Saturday, April 22, 2006

The challenge of writing poetry and prose

I've blogged before about my difficulty working on poetry when I'm writing prose and vice versa. Having spent an intense two weeks first working on edits for "Wings", then writing furiously for "MindBlind", I can certainly attest to losing the thread of reading and writing poetry. I was trying to understand why the two types of writing are so different. Some of the elements are the same. Strong poetry, like strong prose uses language to show rather than tell. They both benefit from active voice, vivid verbs that stand alone without adverbs, and nouns that don't suffocate under the weight of adjectives.

So why can't I write one while I write the other?

I think one reason is time. As in linearity, rather than how long it takes to write. A coherent narrative needs a strong sense of linear time. Events happen in an order and unless the author is very, very good at breaking the rules, (or attempting something deliberately avant guarde) that order should be more or less chronological. (A notable exception from my recent reading: The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger).

Poetry derives much of its strength from deliberate non-linearity. In fact, unusual juxtapositions of time and space, along with non-literal comparisons conspire to give poetry its power.

Perhaps this was not always so--in the past, poetry was a form of storytelling. The ballad is an example in which linearity--a strong sense of beginning, middle, and end is integral to the form. However, more modern poetry tends to the non-linear and the less directly representational.

To use an analogy: if poetry is an impressionist painting, perhaps the story is a film. Where the poem hints and suggests with broad brush strokes, the story must sketch out the details that the reader can explicitly follow from start to finish.

What I have noticed is that when I switch from story to poetry, the first poems I write are not truly poems, but narrative dressed in poetic clothes. When I move from poetry to story, the narrative is needlessly obscure and the sense of the tale lost in the excess of poetic device.

So why do I write both? Because I believe that each is enhanced by the other. For better or worse, my narrative 'voice' is poetic and my poetry resonates with a thread of the narrative. I have written elsewhere about the use of poetic technique to enhance prose and I believe it works the other way as well.

I invite my fellow writers to weigh in here--poets or novelists. What do you think about writing and the differences between poetry and prose? Can you have your (writing) cake and eat it too?

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