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Writing Prose as Poetry

November 3, 2011

I saw an interesting post on author Jay Lake’s blog a few weeks ago in which he “recasts” some of his book’s opening lines as poetry.  He got the idea from this post by author Jim VanPelt, where VanPelt suggests this as a tool for analyzing one’s use of language on the merits of the language itself, rather than as part of a larger story-centric context.

This is a fascinating idea… and given my recent admiration,as an example, for author Catherynne Valente’s poetic style in her prose fiction, you can imagine that it appeals to me.  I’ve always fancied myself something of a poetic writer – one who revels both in alliteration and in extended metaphor.  The truth of that self-assertion is, of course, as yet untested.  And I know my work isn’t nearly so poetic as the aforementioned Valente’s work.  But is my prose writing effective, on its own, as poetry?

I’ve a few short flash-ish length pieces I’ve posted on this blog, and I thought I might play a little with them, and see what happens.  The way this works seems pretty simple: punctuation, mostly is an artifact of the prose, so you can leave that out or shift it around a bit.  Line breaks can be where ever you want them.  The words, mostly, have to be the same words in the same order.  I’ve done a few very minor edits in the examples I’ve done – which mostly consists of eliminating words that play a grammatic role but are not meaningful on a poetic level.  Admittedly, this makes the words flow slightly better in a poetic sense, so are likely to skew the results a little, but you can compare them to the original.

Also, obviously of necessity, this will likely come off mostly as non-rhyming free verse – though as poetry it may well  have its own rhythm and cadence or even a clearly identifiable poetic meter.

Here’s the opening paragraph from “Bright Hands“:

Taruth reached out and grabbed

A beam of light

It pulsed and writhed

In his hands

Glowing

Warm

Incandescent

Around him

Beams and shards of light

Were dancing, shimmering, exploding

The battle was not going well 

He ducked

Gripping the beam tightly

Trying

To find a little cover

In the long grass

His hands worked quickly 

He bent the beam of light

In his hands twisted it

Weaving it into a long

Oval

Shape

Nearly the length of his body

A shield

Another shaft of light

Became a long spear

Hmm.  Not bad.  Maybe not great, either.  Hard to say.  Does it read like poetry to you?  Does it feel something to you?

Okay.  Let’s try again.  Here’s the opening paragraph to “Defender of the Realm“:

Every man

Is the hero

Of his own story

I’m no different than they

I’ve done things other men would not

or could not

But my motives are just

The results speak for themselves

I won’t make excuses for who I am

or what I’ve become.

Here’s “From That Eternal Summer Isle“:

The sky was blue

On the day I died

That came as some surprise

Not so much

That the sky was blue

But that I died

Or that I was able to remark

On the color of the sky

At all.

Next up, “From the Farthest North“:

No

He said

The law

Is the law

I will not allow it

to be broken

not even

by you

Ingurd turned away

From his impetuous son

To gaze

Out at the thick banks of snow

Visible

In the pale

Moonlight

And finally, here’s “Kathryn’s Child“:

Time for the fireworks

To begin

Kathryn gazed

Through the wide window

At the tiny red, yellow and brown orb

Suspended

In a sea of blackness

Beneath her

In the distance

A pale red light

Glimmered

The shell of a dying star

Doctor Vanwick shuffled his feet

On the deck

Beside her

Obviously non-rhyming free verse isn’t for everyone.  There are not a few people (mostly folks who aren’t themselves poets) who think that if it doesn’t rhyme it’s not poetry.  So leaving that aside… what do  you think of these?

What about the idea that prose should be poetic?

One thing I learned from this exercise, I will say, is that I actually identified a small number of superfluous words: words that didn’t really add to the meaning of the piece.  On a larger scale – working past just the first paragraph – I have to wonder… how many more extraneous words could I eliminate simply by recasting the piece as a poem?

I don’t think this technique would really work at a novel-length scale: that’s a lot of recasting.  But it might be useful to look at the first few lines and the last few lines of each chapter that way – making sure the beginnings and endings have a special poetic umph, a little something extra that makes it sing to the reader and settle comfortably in their minds.  It might be possible to do longer sections of short stories this way as well.

Do share your thoughts: what say you of these my own attempts?  Or perhaps you’d care to share some examples from your own work that might lend itself well to the poetic format?  Quick!  To the comments section with ye!

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. November 3, 2011 1:03 pm

    I liked “From That Eternal Summer Isle” and “Time for the Fireworks” best as poems. Fun to read, and evocative on their own!

    I think the exercise has the benefit of revealing bad or wordy prose too. Something about isolating something on its own line instead of tucking it among a bunch of other prose makes it reveal its blemishes better.

    • November 3, 2011 1:43 pm

      I have to agree with you – on a poetic level those two probably worked best. I also see another level on the utility of the tool in cleaning up prose: recasting these lines as poetry gives me a feeling of wanting to make them better – to do the necessary edits to clean up the lines – because I want it to work as poetry. On the other hand, however, I’m not sure if the technique handles dialog very well or not. I’m still mulling that over in my head.

