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Poetry in Prose: Transcending the Well-Oiled Machine

Updated: Apr 25, 2021

I disagree with the consensus that a good story is like a well-oiled machine. I’ve heard the comparison many times—at conferences, in workshops, in how-to-write blog posts. I’m even guilty of making the comparison myself while teaching literature in my high school classroom, showing students how diction, imagery, suspense and syntax are all merely parts that serve a purpose within that machine. And it’s true that a story, or any work of art, has numerous components that function purposefully to make it work. If those plot elements are used successfully, the machine or robot runs. But is it enough for a piece of literature to just run well? It may be, but it can also do more.


I prefer to imagine a good story as being more like a human body. While a robot does accomplish tasks, it is in a mechanical, pre-programmed manner. The body has organs, flexible, imperfect separate parts that all function together. The plot of the story works like the brain, creates the logical order in which things must progress. Each organ is a different element of craft: structure, syntax, mood, diction, tone, suspense. The heart, though, is the meaning, the purpose, the soul of what we are saying about life and the world around us. The heart is why this particular story matters. We spend so much time focusing on the brain and the heart, on what is happening and what we are trying to say—two essential elements of any good piece of literature, but it’s still not enough. The brain, the heart, and every other organ need blood to work, to come alive. It runs through everything, connects parts, makes them communicate. It makes the brain think clearly and the heart beat stronger. Poetry is the blood.


I must first admit that plot is necessary to fiction and narrative nonfiction. Without plot and conflict, no matter how well written it may be, there is no story. It is also possible to have a great idea, a great story even, that isn’t received well simply because of the way it is conveyed to the audience. Stories that originated through oral tradition employed certain elements—repetition, suspense, rhythm—not just for the story to be memorized and passed down by generations, but so that it was entertaining and captivating enough for the next generation to want to do so. I’m basing my argument on the general consensus that all good stories—literary, genre, and cross-genres—require an interesting and functioning plot with dynamic characters and intriguing conflict. If we move forward with this theory, we can focus on why studying poetry and incorporating poetic elements into prose can enhance the experience for both the writer and the reader.


Writers of all kinds must be able to clearly and precisely communicate in their language, which means they must study it. Writing is an expression of art, where every choice the writer makes, just like the tiniest dot of olive green paint on canvas, should be intentional and purposeful. Studying and examining language is just as necessary as a painter knowing the materials he plans to use.


Any writer of prose should study poetry. It makes us better writers. Even the dictionary claims that a “special intensity” is given to the expression of abstract ideas and feelings in poetry, things that can’t be perceived by the five senses. I like to think that special intensity is something that all literary writers inherently do. They explore, in some way and with some form, something interesting and unique about the human condition. Poetic language therefore, pulls the reader not only forward in the story, but deeper into the possibilities of context. Language can create layers, can subtly suggest things to the reader by their sounds or connotations. Language can do more than relay information or describe a scene, and it’s our job to push the possibilities and make it interesting.


In Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, he urges his poetry students to stop trying to communicate. He cautions “against communication because once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.” While there are parts of story that requires telling, it can still be multi-functioning. Poetic language brings the body of work to life, makes it feel dynamic and human. It allows the reader to relate and empathize with a character’s plight, and it surprises them with unique insights and choices the writer makes. And, most importantly, it helps the writer to see the complexity of things that may have seemed one-dimensional in their plot outline. There are several things we can do to start incorporating poetic writing and thinking into our prose pieces.


Start Small

One of the most helpful pieces of advice I received from a professor was to start small. Really, really, small. A rusty hammer with a splintered handle. A dried oil spot on a cracked concrete driveway. The rocks at the bottom of a ceramic bamboo pot. The grin on a grandfather’s face when a stranger walks through the living room. During her poetry lectures, Cathy Smith-Bowers refers to this as the “abiding image” from which great poems can arise, but only if you are willing to let the poem, and the image, tell you what it wants to say. For some prose writers, it is difficult to give up this control. What happens if what it wants to say, or what the writer discovers about the image, contradicts the theme that was planned for the novel? What happens when the writer realizes that through the vivid description of that image or moment, the character changes, and seems like someone altogether different than what you wanted them to be? I would argue that what is discovered or revealed in a moment like this may be more representative of authenticity, and likely, it will be more important than what we originally wanted to say anyway.


Hugo addresses something similar in his poetry classes. He explains how he urges his students to “think small” no matter how big the subject is they want to write about, and “if you have a big mind, that will show itself.” (7) He explains that if our ideas start too big, too abstract (happiness, time, religion) the “mind tends to shrink.” Instead, like Smith-Bowers, he encourages his students to start with something finite or concrete. Even though this is a common practice for poets, it’s something prose writers should practice as well. Plenty of prose pieces exemplify starting small to convey larger ideas. In Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” vivid imagery and the keen observation of a single, dying moth reveal insights about life and death. If Woolf had written an abstract essay on the strength and power of death, the effect on the reader would not be the same.


