Poetry in Prose: The Spark that Leaps Between

[These comments on style were originally collected in a tweet thread that was retweeted by Neil Gaiman, which is pretty darn neat.]

In the course of editing prose fiction, I find myself continually returning to what makes this sort of prose succeed. For me, and for The Fabulist’s purposes, it is the inherent poetry of the prose, which emerges from the writer’s art and craft.

This matter, of writers needing to reach for the poetics within prose, isn’t a “rule.” I hate the rules of fiction — though I must grudgingly admit that many such rules do amount to excellent advice that can greatly improve a work of fiction.

I’m finding, in my own voyage as a fiction editor, that the poetry of prose is often what turns a plot cliche into something that moves a reader, and elevates a story beyond its cliches.

Intention vs. feeling

Recently this has played out for me in terms of the dreaded “show vs. tell,” and specifically in the action of characters within the narrative.

We can say what a character is going to do. The characters themselves can do the same. But so what? Stating intention can have its own poetic force, but it can also be, and too often is, little more than reading a weather report.

As an editor, I’ve found describing what the character feels, rather than stating what the character intends, can achieve a level of poetry-within-prose that’s both clear about the action, and also emotionally significant.

Perhaps you should not merely state that the character intends to take a walk in the rain. Perhaps you need to describe them pressing on as the thunderhead approaches, rain-flecked gusts tossing their hair about, the smell of ozone giving them gooseflesh.

Poetry-in-prose can get extravagant, and it can be worth the risk. But sometimes plain and clean language is all it takes to hit the reader right over the head, and break their imagination wide open.

Whether a situation is directly stated, creatively implied or extravagantly described — what matters is that it’s about what’s being felt. We’re looking for that poetry, and wielding it with precision, within the prose, when the time is right.

Poetic economy, and precision

“It was getting hotter.” Kim Stanley Robinson opens “Ministry for the Future” with that sentence. Understatement of the millennium in a book about global warming, by an author famously economical with words, yet profligate in the telling.

Robinson’s economy of language turns each sentence into levers with which he moves worlds. Those are poetical levers, part of a grand structure of description, assertion, vision, rhythm, revelation and resolution.

The poetics of prose are often what’s NOT said. Are often everything AROUND what’s said. This rhythm, of imaginative flights offset by simple statements and assertions, creates a space rich with implication. The reader’s job is to fill in that space. You just help them get there.

When, in the middle of @neilhimself‘s “American Gods,” Shadow stops at a roadside diner and gets a hamburger, we don’t need any poetry besides “He ate the hamburger” to vividly appreciate the simple necessity of Shadow’s hunger, and even his pleasure at fulfilling that need.

But that simple phrasing comes amidst the larger poetic weave of a prose narrative about an individual on a strange journey that will ultimately transform him. The simplicity of “He ate the hamburger” is part of the poetry of the prose.

Any prose that really moves a reader has some poetic power to it, simple or complex, direct or implied. “Call me Ishmael.” Three words, an assertion of preference, nothing more. Yet they are like a door swinging open, beyond which is an enthralling and strange new world.

“Call me Ishmael” … like an invocation. “Tell us, O Muse” … And the name itself, “Ishmael,” so strange and evocative — of Antiquity, of pagan wilderness and uncertain paths of righteousness, when human experience was all happening for the first time.

The prose elements of your poetry

Finding the inherent poetics of one’s prose is as much of the writer’s journey as hashing out plot progression, scene-setting and character development. Indeed, such poetics, whether economical or profligate, are what animate plot, scene and character in the reader’s mind.

Your use as a writer of description, assertion, sentence structure, timing: those are the essential elements of the art that create a gestalt — the poetry — you bring to your conjuring of worlds, in all their sweep, detail, travail and fulfillment.

Prose is full of poetry. Poetry, which gets as close as words can to that thing which cannot be expressed with words. It’s the point of almost-contact between imagination and vocabulary, and poetry is the spark that leaps between.

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