Intentionality of words is something poets speak of often and value highly. And I think us authors of prose should attempt to cultivate the same efforts of word-smithery. For a poet, each word and grammatical mark – even individual letters sometimes – carries the potential to affect the entire poem and the way a reader views or hears it. Part of the poet’s genius is in the sound manipulations he or she can create in the reader’s ears.
But can prose manage that?
Considering length it would be difficult to contribute that much care to each mark on the page as many poets do. But what about some of the longer epic poetry like “Paradise Lost” or “The Divine Comedy” (see also “Beowulf,” “things by Homer,” “Canterbury Tales,” “The Waste Land”…) Some of these are probably longer than the last book you read.
I’m not saying that most authors of prose literature don’t toil over each word with care, but, of course, how could authors like Stephen King write 50 pages a day if he taxed his efforts and time with how best to craft each sentence? Edgar Allen Poe said of short fiction, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” This sounds a lot like what the poet tries to accomplish in verse, but nothing of the sort is said of longer works of prose.
Unfortunately, this is the same man who wrote, “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity,” which is mildly concerning, but we were already concerned.
And in any case, readers don’t read prose like they do poetry. They skim, glide, peruse to take in the joy-ride of the story. Don’t they?
Maybe that’s because too many books these days are written like movie scripts. Who’s to say some of them weren’t written in the hopes they could become movies? In a brief debate about writing I had with an acquaintance a week ago, I was told flatly that I shouldn’t bother spending the time to find the perfect wording since people who read books don’t read every word, and my efforts would be squandered because of that. He didn’t believe me when I said that I do read every word…unless the book is poorly written, and it’s not worth reading every word…which is why people skim.
He didn’t believe me, so I told him that I’d rather not squander my skills, but instead I’d waste all my precious time and try. Then I added (somewhat spitefully) that he must never have read a well-written book in his life, and he should go immerse himself in Steinbeck (ok, I thought of that last bit later and wish I had said it). That was the end of the conversation, but it brought me to this intentionality-of-words obsession, which further fueled my love of poetry, and finally brought me to a conclusion…
Authors of prose have quite a lot to learn from poets. We should even practice poetry on occasion for the health of our talent. Why? Because the really good books do get read word for word. There’s no other way to read them. Every word, every line demands the attention it’s due and contributes to the full work – mood, story, and character.
Sure, I’m bias by a dose of idealism and a spoonful of romanticism (which actually makes the medicine come back up), but writing is still an art despite the best efforts of money and media. And poetry doesn’t have to be the highest form of that art when the prosers take extra good care of their words. The two are separated by little more than the mentality and claim of the writer in the first place.
After all, where do you draw the line between poetry and prose? Take a look at multiple award-winner, James Tate who writes poems like “Man with Wooden Leg Escapes Prison,” and puzzle over that for the rest of your day.
Man with wooden leg escapes prison. He’s caught.
They take his wooden leg away from him. Each day
he must cross a large hill and swim a wide river
to get to the field where he must work all day on
one leg. This goes on for a year. At the Christmas
Party they give him back his leg. Now he doesn’t
want it. His escape is all planned. It requires
only one leg.