The Power Index

Adapted from: How to Write and Publish Poetry, Chapter 7, Part 1

"All you have to do to write a poem
Is to name a thing.
And the beauty of it, the idea of it
Blossoms in the mind
like a flower."
...Lawrence Keough, from "Whitman Was Right," Parnassus, Win 96

"Circle all adjectives in red. Look at them all as
being guilty and then try to defend them."
...John Ciardi

"you are a strong verb / against green /chalkoard" ...Charles Rampp, "Clay Verb," Parnassus, Spr 88

"The safest words are always those which bring us most directly to facts." ...Charles H. Parkhurst

We indicated a couple chapters back that writing poetry is simple if we remember one admonition: Poetry is noun things doing verb things. Teachers and editors wear out their voices and trusty red pens giving the same advice over and over: "Get more nouns and verbs into your writing." That isn't just pesky old modern teachers talking. An ancient Chinese proverb reminds us: "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names."

When Gronk, our mutual ancestor—stalking away from his argument with Mrs. Gronk in their dimly lit cave condo—first lifted himself to speech, he muttered the Gronkian equivalent of "Gronk go!" The dimmer caverns of his brain remembered hearing those two grunts used separately in other contexts, but his budding intellect, heightened by the argument, linked them into a combination that carried meaning and mirrored his activity. A name and an action—labels for physical events—nouns and verbs. Language was born.

As descendants of Gronk, we have expanded our vocabulary and structural choices, but language still exists primarily to describe the physical world. Even words we think of as abstract and non-physical are, as Ralph W. Emerson's famous essay "Nature" pointed out, rooted in nature and physical description. Wrong comes from a root meaning twisted, and right means straight. Transgression means crossing the line. Physical images. Precise language does not stray far from those early labels Gronk and his kin gave to objects and actions. The best poetry uses literal images that clearly and accurately evoke the natural world.

Suppose we could find a way to measure the relative strength of such words in our writing. Suppose it were simple and easy to use. Using it, we might take a significant step toward improving the effectiveness of what we write.

"And so he invented–Drum Roll Please–the power index!"

Thank you, Harry. Someone might think you are repeating this course....

"It works!"

If my barker hasn't driven away the crowd, shall we proceed? The Power Index (PI for short) is a method for measuring the strength of words we write by comparing the number of strong and weak words in a selection. Of course, no one measurement can gauge the total effectiveness of a piece of writing, but the PI can give a quick idea of overall strength. It can also draw attention to specific areas and specific words ripe for revision.

"As Bill Rattlesword said, `Let us proceed to judgement.'"

"Sit down, Harry."

Thank you, Keisha. OK, let's go.


From somewhere near the beginning of a prose or poetry selection, pick a passage and count the number of words accurately. If the passage contains exactly 100 words, your figuring will be easier, but any number will do. The larger the passage, the greater the reliability.

Count the number of power words by going through the selection and underlining each one you find.

Words That Count:

Words That Do Not Count:

Count all power words; write that total and the total of all words as a fraction: Forty power words in a 100-word passage would be 40/100.

Turn the fraction into a percentage by dividing the bottom number into the top: 40 ÷ 100 = 40% (Now you know the virtue of choosing 100-word passages!).

Depending upon the length of the selection, pick at least two other passages of 100 words each and repeat the process. Pick one passage from somewhere near the beginning, the middle and the end. Pick passages that look "normal." Don't pick passages with lots of statistics, lists or abnormalities that would make the count unreliable.

As a rule of thumb, don't give yourself the benefit of the doubt. If you are unsure of a word, don't count it. It's better to underestimate PI than to overestimate it.

This famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) is marked for you; notice how each of the steps was completed.

The brackets [ ] mark off the 100-word sample, and the power words are underlined:

The Day is Done

[The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.

I see the lights of the village
through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o'er me
That my soul cannot resist:

A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.

Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.

Not from the grand old ] masters, (end of first 100 words)
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time.

