days when we might be arriving home at this hour.  She’s equally restive and enervated.

        We’re at a Crossroads.

Max Ernst, Moonmad, 1944 (bronze cast 1956)

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