Poetry in Prose. Power, or Presumption?

I’m the kind of writer that, while racing along the canyon walls of my story, I begin to alliterate, rhyme, fall into a rhythm that mimics the propelling force that accompanies my thought process. It’s a liberating, flying-or-falling feeling that sometimes takes my breath away.

But this isn’t the topic of my blog post.

Falling into a Shakespearean mode where your fingers tap like running feet along a pattern you didn’t know existed before your mind opened is one thing. For good or ill, this is the style of writing you find comfort in, and should write it as best you know. Develop it, learn it. Embrace it.

Adding poetry–actual poetry, as poetry–in prose is a little more difficult. A little more complicated a topic.

We have many reasons for adding poetry to a story. For mystery, for clarification, for quoting a (perhaps?) more knowledgable historical figure on a similar topic, etc. I catch myself adding block quotes to the beginning of my fantasy stories, directly before Chapter 1, to better set the mood and give insight toward the focus of the story. I believe it’s a major risk. I risk posting something I find strongly compelling, yet possibly unwarranted or indirect. I risk sounding pompous and presumptuous–whether it’s Longfellow or my own work–when I set apart a thought. I risk the disinterest of the reader before he even reads a single word of the story.

Why does this happen?

The short of it is, it’s a different medium. Long ago, most prose WAS poetry; our written languages developed from bards and musicians and great war-song. Yet now, in today’s world, it’s not the same. Like adding words to a painting or adding a sketch to a story, you change the piece from a purely prose piece–what the person expected to read in the first place–to a mixed media piece. You ask, and sometimes beg, the reader to change modes from passive observer/reader to active studier. Even if the poetry is simple and singsong, straight to the point and short, the reader must pause to reflect. This is asking a lot of the reader.

Danielewski’s House of Leaves is somewhat similar, although it doesn’t incorporate poetry. It’s presented like a body of research, several eyewitness accounts stacked on independent study by undependable narrators. The reader must constantly change focus from one narrative to another, from one medium to another–be it a critique by a philosopher on the symbolism of the house to deciphering a jumbled mess of papers that had supposedly been doused with coffee and thrown out of order. It’s a mire. If the story is strong enough, that’s no problem. It’s perfect. If the reader doesn’t achieve ample reward for his efforts, he quickly loses interest.

I’ve been reading this book for over a year, and I’m barely halfway through for this very same reason. I find the reward too lacking, so I set it down and do something else. Then I remember how great the topics were, and pick it back up again, only to overfill my reserves of dedication and set it down again.

Adding a poem or two or twenty-seven would be much the same risk, albeit a little less so than House of Leaves. I’ve seen novels break from two lines of seemingly insightful garbage that did nothing but showcase a lost thought, poorly framed and moreso, poorly explained.

Treat poetry as it were a separate quote from the story, as if it were a statement of explanation toward an idea. Make the reader aware it’s coming, and be certain to amply explain it afterward–if not literal translation, perhaps a simple “why?” Poetry in your story can be quite rewarding, or, it can showcase an inadequacy you didn’t know you had.

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