Saturday, May 21, 2011

Hear It for the Poets (No, not the self-published ones)

Big, wide-ranging discussion in this morning's writing group about the advantages poets have over prose writers when poets turn to fiction.  You started out playing devil's advocate in order to get the conversation heated to the next notch, secretly believing that yes, poets do have an advantage because you are coming to see how important every line, every word is in a text.

Your opening salvo used the ammunition that poets tend to become obscure more than prose writers do, but you don't think this is true of most seasoned poets, and with full consideration of some of your own early drafts, you believe it is easier for a prose writer to be obscure--however unintentional the obscurity is--than most poets.

Since you were feeling quite honest, you even went so far as to venture that your perception of obscurity in poetry was more likely to reflect your inability to read the signs than the poet's inability to convey them.

Prose is saved from bad writing by the fact of the bad (poor, clunky) writer's mastery of story.  Poetry is saved from obscurity by the bad (poor, clunky) poet's mastery of image,  this trope effectively defining your approaches to taste in prose storytelling.  You admire Mark Twain, whose language is so deliberate in its seeming casualness and conversational tone, but you do admire writers who are able to drop an image or implication without having to nudge the reader in the ribs, the equivalent of asking, "Did you get it?"

Lackluster writing--alright, writing with excessive -ly adverbs, parallel constructions often beginning with as (As John entered the room...As Mary opened the celebratory bottle of champagne...both cases presenting simultaneous activity, which undermines the writer's intent of making one seem more important than the other), and adjectives stacked up like planes in the holding pattern at O'Hare--is trumped by a compelling story in which there is some texture and complexity to the characters.

It is often more fun to reread Louise Erdrich and Kate Atkinson than it is to venture a new writer.

There was a time when you were still at USC when the chairperson of your department considered himself a poet and spent endless effort trying to convince others of the fact.  Thinking of him as Arse Poetica, you took delight in edging some of his favored poets toward the short story, where they generally excelled, got published almost immediately, then fell in love with the short form.  "Hey, what are you doing, messing with my poets?"  There was an advantage:  the poet could see how story was formed.  Even now, you are in close contact with such a student, her poetic craft assured from a number of solid publications, listening to you as you attempt to nudge her toward a novel she began in your genre fiction class.

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