I consulted a poet friend that I have mentioned once or twice here before. His name is Craig Cotter, and over dinner I asked him why he made certain word choices or phrase constructions in several of his poems....
What I realized was that Craig had initially limited himself to what edits he was allowed to make. The source of his inspiration, the motivation that got him to write this poem in the first place, he felt, was preserved in that first draft, not in the idea of that first draft. That meant that he couldn't revise everything. He couldn't start from scratch with the same idea, because that would be a different poem--one that he could write at a different time.
My gut reaction reading this was to think, "But prose is different from poetry. A novel is different from a poem." A novel -- at least the kind of novel I write -- is all about the idea. The words are merely buckets which I use to scoop it up. I could imagine changing the buckets without changing the idea carried therein.
I also vaguely felt like I had visited this argument before.
Sure enough, I consulted Dancing at the Edge of the World a collection of essays by Ursula Le Guin and found the argument in the essay "Reciprocity of Prose and Poetry." She quotes Huntington Brown, who supported my gut's reaction:
If it be asked wherein a poet's attitude toward his matter diffres from that of a prose writer, my answer would be that in prose the characteristic assumption of both writer and reader is that the subject has an identity and an interest apart from the words, whereas in poetry it is assumed that word and idea are inseparable.
Fair enough, as far as I'm concerned, but Le Guin objects:
...there is in his definition an implication that cannot be avoided and should be made clear: It is the language that counts in poetry and the ideas that count in prose. Corollary: Poetry is untouchable, but prose may be freely paraphrased.
Er, yes. Precisely. What's the problem?
The integrity of a piece of language, poetry or prose, is a function of its quality; and an essential element of its quality is the inseperability of idea and language. When a thing is said right it is said right, whether in prose or poetry, formal discourse or cursing the cat. If it is said wrong, if it lacks quality, if it is stupid poetry or careless prose, you may paraphrase it all you like; chances are you will improve it.
Oh. Quality. Yes, well, that does it explain it, doesn't it. I daresay, you could take all of the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, and paraphrase it, and as long as you kept the magnificent idea of it, you'd have lost little. But I don't think you could do the same to A Wizard of Earthsea. This is not to insult either author, but simply reflects the fact that Asimov wrote his stories as though they were encyclopedia entries (and as a matter of fact, an encyclopedia entry on the fall of the Roman Empire inspired the entire Foundation series) whereas Le Guin wrote all her prose tales as though they were secretly poems.
Perhaps this is my problem, and why I'm struggling with uneven prose right now. At times, I also wish to gild my novel in secret poems. At other times, I merely want the easiest bucket to slosh it out onto the page. But sloshy words frustrate me, leading me to revise again and again. Each time I revise, I find that I have not merely paraphrased the poor wording, but changed the ideas, proving that words and ideas, after all, are inseparable. And so I've come around to the complete opposite conclusion of my gut reaction, but the same result. I must revise, like it or not, until the prose has more poesy.