Sunday, June 24, 2018

Poetic Language for Novelists

Some poets disdain fiction writers, who, in turn, are too often fazed by a genre that seems distinct and distant.

Tip: As in the natural world, cross-pollination is good: for every writer in every genre.

To illustrate, a poem might open like this:
Blue vases of small flowers that don’t die sadlyclaim the sun, hold it—defy the notion of death.

The novelist might say, “Pretty, but not for my readers,” or “Interesting, but not in a novel,” or “I like it, but I couldn’t write that way even if I wanted to.” Couldn’t you? Here’s a prose example:
Staring at the image, Francine looked wistful, and turning away from him, whispered,  “I really like blue vases of small flowers that don’t die sadly. Aren’t they wonderful?”     They were in for it again. Pete could tell. Realizing he had to say something, her husband mumbled, “I guess.” 
Lines that sound poetic, but blend smoothly with prose, can enhance tension by setting up a lyrical mood with rhythm and language—then undercutting it with subtextual confrontation.

Or, especially if your voice and reputation are equally strong, you might try a passage something like this:
The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscoting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.  — Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
Sounds like poetry, doesn’t it?  The intentional rhythm and repetition reinforce each other, further enhanced by strong, visual verbs. The way McCarthy’s protagonist observes and moves intensifies the sensation of shock, delivering the characterizer’s emotion in a way readers experience themselves And it’s the poetry in prose that creates this.

Still, this wouldn’t work for every writer in every novel. Style mustn’t overpower content. Inadvertent repetition annoys. Overblown language fatigues. Self-conscious wording—whether in poetry or prose—drains suspense, emotion, and surprise.

The trick is a happy balance between lyricism and tension, language and momentum. Is this achieved easily? Probably not. Is it worth the effort? You bet.

**** Laurel's new book, Beyond the First Draft, is now available from Amazon or Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing. ****

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