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Jun 29, 2009

Novels vs Poems, Integrity of Language

I've found a great way to come up with ideas for new blog posts is to just steal them from The Literary Lab and I've done that again. This post of theirs on revising has been percolating through my mind for some time now:

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.


greekwitch said...

Wow! This post made me want to write again! You are so right! There is a differense. I believe it has to do with intention!

writtenwyrdd said...

Excellent post! I have always felt that poetry writing (which was my primary focus for years) has informed my prose writing to vastly improve it. I never really spelled out why I felt that way, but LeGuin's sense of things does it for me far better than I could.

Understanding that word choice makes a crucial difference, as can lyricism, meter, sentence structure and visual aspects of the prose on the page is important, too.

There is overt meaning and there is subtext. Poetic sensibility enhances the latter in prose. It gets in the backdoor of the mind and tugs at the readers' heartstrings.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Good post, Tara. I believe prose and poetry are indeed different, and should be treated differently, but I also think they can lend a hand to each other. I don't necessarily try and consciously put poetic elements into my writing, but it seems to happen naturally because I studied poetry for so long.

Revising to much is detrimental, I think. And you have some great ideas here about how revising anything changes everything. It's intimidating that's for sure! I think that's where poetry helps me out... the kernal of a poetic phrase cannot change, and neither can the kernals of my scenes, my themes, etc. Revising is just tricky... a fine balance between knowing what to keep and what just needs to be cleaned up.

scott g.f.bailey said...

As a philistine, I think writing is writing. I think poetry is writing. I think that the words are just as important in either prose or poetry. My love of language, of the things you can do with language, is maybe more important than my love of stories. Especially because I think that there are, really, but a few stories that humans like to hear and tell over and over, and it's the telling that gives them meaning and differentiates them culturally. That's poorly said, but I mean it anyway. Feel free to paraphrase; you can only improve it.

The thing is, you can write beautifully, so why not make everything you write beautiful? Asimov's ideas are a pleasure to think about, but LeGuin's books are a pleasure to read. It's an important distinction.

Ban said...

excellent post - now I must go back and edit some more ...

mand said...

I started writing poems purely as the 'scales and arpeggios' for my prose fiction - in other words, exercises to improve my style. Poetry took over for a decade! but i would agree strongly with writtenwyrdd (great username btw) that it has deeply improved my prose, whether that's in fiction, blogposts or whatever else. I now notice redundancy, clumsy expression, unintentional alliteration, etc. (Pity is, i notice it in others' work too!)

Flaubert wrote his novels paying the greatest care to style, which is what 'revising a poem' is all about - choice and placement of words, length and shape of phrases, etc. Hemmingway ditto. And for me a Josephine Hart novel is a poem, her writing is so spare and true.

Conversely a poorly-phrased piece of prose can be a chore to read. Stephen Fry famously complained that JK Rowling was difficult to read aloud. Otoh, i never managed to finish The Lord of the Rings until i read it to my son, and then the lyrical prose carried me all the way through. And we all know that a novelist needs an 'ear' for speech patterns.

I think copywriting for adverts uses the same art as poetry does - that of conveying a particular thought or idea, as concisely as possible, while hitting the reader, as hard as possible, with the emotion the writer intended to put across. It's like caricaturing someone's face, capturing their character with a few swift lines rather than filling in all the detail. Cartoonists don't dash those pictures off as speedily as you'd think.

This is why i think revision is always necessary. Usually the first flow is full of repetition and so on, which is far more of a problem on the page than in real speech where we hardly notice the overuse of 'actually' (one of my own crimes) and that kind of thing. You can tell a writer hasn't thought about this if the piece opens with, for instance, 'Something i really adore is xyz.' That should have been cut to, 'I adore xyz.'

Certainly you won't always find much to change; some pieces come out complete or nearly so, and those mustn't be reworked just for the sake of it. They're rare in my experience. Of course some people naturally use more 'page-ready' language than others, too. But learning about the impact of words' pace, sound, and order is essential. That, and the ability to choose between synonyms for different effect.

(I started with 'learning more about how the pace, sound, and order of words change the impact of a sentence' - neater after cutting, huh?)