    • November 3, 2011 1:44 pm

      Also, btw, thanks for sharing your ideas on the technique in the first place. It’s definitely something I can see myself using going forward.

  2. November 3, 2011 1:31 pm

    That is an interesting exercise! Hrm I’ll have to try it. It’s always interesting to challenge the way your mind processes prose. Breaking it apart definitely could make you realize different textual relationships. I think those examples work very well!

    Let’s see… Here’s the 2nd paragraph of one of mine (you might recognize it):

    Everything remained
    as she remembered.
    The second step
    still squeaked
    as she tread over it.
    The kitchen doorway
    still marred
    crude pencil lines
    where Jane had marked her height
    as she’d grown.
    The same house,
    but the silence pooled
    like dark water
    speaking the language of absence
    with more eloquence
    than the lack of furniture.

    I stripped out 5 words, and they happened to be adverbs or passive tense. Hmm! Funny how that worked out…

    • November 3, 2011 1:38 pm

      Indeed. That was from your “Two Sisters” serial, was it not? It works quite well in poetry form, I think. I like it.

  3. November 3, 2011 9:23 pm

    I liked “From That Eternal Summer Isle” the very best. (Not just because it involved the sky and blue and dying, I don’t think, but you never know, with me.)
    Thinking of prose as poetry can indeed yield some golden results. A little extra rhythm, perchance a dash of rhyme, creating little bits of art within art. I’m always glad when whatever POV voice I’m working with lends itself to lyricism.

    • November 4, 2011 9:52 am

      I think there’s something complete in the opening lines of “From That Eternal Summer Isle” that lends itself very well to the poetic medium: a combination of a lyrical quality and the hint of a deeper meaning.

  4. November 4, 2011 2:05 am

    Hmm…see, that’s one thing I don’t get about poetry. To me (since I have no other way of describing it but through musical terminology), including line breaks that often kind of feels like inserting a lot of extra breath marks in the middle of musical phrases rather than at the end of them or in places where it’s efficient to do so. It therefore “sounds” choppy to me.

    That’s not a criticism of your work so much as an observation coming from someone who doesn’t normally read poetry (and me expressing my ignorance of the use of line breaks in poetry, lol).

    • November 4, 2011 10:09 am

      Well… admitedly, I am emphatically not an expert on poetry. I dabble, and I appreciate good poetry when I see it, but I’ve other friends who are much more adept at the form than I. So my thoughts are worth a grain of salt… but I don’t think the line breaks can be directly related to “breaths” in music – at least not in the way you suggest. Music is a very structured form: you say right up-front how many beats and what the tempo is going to be and everything, and the rest flows from there. You can do that in poetry: you can write a structure with a very tight poetic verse and meter, like iambic pentameter with rhyming couplets, or something. That can be very musical – and I think you’ll find the line-breaks come at musically natural places. But with this exercise, almost by necessity (because of the source material), you’re working with free verse, which is functionally different. In this case, line breaks are capturing something on two levels: both beats and meaning. The line breaks force you to pause – thus a beat – and consider the meaning of the single poetic phrase that has been uttered.

      As an example, in the poetic rendition of “Defender of the Realm” I write this line: “I’ve done things other men would not / or could not”. But offsetting “or could not” on its own line, I isolate it’s meaning: the speaker is suggesting that while other people believe themselves to be heroic or righteous, they lack either the will (“would not”) or the capacity/capability (“or could not”) to do what needed to be done to truly rise to the level of heroicisim. That singular isolation of “or could not” also creates a bit of parallel structure with “would not”, and subtly suggests that the speaker believes the lack of will and the lack of capability are perhaps linked. All of that meaning were in the line as prose, but the creative use of line-breaks gives the reader a natural moment of pause to make those connections.

      Basically, I think the line breaks serve best to isolate individual thoughts or units of meaning, and allow better to juxtapose them. When we think of these lines as units of meaning rather than… well… I’m not sure what the alternative is, as I’ve never formulated any understanding of that in the prosaic sense… but when you think of them as units of meaning, you gain some flexibility in treating each thought individually. And although I said I don’t think it’s accurate to compare this to music directly, still I think working with distinct units of meaning this way lends itself to a sort of rhythm and lyrical quality. Instead of the beats being about hitting time or tempo or meter, there about hitting thoughts and ideas in a meaningful pattern.

      Does any of that even make sense?

      • November 4, 2011 12:21 pm

        Yeah, that makes sense, the way you explain it.

        I like the idea of isolating certain thoughts with line breaks. Kinda makes me want to try!

        I can see, now, why the others might have liked “From The Eternal Summer Isle” best. (Or guess, anyway.) It feels to me more about capturing bits of meaning than isolating beats. That one doesn’t feel as stop-and-go to me.

      • November 4, 2011 1:14 pm

        Yeah, the individual thought beats flow a little more organically on that one. Which does suggest that I’ve got a bit of work to do to improve my style, generally, so that this sort of thing happens more often.

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