In the flash fiction piece “Sticks” by George Saunders, an entire generational story is told by focusing on a makeshift metal pole on a front lawn. The narrator explained that “On the Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veteran’s Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost.” The narrator describes how his father’s obsession with decorating the pole devastatingly evolves alongside the lives of the family until “he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and the sticks and left them by the road on garbage day.” The story tackles abstract ideas concerning family, generational abuse, and loss, but it only tells it through the lens of a single concrete object. Saunders even mentioned in the contributor’s notes of Story magazine where it was published that he passed a house like the one in the story every day and imagined the owner, but it was the image of the pole that stuck with him and grew into a story.


By starting small, it helps the writer to delve into other poetic elements such as vivid imagery, metaphorical/figurative meaning, concision, and rhythm and sound, all of which breathe life into a work, make it human.


Vivid Imagery

If poetry is the blood, imagery is the mouth, nose, hands, feet, ears and eyes. It’s how we take everything in and how we want to represent scenes or objects to the reader. In poetry, imagery should be specific and visceral. Poets focus only on the details that are essential to the work of art, and labor over the correct word choice to describe it. Extra words that aren’t doing important work are cut. There may be a larger canvas for prose writers, but the job of finding the right words, details, descriptions is just as important. Poets often suggest to beginning poets to practice keen observation even with everyday occurrences, a suggestion that can also improve the imagery of a prose writer. As writers, we get to focus on whichever details we want, and they should be strong and surprising in a way that snatches the reader’s attention and refuses to let it go. When writer’s describe moments or objects using clichés, the reader’s mind skims past it, associates that moment with all other ambiguous moments in which that particular phrase has been used.


In “The Half-Skinned Steer,” Annie Proulx’s narrator describes an old man that Mero, the protagonist, remembers:


“The old man drank his Everclear stirred with a peeled willow stick for the bitter taste. The image of him came sharp in Mero’s mind as he stood at the hall closet contemplating his hats; should he bring one for the funeral? The old man had had the damndest curl to his hat brim, a tight roll on the right where his doffing or donning hand gripped it and a wavering downslope on the left like a shed roof. You could recognize him two miles away. He wore it at the table listening to the woman’s stories about Tin Head, steadily emptying his glass until he was nine-times-nine drunk, his gangster face loosening, the crushed rodeo nose and scar-crossed eyebrows, the stub ear dissolving as he drank. Now he must be dead fifty years or more, buried in the mailman sweater.”


Proulx uses sensory details and vivid imagery to develop the characterization of the old man (with a great amount of concision). She appeals to multiple senses: the bitter taste of the willow stick, the appearance of his hat and body, the implied feeling of a crushed nose and scarred face. She refuses to let the reader drift off during this description, using surprising details and varied syntax. Even when the narrator’s voice begins to lean toward cliché by how far away someone could recognize the old man, her choice to write that the old man could be recognized “two miles away” instead of “from a mile away” creates freshness and originality in the voice.


The use of imagery can also serve multiple purposes throughout the work. Close observation of details can lead the reader to recognize patterns and possible figurative meanings from things that are concrete, deepening the impact of the passage and heightening the reading experience. Strong imagery can also help develop the themes of the piece, like in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.”


The theme of authentic heritage and family is developed in the excerpt below by the description of a butter churner that Mama’s eldest daughter, Dee, asks to have. When Mama looks at the object, she describes what she notices, what she remembers about its history.

“You didn't even have to look close to see where hands pushing the dasher up and down to make butter had left a kind of sink in the wood. In fact, there were a lot of small sinks; you could see where thumbs and fingers had sunk into the wood. It was beautiful light yellow wood, from a tree that grew in the yard where Big Dee and Stash had lived.”


Walker uses vivid imagery through the perspective of Mama to show the sinks in the wood, how it was handmade from a tree in the backyard and the people that used it daily. This contrasts greatly with Dee’s desire to use it for display and what Dee sees when she looks at the object, highlighting the conflict and difference of perspective through observation.

Imagery doesn’t have to tell the reader what to think, and close readers don’t want to be told this anyway, but writers should purposefully lead the reader to moments that allow them to draw conclusions through their sensory details and descriptions. The imagery should be intentional and authentic to the goal of the body as a whole.


Figurative Meaning

One element of poetry that is commonly found in fiction and nonfiction is the use of figurative language. While most writers use similes and metaphors to convey an idea, the use of extended metaphor and implied figurative meaning can further enhance writing that may only be functioning to move the plot forward. A story can be a good story, even if it functions only on a literal dimension for the length of the work, but complexity can be added through the use of multi-layered meanings. As analytical thinkers, we like things to be complicated and layered.