And revision definitely can be overdone. When i catch myself deciding between two phrasings that hardly make a scrap of difference, it's time to tell myself, 'Good enough is better than perfect.'

Didn't think i had so much to say. Hello! I popped here from Liana Brooks' GUD post. Good to meet you! ;0)

Davin Malasarn said...

I've loved so many of your posts, Tara. This is another very thought-provoking one. I'm going to mention Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, because to me, it really proves this point. I wish I had the book in front of me so that I could quote him. But, on a meaning level, many of his sentences are very simple. You'll see a woman with her hand in the drawer, or a man getting on a horse or farming. But, somehow, I find all of his sentences interesting, and only recently did I get closer to understanding why I liked them. It was in his words. Even though he and I could write the same topic and have the same meaning, his words were giving his writing much more personality. I would say a man got on a horse. Tolstoy could say the same thing, but the man AND the horse would both have personalities through his voice. I only recently understood that and now I'm trying to use it myself. But, it's that word-level that makes it come to life.

Tara Maya said...

Greekwitch: Thanks!

writtenwyrdd: I think you're right, poetic sensibility enhances subtext in prose. I like your image of slipping through the backdoor of the mind.

Lady Glamis: Revising too much can definitely be detrimental. Revision is such a headache! Fingers crossed it will be worth it. Please don't forget to let me know when you have a new version of Monarch available to beta.

Scott Bailey: I'm not sure my love of language exceeds my love of story. Sometimes I want to whack language with a stick and communicate my story entirely through interpretative dance. But anyway I agree the telling is what makes old stories new. And also helps prevent one from being sued.

Ban: :) I haven't visited Beta Bloggers in a while, but I will show my face again as soon as I can. I have quite a bit of beta reading on my plate, but I haven't forgotten!

Mand: Welcome and nice to meet you! I've had a few short stories born full grown like Athena, and poems as well. I suppose short stories and poems both have one thing in common, length is such that each can be written in one sitting. Novels must be interrupted by dull things like sleep or eating, and in that interruption, the muse may slip away.

I've never read Josephine Hart but I will check her out, thanks for the recommendation.

Davin: It's funny, I'm more familiar with Tolstoy's nonfiction than fiction and know him mainly for his ideas in the area of nonviolence. You can see how backwards I am. I've read Anna Karenina, but in the comic book adaptation. (This may explain why I got a D in Russian Lit). Ok, ok, I shall dust off the copy from my shelf as part of my literary reading. :)

mand said...

Sounds like you did your Russian lit the way i did my French lit. lol

I've never read Tolstoy at all. Now, there's a confession.

Kimbra Kasch said...

I love poetry - probably my first love affair with writing.

Have you taken a peek at I Heart You-You Haunt Me? A YA novel that mixes prose and poetry into a novel.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Tara, I'm commenting a little late here, but I finally started visiting fellow beta blogs, and I absolutely loved this post of yours. It's so satisfying to find another writer who really values and thinks about poesy as well as storytelling. They're not the same media for conveying a message, and some ideas suit poetry better than fiction or vice versa, but I really strongly believe in the worth of sheer language and composition as well as the worth of the story and the concept. Reading something both gripping and captivating to explore, and also beautiful to simply read is such a lovely experience.

Tara Maya said...

Thanks, Hayley. :)

Katie said...

Loved this post! Interesting debate. I have to say I think there IS a difference between word choice in poetry and prose, because I think choosing that perfect word is more important in poetry than the latter (taking into consideration rhyme, meter, etc.; of course, novels can have this too, and I love it when they do, but that takes a writer who's familiar with poetry and has a certain gift - not just the imagination and the art of storytelling, but a wordsmith). But, gosh, there are a ton of poems I could paraphrase. Think "Beowulf" or "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." To me, epic poetry is sort of its own genre, outside of prose because of the verse (obviously) but also separate from regular poetry, not just because of length but because of the intention behind it. Regular poems (like an Emily Dickinson, for example) are like short stories, whereas an epic poem is like a novel.

...all this to say "Great post!" ;)

glovin said...

Wow! This post made me want to write again! You are so right! There is a difference. I believe it has to do with intention!

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