This is an exercise in "tired words" vs. "working words."
Tired words are words that have been used too often, or are too generic, or too vague, to bring any working energy with them into a poem.
Working words are the other kind -- words that have a spark of life, that bring a piece of their world with them into the poem.
There's no hard and fast rule about what makes a tired word, or a working word. And there are probably some words that are neutral -- tired in some contexts, working in others.
Let's look at some words in a couple of poems -- two by beginning students, two by Billy Collins. I've separated the words in the poems by parts of speech.
Simple present/past tense
Sensory vs quality
There are no significant differences in the verbs -- the students use a few more participles than Collins does, and a few more intransitive verbs.
The real eye-openers are in the nouns and modifiers. A friend of mine -- a businessman, not a poet, but attuned to language-- once told me that if you need to use a modifier with a noun, you’re using the wrong noun. That's austere. Still, look at the difference. The student poems have nearly a one-to-one ratio of nouns to modifiers. The Collins poems have a ratio of five to one.
It's not always true that abstract nouns are going to be tired words and concrete nouns are going to be working words. Still, as Damon Runyon once said, “The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet.” Don't count on there being much energy left in that abstract noun. And look at the difference here -- more than half of the student nouns were abstract; less than one-sixth of the Collins nouns.
modifier tells you how something appears to the senses; a quality modifier
tries to describe some ineffable quality about the thing-- which tells (rather
than shows you) how the poet feels about the thing. Almost all the student
modifiers are quality. The few Collins modifiers are all sensory.
Billy Collins poems (I only used the first few lines of “Pinup,” to give approximately the same word count as in the student poems) in the exercise.
for the holiday crowd to clear the beach
before stepping onto the first wave.
Soon I am walking across the Atlantic
checking for whales, waterspouts.
I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.
Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface.
But for now I try to imagine what
this must look like to the fish below,
the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.
murkiness of the local garage is not so dense
that you cannot make out the calendar of pinup
drawings on the wall above a bench of tools.
Your ears are ringing with the sound of
the mechanic hammering on your exhaust pipe,
and as you look closer you notice that this month's
is not the one pushing the lawn mower, wearing
a straw hat and very short blue shorts,
her shirt tied in a knot just below her breasts.
Nor is it the one in the admiral's cap, bending
forward, resting her hands on a wharf piling,
glancing over the tiny anchors on her shoulders.
No, this is March, the month of great winds,
so appropriately it is the one walking her dog
along a city sidewalk on a very blustery day.
One hand is busy keeping her hat down on her head
and the other is grasping the little dog's leash,
so of course there is no hand left to push down
her dress which is billowing up around her waist
exposing her long stockinged legs and yes the secret
apparatus of her garter belt. Needless to say,
in the confusion of wind and excited dog
the leash has wrapped itself around her ankles
several times giving her a rather bridled
and helpless appearance which is added to
by the impossibly high heels she is teetering on.
You would like to come to her rescue,
gather up the little dog in your arms,
untangle the leash, lead her to safety,
and receive her bottomless gratitude, but
the mechanic is calling you over to look
at something under your car. It seems that he has
run into a problem and the job is going
to cost more than he had said and take
much longer than he had thought.
Well, it can't be helped, you hear yourself say
as you return to your place by the workbench,
knowing that as soon as the hammering resumes
you will slowly lift the bottom of the calendar
just enough to reveal a glimpse of what
the future holds in store: ah,
the red polka dot umbrella of April and her
upturned palm extended coyly into the rain.
Let's look at a couple more examples (admittedly, sometimes my categorizations are arbitrary).
ABSTRACT OR VAGUE
VERB "TO BE"
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
In poetry as elsewhere, rules are made to be broken. Look at the life and fire Allen Ginsberg breathes into these words:
ABSTRACT OR VAGUE
VERB "TO BE"
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
So...don't get locked into thinking all tired words are in one place, and all working words are in another. But make sure you go for words that haven't been worn out.