As a poet and fiction writer, I am compelled to play with language as much as use it. And because I’m a poet as well as a prose writer, I’m conscious of the language I use serving the purpose of my meaning and pulling in my audience.
So many folks think they don’t like poetry because of what they were made to read in school, because they were made to decipher a poem’s meaning by figuring out what the poet meant and in what meter and measure he related that meaning. Some people think to write poetry is to rhyme–to rhyme in some doggerel fashion. That is, in fact, out of fashion except in the card section of Wal-Mart and Hallmark.
The workshop I’m teaching this September at Table Rock Writers Workshop is for both poets and fiction writers. It is about enriching language without coloring it purple. It is about finding ways to give your characters, settings, and sentences the attention they deserve. It is about how to use language to seduce your reader through sound and sight and those other three senses, employing strong syntax, and using just the words you need, in just the shape you need them.
When I think of my favorite poets, I think of how they tell a story in so few words. Each word matters, as in Frank X. Walker’s poems from his collection Black Box. In “My Poems Been Running They Mouths Again,” Walker writes about family and facing family after you’ve written about them, after your poems have told things your mama wouldn’t want told. (61)
you gotta be careful
what you say around children
‘cause they are guaranteed to repeat it
when company comes
my poems are like that
speak ya mind
pour outcha heart
on a page
within earshot of black alphabet words
and they will run and tell somebody
Or his poem “Curiosity” about the narrator’s first sexual experience with a generous and compassionate prostitute. (29) In the latter poem, because every word is perfect, in fifty-five words counting the title, the poet renders a whole night, two characters, several rites of passage, two kinds of climax, and the change necessary for this few lines to render the classic points of a story’s arc: trigger, quest, complication and surprise, climax, reversal, and new status quo.
In The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros creates a novel out of what are, at first appearance, vignettes, but are actually a series of narratives that work like prose poems, which link together to tell a story, like so many brush strokes in an impressionist’s painting. Here in this excerpt from the chapter entitled “Hips,” Cisneros renders a scene among young girls with the language, rhythm, and attention to metaphor and layered meaning of a poet.
I like coffee, I like tea.
I like the boys, and the boys like me.
Yes, no, maybe so. Yes, no, maybe so…
One day you wake up and they are there. Ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition. Ready to take you where?
They’re good for holding a baby when you’re cooking, Rachel says, turning the jump rope a little quicker. She has no imagination.
You need them to dance, says Lucy.
If you don’t get them you may turn into a man. Nenny says this and she believes it. She is this way because of her age.
That’s right I add before Lucy or Rachel can make fun of her. She is stupid alright, but she is my sister.
But most important, hips are scientific, I say repeating what Alicia already told me. It’s the bones that let you know which skeleton was a man’s when it was a man and which a woman’s.
They bloom like roses, I continue because it’s obvious I’m the only one who can speak with any authority: I have science on my side. The bones just one day open. Just like that. One day you might decide to have kids, and then where are you going to put them? Got to have room. Bones got to give. (49-50)
In his novel Mystic River, Dennis Lehane opens with sentences that drip with lyric specificity, defining not only the neighborhood and childhood of his characters, but defining his rich style as well. This opening paragraph could easily be broken into lines and stanzas and be made into a poem.
When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them. It became a permanent character of their clothes, the beds they slept in, the vinyl backs of their car seats. Sean’s kitchen smelled like a Fudgsicle, his bathroom like a Coleman Chew-Chew bar. By the time they were eleven, Sean and Jimmy had developed a hatred of sweets so total that they took their coffee black for the rest of their lives and never ate dessert. (3)
These are just a few examples I can pull from my shelf of books written by my favorite authors. It is my fascination with the power of language and image and metaphor that has led me to teach a workshop on this subject at Table Rock in September. In my class called “Poetry as Seduction,” I’ll be working with poets and prose writers as we concentrate on sentence or line to discover the potential for vivid and lyrical narrative, to find the most engaging way to tell their best stories, to examine the common ground of poetry and prose, and to demonstrate why each writer should cross genres as a practice, if only to enrich their chosen path. I hope to see some of you there around that table.