18.7.08

into a state of change...

I’m thinking about the effects of poetry and prose.

For me, prose – in terms of fiction or even non-fiction, for that matter – is about words connecting moments to moments in creating a sense of story. The happenings of the story, if the writing is effective, are detailed and real. When I’m reading a work of fiction, for example, I become a spirit-character in the setting. I move in the landscape, but I’m separate from it – another plane, another dimension. I see, hear, feel. The setting may be in my head, but it’s not in me. When I read drama – no matter the form, type, or style – I view the landscape and the events, but I’m not in them. The characters in a dramatic work, no doubt because of voice and speech – both on the stage and page – are close at hand, but I’m outside looking in. The pleasure is there, all the same.

On the other hand, poetry – in any of its many incarnations – is more about moving me into the moments of the words or, more probably, moving the moments into me. I’m not separate. I’m inside the words / the words are inside me. Poetry forces me into some mode of action, and that action may translate itself into thought, motion, dream, music, writing, speech, faith… That’s not to say – since I’m no fool – that prose would not or could not move another person to action.

One can talk about an idea or even write about the idea. And, if the telling or the writing is strong, I can be moved. But show me that idea in a poem, and I go beyond being moved – into a state of change.

Certainly, poems may possess prose-like characteristics. “A Story about the Body” by Robert Hass and “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché are both prose poems and do exhibit a narrative in story-like detail, but these works are overwhelmingly poetic, based on the writers’ use of imagery, language, literary devices – just to name three. Many prose passages or entire novels may display a strong poetic atmosphere, yet maintain their fictional structure. Works such as Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson and “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver come to mind.

It appears to me that a difference is that with prose, I penetrate the words … with poetry, the words penetrate me. What I’m not certain of is … Does that have more to do with me than with poetry or prose? I’m of the mind that many – probably most … if units sold mean anything – feel or experience quite the opposite.

11 comments:

Lisa Allender said...

Sam, I really enjoy reading how you feel in terms of poetry and prose's effects on you. I would say this:
I only feel "outside" a story when I SEE it(as in a film). But with a play, (perhaps because of my background as an actress), I tend to experience it "as IF"(see Sanislavski here)I were the character(s)...
When I READ something, it's already "inside". Having said that, poetry is the form which moves me, INSTANTLY. "Compressed Emotion"--isn't that what, um, Auden called it?
In a great work of fiction(I'm talking literature, not what I term mere "diversionary fiction"(genre' stuff)), I will immediately tend to "connect" and "become" a character (this can extend to more than one character at times, or even--in the case of really really incredibly great writing--to becoming the surroundings in the novel itself! For instance, I found myself "feeling" what the landscape surrounding the characters felt in "The Road", so evocative and weirdly, darkly erotic were the descriptions of that post-Apocalyptic landscape.
That Cormac McCarthy novel still haunts me. Much like a great poem will, always.
We should do much more discussion of HOW literature--both prose and poetry, affects us.
I also think the creative PROCESS is entirely different--while I believe BOTH are the result of dreams/sub/unconscious desires/fears, poetry is something I never "formulate". Obviously, there's lots of editing(later), but poems seem to birth easily-- fully whole-- whereas stories seem to need--to continue the birthing analogy--a bit of "inducement of labor".

sam of the ten thousand things said...

You raise some marvelous points, Lisa. I can see how your being an actress relates to your ideas. They make perfect sense. Especially like your notion of "connecting" and "becoming".

Thanks for the read. Haven't read The Road yet, but it's on my short list.

Lisa Allender said...

OMG! You are soooooo going to uh, well, "enjoy" is not the correct word...You are going to not be able to set "The Road" down, and then, like me, you may find yourself slowing down the rhythm at which you read, so that you can make "The Road", last longer...
oh, and thank you for the feedback, too!

Pris said...

It was interesting to read your blog and then Lisa's comments. I had the same reaction to The Road. It was horrifying and yet the way it was written had me in the moment all the way through. It still haunts me, too. Another writer whose work often feels more like 'poetry' than prose to me is Alice Hoffman. If she weren't a novelist, she would be a grand poet. Again, it has to do with the use of words and the way the writer brings you in. Illumination Night is one example of Hoffman at her best.

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Thanks for the comment, Pris. I remember somewhere in my readings coming across the fact that W. B. Yeats would, many times, write his poems in paragraph form, and later would break the structure into lines and stanzas.

intact said...

thank you thank you thank you for this.

sam of the ten thousand things said...

You're more than welcome, G. Thanks for reading.

Collin said...

If a book is well written, I tend to get so lost in the story that I feel like I'm there with the characters. Only a few books have ever done this, however: The Color Purple and Underworld come instantly to mind, although I think Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood have not only successfully brought me to their world and not just as an observer.

As for poetry, again I turn to Atwood who's Morning In the Burned House has an incredible arc about her father's Alzheimer's and slow decline and maybe it's because my father has been ill, but everytime I read this collection, I'm right there with her in those Canadian lake shores, in the cabin where she spent summers with her parents. Not just observing, but sitting at the table. That's a hallmark of transcendental poetry to me.

sam of the ten thousand things said...

The Color Purple is, I think, a novel that blends poetry & prose in such a strong manner. Very successful in that mix. That's a great choice, and point, Collin. Morning in the Burned House - an amazing collection. Thanks for the read and the comment.

Anonymous said...

“Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory and defeat. Everything moves toward the end, when the outcome will be known. Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.” ‒‒ John Berger

(Hi, Meg.)

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Thanks for the quotation, Meg. An interesting one. I like the idea of language giving shelter.

Here are some notions from William Stafford – his introduction to Since Feeling It First:

“Poems don’t just happen. They are luckily or stealthily related to a readiness within ourselves. When we read or hear them, we react. We aren’t just supposed to react—
Any poem that asks for a dutiful response is masquerading as a poem, not being one. A good rule is—don’t respond unless you have to. But when you find you do have a response—trust it. It has meaning….

For a poem is not the end, but the beginning, of an excursion.”