For, like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life's endless toil and endeavor;
And to-night I long for rest.

Read from some humbler poet,
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds [ of summer, (start second 100)
Or tears from the eyelids start;

Who, through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.

Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.

Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

And the night shall be filled with music,
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away. ]

These steps should be accomplished in order:

1. Count the POWER WORDS: nouns, action and sense verbs (but not forms of to be or auxiliary verbs), adjectives and adverbs that come from nouns or verbs, all numbers (but not one used as a pronoun), all colors.

2. DO NOT COUNT: pronouns, forms of to be, auxiliary verbs, adjectives and adverbs without noun or verb roots, articles, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections.

3. Underline the power words as you count them. I identified 45 in the first group of 100, and 47 in the second group, for a total of 92.

4. Write the number of power words and total number of words as a fraction: If this 200-word sample contains 92 power words, then 92/200 = 46%.

Strangely, the small middle section of the poem that didn't figure into the count turned out to be stronger than either the beginning or the final sections.To be as accurate as possible, let's count the entire poem: I find 121 power words in the 253 total: 121/253 = 48%.

Experience has shown that the effective PI range for both prose and poetry seems to be somewhere between 45-60%, with 50% being a handy target. In poetry, the PI may well go above 60% and still be highly readable, especially when cataloging and similar techniques are present. Prose passages above 60-65% are frequently slow, difficult reading. A PI from 40-44% may be workable, depending on what other strengthening techniques the passage exhibits, or it may need further revision. A PI in the 30-39% range is probably wasting words and begs for revision. Anything below 30% is seldom effective.

We've seen how the PI works on 19th century conventional verse. How about contemporary free verse? The first 100 words are enclosed in brackets.

Always An Outsider

[The railroad crews knew him only as Old Joe.
They would sometimes see him
down by the gulley
fishing with an old cane pole
or hear how he'd been found
sleeping in one of the cabins along the line.
Then, for days on end
he'd come around the speeder house at lunch
bringing a can of beans
he'd found somewhere.
The men would sit around and talk
and offer tea.

Joe vanished one year
soon after the fall of the first snow.
Spike Soper found him outside a graveyard
down at Come-By-Chance.
Seems he had come into a sizable fortune.] (end of 100 words)
Gave it all to young Reverend Keily.
Made that preacher promise
to give him a decent burial
out there at Plot Hill Cemetery
in a spot Old Joe himself had selected
between the fence and road.

...Lorraine Geiger, 1st place, Florida State Poets Association Annual Contest, 1996

I'll ask you to identify the power words this time. Hints: somewhere is a noun; a hyphenated word, no matter how many parts it contains, counts as only one word. Figure the percentage before you read any further.

______÷ 100 = ______%. Awwh, why don't you splurge and do the whole poem:

______÷ 137 = ______%.

By my count, 51% of the first 100 words are power words. The poem as a whole contains 50.3%: almost exactly the same as in the smaller sample. If we disagree slightly, don't worry about it. This is not rocket science.

So, the PI of Lorraine's poem is definitely in the effective range. For good measure, her use of alliteration and assonance adds strength, as does the rolling, off-hand narrative rhythm. In other words, as significant and helpful as the PI can be in gauging a poem's success, other techniques almost certainly contribute.

"`Like what?' said the straight man."

Harry, I'm glad you are still awake. Your question is a good one. We will discuss several at more length in a future session, but we can list a few:

Devices of sound such as rhyme (both internal and external), alliteration and assonance
Metrical or syllabic patterns
Parallel structure
Other structural devices (discernible patterns in stanza size and shape, for instance)
interesting and vivid word combinations
expectation relieved by surprise
and, as always: imagination, skill, wit

To test the PI theory still further, I sampled poetry at random from four of the world's finest poets. Each selection consisted of at least 200 words; most were more than 300. The PI results:
Emily Dickinson, "Because I could not stop for death," "A light exists in spring": 45.4%
T.S. Eliot, "The Waste Land": 44.5%
William Shakespeare, "Venus and Adonis" and two sonnets: 45.8%
Walt Whitman, "A Song," "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,": 38.3%

