Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Prose and Poetry

Every now and then I return to thinking about how an artist uses language, especially those who write fiction and those who write poetry. Because I am so involved in poetry myself I want to express my bias right here. But that doesn't mean that I won't express admiration for a creator of fine fiction. Those who toil at the crafts that involve language will always find a special place in my awareness – poets, novelists, short fiction writers, newspaper columnists, lexicographers, editors, speech writers, story tellers, preachers, and the list goes on.

But as I said, poetry is my drug of choice. I'm hooked and I can't quit. Sometimes I envy those writers who establish a reputation as a poet and then switch (with seeming ease) to novels that gather critical and popular acclaim. Sometimes I wonder if Atwood and Ondaatje were ever as dependent on the poetry drug as I seem to be.

But back to me. Sometimes when the blood and spirit aren't being as churned by the forces of poetry as I would like, I have to turn to other disciplines to satisfy my cravings. I have been known to write reviews. This blog is also part of that. My reading becomes heavier – novels and poetry in foreign languages, for instance; history; biography; philosophy. However, usually I turn to writing fiction, short fiction to be precise.

I like short fiction. I tried constructing stories when I was beginning as a writer. In later life, during a period void of poetic inspiration, I began to write a novel, about fifty thousand words about a young person coming of age. I lost it and didn't try very hard to find or rewrite it; I recognized it was nothing special, an exercise to keep my creative side occupied. I did continue to write short fiction whenever I felt the need.

Some years ago a local publication accepted some of my short stories for publication. I had the chance to publish a few more at online sites. So when Arts Hamilton last year called for entries in their “Creative Keyboards” contest, I sent in two without great expectations. I had done the same before for other contests.

Imagine my surprise when one of my tales made the short list of the top ten of all the entries received!

Imagine my surprise when I was invited to read that story as one of the top three! (No, there is no more surprise. It placed third.) I was honoured.

Because I am a poet first, I took some time and mental space to look at the stories that placed higher than mine. The main difference I could see had nothing to do with theme, etc., but with language and how it is used, a difference in style.

My prose style seems to be very similar to the way I write my poems. That thought had never crossed my mind before; writing prose was a different craft, only using the same materials. I came to see how my writing differed from the others. My plot, my story line, is developed through characters' words and deeds. There isn't much introspection, no detailed descriptions, no psychological motivation explored, no sensitivities. You know my characters by what they are and what they do, not by what they think or feel.

And that is also the way I have learned to develop my poetry. Clearly show what is and a way to see it; let the reader/listener develop his own emotional response. That way the poem, my ideas, my creation, can become a part of him. No force, and moreover, no subtle trickery. Simplicity and honesty. It all goes back to the “show, don't tell” principle.

It works for fiction, for prose, as well as for poetry. Hemingway knew that.

1 comment:

Julia said...

I think you are right prose does tend to "spell it out" a lot more than poetry, but the it can afford to you have more words to play with for a start. I have been thinking a lot about those differences myself of late - it started when I read a badly edited novel by someone quite famous. I realised that many of the novelists I enjoy the most were actually poets before they became novelists - I am sure that this is not a coincidence!