The Poetry in Prose

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A novel is a work of sympathetic imagination. To achieve that, we need to allow ourselves to sink into our characters, share their heads and eyes, delve their feelings, and find their truest words. When Olive’s husband observes her alone in the garden in the beginning of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, “[h]e wanted to put his arms around her, but she had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away.” We get both his insight about Olive, which is stunning, and his confession of the distance between them, which is all the more heartbreaking in its restraint. We see two lives in one flash.

Another striking example appears in The Hours by Michael Cunningham, when Virginia Woolf grapples with one of her headaches: “Strands of pain announce themselves, throw shivers of brightness into her eyes so insistently she must remind herself that others can’t see them. Pain colonizes her, quickly replaces what was Virginia with more and more of itself, and its advance is so forceful, its jagged contours so distinct, that she can’t help imagining it as an entity with a life of its own.” Her words are too analytical for most of our characters, but they seem so right for Virginia – I ache for her as she tries to manage the unmanageable with her fierce intelligence, all the while knowing how futile it is.

But the character doesn’t have to be a poetic writer herself for the writer to find the poetry in another mind. In Disobedience by Jane Hamilton, the teenage Henry confides in the reader: “To picture my mother a lover, I had at first to break her in my mind’s eye, hold her over my knee, like a stick, bust her in two. When that was done, when I had changed her like that, I could see her in a different way. I could put her through the motions like a jointed puppet, all dancy in the limbs, loose, nothing to hold her up but me.” I believe the writer found that insight by submerging herself so deeply in Henry’s perspective, that she could look up at his mother along with him and discover how he felt.

In essence, that’s what deep connection with a character is: writing the poetry our characters would write if they could. Their perspective, their voice. The confessions of another soul.

 

Comments 5

 
Stephen Evans on Tuesday, 14 July 2015 01:28

Very good examples. I thought.

Very good examples. I thought.
Ellen T. McKnight on Wednesday, 15 July 2015 17:22

Thank you, Stephen. I got a lot out of those books.

Thank you, Stephen. I got a lot out of those books.
Rosy Cole on Wednesday, 15 July 2015 17:13

This is so insightful, Ellen. A lovely post.

Rhythm is the key to life. Rhythm stirs fluency and belongs as much to prose as to poetry. It puts its finger on the pulse of a situation and is revealing in terms of inspiration to the author and of understanding to the reader.

In good (creative) writing, there is a rhythm, a modulation, in prose that belongs to the narrator and the subject, and one that belongs to each of the characters.

Sometimes, the ability to empathise deeply with characters' situations is distrusted by critics if an author's voice changes with different kinds of work. But we are mediums, interpreters, hopefully with a fair degree of language facility. We may plan and structure our stories, much like an architect a building, but the greater part of writing isn't down to any calculation of the mind. It comes from listening and immersing ourselves in the scenario we're working on. That we draw on experience, if not directly, has to be cathartic and is better therapy than chronicling our woes!

Thank you!

By the way, Virginia Woolf changed my life!

This is so insightful, Ellen. A lovely post. Rhythm is the key to life. Rhythm stirs fluency and belongs as much to prose as to poetry. It puts its finger on the pulse of a situation and is revealing in terms of inspiration to the author and of understanding to the reader. In good (creative) writing, there is a rhythm, a modulation, in prose that belongs to the narrator and the subject, and one that belongs to each of the characters. Sometimes, the ability to empathise deeply with characters' situations is distrusted by critics if an author's voice changes with different kinds of work. But we are mediums, interpreters, hopefully with a fair degree of language facility. We may plan and structure our stories, much like an architect a building, but the greater part of writing isn't down to any calculation of the mind. It comes from listening and immersing ourselves in the scenario we're working on. That we draw on experience, if not directly, has to be cathartic and is better therapy than chronicling our woes! Thank you! By the way, Virginia Woolf changed my life!
Ellen T. McKnight on Wednesday, 15 July 2015 17:25

Thanks, Rosy. You put it so well. We also share a love of Virginia Woolf. She opened my eyes to a new way of seeing.

Thanks, Rosy. You put it so well. We also share a love of Virginia Woolf. She opened my eyes to a new way of seeing.
Rosy Cole on Wednesday, 05 August 2015 11:09

There's a new drama running here, Life In Squares, about the Bloomsbury Group. It's fantastically well done, atmospheric, and strikes as truthful. The camera lighting itself adds volumes.

The overriding impression I've taken from it, more than I remember from books about the characters, is what an overwhelming presence Virginia's sister, Vanessa, was. Her seemingly passive influence flows through, and swirls around, them all, holding them together like some liberated matriarch, at the same time, inspiring them to explore everything within themselves and risk the dangers. Despite their tremendous achievements, particularly Virginia's, they appear incredibly lost. But I suppose that's an apt metaphor for life itself.

There's a new drama running here, [i]Life In Squares[/i], about the Bloomsbury Group. It's fantastically well done, atmospheric, and strikes as truthful. The camera lighting itself adds volumes. The overriding impression I've taken from it, more than I remember from books about the characters, is what an overwhelming presence Virginia's sister, Vanessa, was. Her seemingly passive influence flows through, and swirls around, them all, holding them together like some liberated matriarch, at the same time, inspiring them to explore everything within themselves and risk the dangers. Despite their tremendous achievements, particularly Virginia's, they appear incredibly lost. But I suppose that's an apt metaphor for life itself.
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