Dickinson, Eliot and Shakespeare proved remarkably similar. The Whitman sample surprised me, but it is a good example of how important other strengthening devices can be in a poem. Whitman's PI suffered mostly because of his repeated use of personal pronouns (heavy on the first-person I and we) and prepositional phrases in which only one of every three words is a power word. That 38.3% would ordinarily signal the need for revision. Whitman, however, uses devices such as repetition (rising at times to incantation), alliteration and assonance, and vivid word choice (eye-catching proper nouns, for instance) to add strength. The result is masterful poetry, despite a low PI.

Whitman took risks in word choice and format, but for him it paid off. I dare say that most writers in the 38% PI range could not consistently do what Whitman accomplished. So pay attention. The basic premise behind the PI remains an important factor in analyzing and revising your work: word selection is a powerful tool, and we ignore it at our peril.

Some choices are more likely to lower the PI than others. All other things being equal, an excess of pronouns reduces a poem's effectiveness. That seems especially true of poems written in first person: their typical conversational tone is too easily populated with I, you, he, she, they, him, her, we and the rest of their cousins. In "A Song," Whitman has these two lines:

For you these, from me, O Democracy, to serve you, ma femme!
For you! for you, I am trilling these songs
Twenty-one words, of which 9 are pronouns, 5 are prepostions, and only 5 are power words.

Prepositional phrases need to be watched. Phrases of 3 or more words in which only the final word is a power word can quickly lower a PI. An accumulation of anapestic phrases (da-da-DUM) can be numbing. The Whitman selection makes that point repeatedly: "and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies," "By the love," "With the love," "In the love," "of the west," "On the ferry-boats," "from all things, at all hours of the day" and on and on. Whitman gets by with them because of his ability to pile them up in mesmering repetitive incantations. But he was a master.

The conjunction virus–especially the and syndrome–can quickly weaken a poem. So can the weak-adjective epidemic. Keep a watchful eye on the articles a, an, the and handy-but-deadly non-specific adjectives of measurement such as many, few, little, large, long, short, heavy and equally subjective adverbs like very. Do your best to keep them at a necessary minimum, or build them into repetitive patterns that add strength. But remember the trusty Rule of Three: A word or phrase used more than 3 times in succession without a break in the pattern becomes highly visible and thus more likely to distract the reader from the real purpose at hand.

We're not interested in condemning a poem because of its PI count. We are interested in seeing whether what Barbara Petoskey has called "minor league words" are keeping a poem from making the big time. Here is an early version of a poem of mine titled "Bitburg." Bitburg is a cemetery in Germany where American and German soldiers of World War II are buried along with civilians.

Cemeteries are less for the dead than for the living:
The dead do not care where they lie—
They seek no scapegoats for their hate
Nor vessels for their sorrow;
They blend in death, as in life, sacred and profane,
And remind us only that decay is something that happens
When living stops—and should not start before.
Cemeteries mark mortality with cold stone
And teach that graves are but windows
Beyond the past, beyond the death,
Beyond the fears of yesterday.

Figure the PI: _____÷ 82 = _____%.

Did you find the PI a bit low? Notice the 7 pronouns in the first 7 lines. Notice that conjunctions and prepositions account for 15 words. Those 22 words account for 27% of the total. If the poet is thinking of revision, that might be a good place to start.

However, some of the normally weak words are built into parallel phrases that add strength. In the final 2 lines, for instance, prepositions and the word the account for 7 of the 11 words. That usually indicates weakness; however, the line gains strength from the use of parallel structure in 3 successive phrases. Disadvantages must always be weighed against advantages.

One device or measurement can seldom adequately account for a poem's success or failure. The power index, however, is one of the more valuable tools that can help us along the way. In the next session, "Words with Class," we will examine one method for using the PI to aid the revision process.

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Created 010112
Updated 081008