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.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Poetry, Lyrics, and Sondheim

Not long ago I was listening to an interview with Stephen Sondheim, the composer of the music and lyrics for so many great American musicals. Not having a great interest in musical theatre, I was only listening peripherally, with half an ear so to speak. Toward the end of the interview, the questioner praised him effusively for “the poetry in your lyrics. How words and the way you use them become much more meaningful.”

Sondheim claimed that the ambiguity inherent in his lyrics were not a deliberate poetic device but a means of expression demanded by the music and story or “book.” He explained that the “clowns” in his song “Send in the Clowns” from his musical A Little Night Music did not, as is commonly misperceived, refer to circus clowns or acrobats. It was especially written for the character who sings it in the musical, a woman who is an actress. He reminded the listeners that with Shakespeare as well as others, when the plot became too complicated or emotionally oppressive, the drama was lightened by the use of comic relief through a “fool” or clown, a buffoon or common character. He stated simply that “send in the fool” did not sound or feel the same; therefore he used the synonym. The actress' use of the term, with her intense feelings of anger and regret, would at once imply that theatrical reference. Those nuances are lost when the song is performed in a concert setting by singers such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins or recorded apart from the soundtrack.

He ended the discussion with a statement whose truth I immediately recognized. Just because the lyrics of a song feel like or seem to be poetic doesn't make them poetry. A song lyric is written for and with music. Its impact only holds true when the two are together. He pointed out that for something like the song from Oklahoma the words “Oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day” are nothing, are quite banal, until you connect them with the music they are associated with. That holds not only for musical theatre but for most pop music.

On the other hand, he pointed out, the words that make up a poem, that drive it with its own special power, are not dependent on music; instead they have an inherent sense of music within the poems' composition. A poem feels complete without ever having been dressed in melody but in a song words and music must be melded together.

I understood and was instantly enlightened. And although most songwriters understand that they are not poets, I do wish more poets were aware of those internal musical qualities that should be part of every poem, that make the poem so much more than an arrangement of words.