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Poetry in Prose

We all think we know what poetry is – or what it isn’t.

On the IS side, according to Alexander Pope, poetry is ‘What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed.”

On the ISN’T side, several people still feel that it’s not poetry if it doesn’t rhyme; without rhyme, it’s just prose with pretentious line spacing.

What fiction writers and poets have in common is that their basic material is words. Poets sometimes argue that what is distinctive in their work is that every single word has to count, and carry meaning beyond the simple letters on the page. However a fiction writer thinks about words too, and not just which ones best carry the narrative forward. They also want to create an atmosphere, grab attention, capture the reader’s imagination …

Martin Amis has reputedly said that he wants each word he chooses in his novels to be distinctive, and to make the hairs on the back of the reader’s neck stand up. Less literary authors may not be quite so ambitious, but they too want to move their readers and keep them turning the pages.

Children’s writers, especially, will use the sound of words to convey a picture of the action – ‘Splish, splash, splosh’ as a child jumps in puddles, for instance. ‘Rising at the crack of dawn,’ gives a sense of urgency that ‘getting up early’ doesn’t. When two egos ‘clash’ it packs a harder punch than saying a couple don’t get on.

Fiction writers, like poets, pay attention to the sound of the words they place on the page. And, if they want to keep their reader’s attention, they also consider the length and content of each sentence, unlike in this sentence where I now digress to tell you about my dog’s health, and fill you in on my plans for lunch, and complain that my husband still hasn’t finished painting the hall, all of which is distracting me from writing this blog, and somewhere along the way I seem to have lost you. Bother!

The precise choice of words, which also includes how they sound and look on the page, the balance of each phrase as the narrative builds, the length of each sentence (line) or paragraph (verse) – these are as important to the fiction writer as to the poet. Many story writers who have no intention of writing poetry have attended workshops run by a poet and come away with several valuable tips for improving their own craft.

The heading for an article about poetry in the Sunday Times a few years ago was a line from Maya Angelou: ‘You may trod me in the very dirt, but still like dust I rise.’ Not a rhyme in sight, but feel the emotional punch in the repetition of ‘d’ and the imaginative juxtaposition of ‘trod’ and ‘rise.’ It certainly makes the hairs on the back of my neck prickle, and makes me want to read more of her work. If only a random quote from one of my stories could have the same effect on readers …

(This is a repeat of a blog from July 2016. If you have enjoyed it, and would like to read more, you can find a selection of short stories and novels by using one of the links below.)

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