Sometimes, the figurative meaning and connection between the vehicle and tenor can be told by the narrator, much like this scene from William Kennedy’s Ironweed, where the protagonist looks at an old picture that depicts a better time, before his downfall, when he played baseball and had hope for a future that resembles nothing of the one he is currently living.


“He lifted the picture for a closer look and saw himself among a group of men, tossing a baseball from bare right hand to gloved left hand. The flight of the ball had always made this photo mysterious to Francis, for the camera had caught the ball clutched in one hand and also in flight, arcing in a blur toward the glove. What the camera had caught was two instants in one: time separated and unified, the ball in two places at once, an eventuation as inexplicable as the Trinity itself. Francis now took the picture to be a Trinitarian talisman (a hand, a glove, a ball) for achieving the impossible: for he had always believed it impossible for him, ravaged man, failed human, to reenter history under this roof. Yet here he was in this acne of reconstitutable time, touching untouchable artifacts of a self that did not yet know it was ruined, just as the ball, in its inanimate ignorance, did not know yet that it was going nowhere, was caught.

But the ball is really not yet caught, except by the camera, which has frozen only its situation in space.

And Francis is not yet ruined, except as an apparency in process.

The ball still flies.

Francis still lives to play another day.

Doesn't he?”


Here, Kennedy sets up the metaphor within the picture while comparing it to the impasse of his present self, then makes that connection clear to reader.


In other instances, and more pleasurable to some readers, the patterns or comparisons are subtle. They depend on the reader’s trust in the writing that each detail is chosen and each sentence and word is placed in particular position for a reason. If Frances is looking at this photograph, at this particular precipice of his story, and the details that he notices—the ball, the glove, the movement—are shared with the reader, then we can assume there is a reason the writer decided to include it here, right before he has to make a decision to alter his future.

When writers practice story telling by starting small, and they focus on a single object, poetic minds will begin to make connections and notice patterns between the object and a piece of the story. Sometimes that connection is strong enough to be subtly referenced throughout an entire story arc, such as “Trilobites” by Breece D’J Pancake. He’s unable to find a fossil, despite relentless effort and time spent trying to do so. As the story progresses, connections to the characteristics of the fossil emerge as Colly reveals his past.


Whether blatent or subtle, figurative meaning is born out of the other elements of poetry. It’s discovered by starting small and using selective imagery to discover the patterns in a work. This poetic approach is what brings joy to the reader and writer on multiple levels.


Concision

“My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick.”


The opening sentence from Toni Morrison’s short story “Recitatif” exemplifies how concision in prose can do massive amounts of work with short sentences. In only nine words, we are introduced to the protagonist, a second character, the conflict and predicament they are both in, and their shared bond. It carefully chooses the phrases “danced all night” and “sick” to describe the reason for their mothers’ absence. The writer could have spent the first three pages describing the situation of the girls and how they got there, but concision creates the power.


When blood travels through the body, it speeds up and slows down through areas in which it is required. When it leaves the heart, for example, blood can travel as far as three feet a second, but as it moves through intricate systems of arteries and capillaries, it takes longer. Poems function in an environment that is entirely pressurized, but prose writers have the freedom to take breaks from those moments and slow things down. Good writers find the balance while practicing concision. Just like poetry, everything has to be serving a purpose, every word and every scene, or it needs to be cut. The rest of Morrison’s opening paragraph reads,


“That's why we were taken to St. Bonny's. People want to put their arms around you when you tell them you were in a shelter, but it really wasn't bad. No big long room with one hundred beds like Bellevue. There were four to a room, and when Roberta and me came, there was a shortage of state kids, so we were the only ones assigned to 406 and could go from bed to bed if we wanted to. And we wanted to, too. We changed beds every night and for the whole four months we were there we never picked one out as our own permanent bed.


In a single paragraph, Morrison authentically captures the perspective of a girl who is in the foster system, their adaptability and familiarity with the situation, their unwillingness to be pitied, the time they spent at this particular place, and how they never accepted it as home.


In poetry, concision or the economy of words is crucial to impacting the reader. There is no room for unnecessary words or sentences that drag on. Why, though, should there be room for that in fiction simply because there is a bigger canvas? Could we not make better use of the space we have? Hugo warns his poetry students to “Beware certain words that seem necessitated by grammar to make things clear but dilute the drama of the statement. These are words of temporality, causality, and opposition, and often indicate a momentary lack of faith in the imagination.”


He demonstrates this by using three lines of poetry written two different ways. In the first, “But no one comes/and the girl disappears behind folding doors/while the bus grinds and lurches away.” In the second he cuts those words and is left with, “No one comes/ The girl disappears behind folding doors/ The bus grinds and lurches away.” By illustrating that words like “while” is already implied and not essential in poetry, he portrays a common flaw that is found in prose writers as well. Often, we will tell the reader what is already being demonstrated by an action or a moment.


