An elimination is a poetic form where you don’t write the words. You erase them.
Take any stanza or paragraph with a rich, evocative vocabulary. I for example chose a few pages from James Frazer’s classic work of anthropology The Golden Bough. Any other kind of text can fit just as well as any other–the crazier or more meaningful, the better. Take something written by your favourite author or poet, or even an ad, if the text is to your liking. Any well-textured bit of literature you can find.
Either mentally or with a writing stylus–pen or pencil–underline individual words and punctuation marks. In order, write each underlined word down on a separate paper or another document file. You may also–if you so wish–take the via negativa: scratch out the words you don’t need.
See, you are now constructing a parallel text that has been buried within the original. You are using the author’s own words to construct your expression. This is called an elimination.
An elimination is a great way to break your inertia if you have writer’s block. It is also a fascinating exercise in how you can wittily reshape what someone else has said to fit your own agenda. Maybe this is as close a poet ever comes to becoming a politician.
Here you can find my own elimination of the first page of The Golden Bough, an epic of classical anthropology. I have reproduced the first two paragraphs of text of Frazer’s work for the purposes of demonstration:
WHO does notknow Turner’s picture ofthe Golden Bough? Thescene , suffused withthe golden glow ofimagination in which the divine mind of Turnersteeped and transfigured even the fairest natural landscape, is[in] a dream-like vision of the littlewoodland lake of Nemi—“Diana’s Mirror,” as it was called by theancients . No one who has seen that calm water, lappedin a green hollow of the Alban hills, can everforget it. The twocharacteristic Italian villages which slumber on its banks, and the equally Italian palace whoseterraced gardens descend steeply to the lake, hardlybreak the stillness and even thesolitariness of the scene. Diana herself might stilllinger by this lonely shore,still haunt these woodlands wild.. In antiquitythis sylvan landscape was the scene of a strange and recurringtragedy .On the northern shore ofthe lake , rightunder the precipitouscliffs on which the modern village of Nemi isperched , stood thesacred grove and sanctuary ofDiana Nemorensis, or Dianaof the Wood. The lake and the grove were sometimes known as the lake and grove of Aricia. But thetown of Aricia (the modern La Riccia) was situated about three miles off,at the foot of the Alban Mount, and separated by a steep descent from thelake, which lies in a small crater-like hollowon the mountain side. In this sacred grove there grewa certain tree round which at anytime of theday, and probably far into the night,a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand hecarrie d[s] a drawnsword, and he kept peeringwarily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He wasa priest and a murderer ; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him andhold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed tooffice by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained officetill he was himselfslain by a stronger or a craftier.”
Know the scene. The golden imagination
steeped in a dream-like woodland lake.
Ancients in a green hollow forget characteristic
terraced gardens, break solitariness, linger, still haunt
this sylvan landscape. Tragedy on the lake
under the cliffs, perched. Sacred Diana of the town,
at the foot of the lake. On a certain time of day,
a grim figure carries a sword, and, warily,
a priest and a murderer
hold office till slain.
I have been a bit cowardly in my use of the form; I have transplanted many of Frazer’s original phrases into my own poem. The best eliminations carry the spirit of the primary text to an extent, but spin the author’s own words into entirely new, unlikely directions. The result is an uncanny effect where the author speaks vicariously through you. You can can link words together that the author has thought best to keep apart, in order to find mysterious hidden meanings; manipulate language to make the author’s words disagree with him- or herself; or, take the words of a prophet and spin them into something wild.
A poet may choose to hide their source text from the reader, although in my case, I chose not to, since I wanted readers to feel the significance that The Golden Bough might have for them.
I find that this technique is most visible in its effects when the text itself is well-known, like the first page of Moby-Dick or Hamlet’s soliloquy. Try eliminating a famous text such as these as an exercise.
Eliminations are like the excavation of a hidden message in the sands of language. They’re especially uncanny when you eliminate the words of a well-known historical figure, written during a particular, defining historical moment. What happens when you cut out words from Herodotus? From Martin Luther’s Theses? From Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech? The past can speak with a new voice to us, even though, paradoxically, it uses the same words as it has always used. In a way, eliminations have the potential to construct strange ‘historical fantasies,’ alternate realities where the words of history and literature stand in the same order but are changed in their very substance into new meanings and forms–with a few simple nicks of a pen.