Poetry and Prose

So, how did you do on the Nerd Test? I ask because according to my stats, more than two hundred of you clicked on it today (not counting those of you who clicked on the blog in general). I hope you did well and are a properly nerdy lot. Like me. I can draw you a Tardis, write Vogon poetry, and demonstrate the Vulcan neck pinch if you stand still long enough. I know the secret to life, the universe, and everything. I can probably even find you an M-class planet, if you lend me your spaceship. Because I’m just that kind of girl.

I’m sitting here after a long, tiring day, wondering what I should write about. I’m eating a Cherry Pie Lärabar, which (you’re not going to believe this but it’s true) tastes exactly like cherry pie, and some lime fizzy water. So self-indulgent of me.

I think I’ll write about poetry.

At Odyssey, one of the students, Rich Baldwin, asked me how writing poetry has affected my prose writing. (Rich is a poet himself, or was a poet first before turning to prose.) Honestly, I’ve written very little poetry lately, and very little of what I’ve written is good. A poem of mine (which I hope is good) just came out in Mythic Delirium 24:

The poem is called “Binnorie,” and to read it you’ll have to buy the magazine. But if you want to read what I consider to be a good poem of mine online, try “The Witch,” which is one of my favorites. Or I’ll make it even easier for you and include “Beauty to the Beast,” which I wrote years and years ago, below. If you want to listen to me reading it, click on the title.

Beauty to the Beast

When I dare walk in fields, barefoot and tender,
trace thorns with my finger, swallow amber,
crawl into the badger’s chamber, comb
lightning’s loose hair in a crashing storm,
walk in a wolf’s eye, lie
naked on granite, ignore the curse
on the castle door, drive a tooth into the boar’s hide,
ride adders, tangle the horned horse –
when I dare watch the east with unprotected eyes,
then I dare love you, Beast.

I think it’s a poem that says, love is hard. Love anyway. Which is what the story of “Beauty and the Beast” fundamentally says.

Although I haven’t written much poetry lately, I wrote poetry first. (I have embarrassing notebooks of poetry from high school to prove it.) And I think writing poetry has affected my prose. In my best stories, every word counts. At the same time, I have to recognize that prose is not poetry. It is more jagged, more forgiving. It has more of a relationship to everyday life, to the mortality that characterizes the human condition. Poetry, no matter how rudimentary, even if it is a limerick, shares something with the divine: form. A single, unifying form whereas prose has forms, many of them, slipping and sliding against one another. Sometimes grating. Read Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, which is about as close as you will get to poetry in prose, and you will see how prose has forms, rather than form.

What I got from poetry is that I write by ear. I hear the words, the sentences as I write. And yet, if I slip too far into poetry, as I’m doing now, I’m lost. Can you hear me doing it? Can you hear me slipping into poetry, sliding into it – and can you see that soon, paying attention to the sounds, I will lose content? I will forget what I’m writing about, until I consciously break it. Break the poetry, write in plain, ordinary prose.

Honestly, after the difficulty of poetry, prose is a relief.

But what a joy it is, to be able to slip and slide that way in language. To be able to deploy both. To use a word like deploy. I feel about language the way I sometimes think birds feel about air.

For any writer, I would say, try writing poetry. It may be terrible. Some of the poetry I write is terrible. But so what? It will still teach you about lines, rhythms, pauses. It will force you to slow down and think. And that’s good, when you’re a writer. It’s good to confront, and become conscious of, your own technique.

But what do we do with poetry? Few people read it. (I do, of course – but then, I do a lot of things other people don’t.) I think we can still publish poetry on a page, but what we really need is for poetry to be read. We need poetry videos, like music videos. If I had any money, I would make a video of “Beauty to the Beast,” with music. Or a longer video of “The Witch.” In her rags, her madness. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

I need to get back to work, because tonight I still have a column to finish. But I wanted to end with one of my favorite poems. It’s by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Love Is Not All

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

The reason I’m ending with this poem is that recently, I found a reading of it by Millay on YouTube.

I don’t think I would either, Edna. (She has the perfect voice for my witch poem.  I wish she could read it.)

While we’re on the subject of Odyssey, Martin Larsson, another Odyssey student, wrote a blog post about the day I spent there: “Friday, Goss-style.” I thought you might like to read about how my teaching went, from a student’s perspective.

Being at Odyssey reminded me that this time last year, I was at a writing workshop myself. And it made me think about how much my life has changed this year, how much I’ve changed. More, in some ways, than during any other year of my adult life. It’s as though I started out as a caterpillar and went through the painful chrysalis stage (when the caterpillar thinks, what in the world is happening to me)? And I’m on my way to being something else. I wouldn’t mind it being this:

But perhaps it’s only this, I don’t know:

Either one is fine, really. I can feel myself sometimes, beating my wings, wanting to get out. It’s as though whatever transformation started then isn’t yet complete. But it will be. And then, I’ll get to see what I’ve become. As will you.

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2 Responses to Poetry and Prose

  1. Jeff P. says:

    Another great post.

    I am one of those people poetry is lost on. If writing poetry was essential to living, I’d be a dead man. My prose is workman-like, though I can turn a phrase here and there; I rely on plot and momentum to keep readers in the story. That said, I can’t read Dan Brown or many other popular writers with tin ears, or no ears at all. So I must have SOME taste. Your work fascinates me because it is so different than mine, and your wordsmithing (for lack of a better term) is beautiful along with a fascinating storyline. I think a part of me hates you a little bit, in a good way. 😉

    I was surprised by the Odyssey student’s blog post, as when I attended we weren’t allowed to write publicly about the workshop until it was behind us.

  2. “I think a part of me hates you a little bit, in a good way.” That made me laugh out loud, Jeff! 🙂

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