Breece D’J Pancake has a similar concise style when writing fiction. In “First day of Winter” he writes, “Hollis sat by his window all night, staring at his ghost in glass, looking for some way out of the tomb Jake had built for him.” The words mentioned by Hugo that are typically cut from poetry, are cut here as well, and it leaves a haunting effect. Instead of saying “his ghost in the glass,” he simply removes one article, bringing the alliteration of sounds closer together and making the reader notice the choices made by the author in the sentence. Concision like this develops a trust between writer and reader, establishes that the writer is making conscious, meaningful stylistic choices. This relationship allows for more freedom and experimentation without losing the reader, a barrier poets tend to push regularly.


Rhythm and Sound

When writing poetry, every syllable is under a microscope, not just every word or every line. Taking a writing course in poetry or reading a book on the craft can help train the writer’s focus on the smaller, more intricate parts that can help a body of work. Things that may get overlooked or go unrecognized when tackling something as large as a novel. I learned that plosives (or stop consonants) can create a line filled with a mood of intensity or urgency. That in order to create these sounds we must first stop air flow and let the pressure build. Words that start with “p” or “b” like push or bellow are created by a sound that mimics their intensity.


In The Triggering Town Hugo states, “With single syllable words we can show rigidity, honesty, toughness, relentlessness, the world of harm unvarnished.” As I read Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, I noticed where the rhythm mimicked the tone of the scene or moment. When the narrator describes the character Moth at the beginning of the novel, he states “The flames lit the left side of his face.” (29) Later, the single syllable words are used to emphasize the honesty and concision of the moment when he writes, “He got on with the parents but he loved Agnes, and so I came to love Agnes too.” (109)


In Annie Proulx’s “The Blood Bay,” she describes the setting of the story using short syllabic words and strong consonant sounds to the reflect the harshness of the winter. The “Early wet snow froze hard so the cattle could not break through the crust to the grass.” (93) The sentence itself embodies a sense of toughness, an inability to break through it with soft pauses or reflection.


With multi-syllabic words we can soften the language. Hugo argues that “we can show compassion, tenderness, and tranquility.” In contrast to the early examples of honesty and relentlessness shown through smaller words, the following excerpt from Warlight creates a different kind of rhythm.


“It always sounded like a sigh the way he sang it to himself, his mind elsewhere, barely conscious of the lyrics in his mouth. Besides, I knew the sadness of that song in no way reflected his intricately dovetailed relationships with women. I knew this from having to provide alibis for him or deliver false messages from a public phone box that would excuse his absence some evenings.” (79)


The rhythm here is more lyrical, and the repetition of the “s” sound coupled with multi-syllabic words create a soothing and musical effect that reflects the action of singing in the passage.


Sometimes strong poetic rhythm with meter is used in a prose sentence. On page 77, Ondaatje writes, “The Darter also had a mouthful of whistles, for every barge he told us, had its own signal.” The use of assonance and near-perfect meter serves to illustrate the way musicality can be found even in large works of fiction, such as novels. The sentence above reads like two equally syllabic lines of poetry.


Breece D’J Pancake writes his short stories with similar sentences, describing the setting and scene using imagery, concision, figurative meaning and rhythm all at once. The narrator in “A Room Forever” says that “For now, I wait, watch the wind whip rain onto the panes and blur the grass.” In a more figurative moment, he writes, “only the tales we tell will change, wrap around other times and other names.”


When a writer masters the rhythm of the language, the blood flows smoothly from one part to the next, connecting elements seamlessly and adding strength to meaning of the work.


The Body

There are other elements of style, other parts of the body in which poetry can be, and should be, found that enhances the experience of the reader and the discovery of the writer.

Poetry may not be necessary to have a good story. Blood certainly isn’t necessary for a machine. But if we are searching for ways to bring our stories to life, to present more authenticity and reflect more accurately the complexities of universal emotions, then poetry is as necessary to a work of prose as pumping blood is to a healthy body. The process of creating a body of work that uses all of these elements, however extraordinarily complicated and impossible it may seem, is worth attempting. We may not get it right for a while, but by practicing poetry alongside mastering the elements of plot, we can discover new things about our story and breathe life into it. A simple definition of poetry describes it as a type of literature that “attempts to stir the reader’s imagination or emotions…by carefully choosing and arranging language for its meaning, sound, and rhythm.” Prose writers have the same goal, the language also being arranged to depict characters and events that tell a story that embodies the human condition, with all its flaws and imperfections. Readers want a story that is both entertaining and makes them feel life intensely, and writers want to create a piece of art that serves both of these functions, something that transcends the well-oiled machine and reveals something undeniably human.


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