Prose as poetry inspiration
I read a lot more prose than I do poetry and often find it a better source of ideas for images and language than a lot of modern poetry, which often strikes me as kind of dull and mushy. An interesting exercise is to take a passage of prose that looks poetic and arrange it on the page as though it's a bit of free verse. By removing the subjectivity of your own work, this can be a good way of thinking about line breaks, rhythm, drama, etc.
For example, while re-reading Faulkner's famous story "The Bear" it struck me that just about every page held great poetry. Faulkner started out writing poetry so this probably isn't surprising. It's a long story and almost 20 pages before he gives us the protagonist kid's first glimpse of the legendary old bear of the title, but he doesn't disappoint. Here's one of my favorite passages laid out like a poem:
"It did not emerge, appear:
it was just there, immobile, fixed
in the green and windless noon’s
hot dappling, not as big
as he had dreamed it but as big
as he had expected,
against the dappled obscurity,
looking at him."
Your choice of line breaks may differ from mine and anyway they tend to disappear when a poem is read aloud, but can be useful as guides to the eye for emphasis or separating out things.
@phil-hess I love this idea, Phil--Great advice! I actually made an entirely new forum category to suit your post, "Cafe Conversation", where poets can leave insights and advice about the writing and publication process. I moved your post into that category. Thanks for the inspiration--this will probably be a popular category
This is an excellent idea! I often judge a novel by how lyrical it is. Line breaks are so essential in poetry and what you have accomplished with the Faulkner piece is eye-opening; is a poem unto itself:
noon's big big expected --
dimensionless obscurity --
THAT is the bear! Perfect choices!
I am the sponsor of the creative writing club at the high school where I teach and I would love to give this as an exercise for my student-writers. Full credit to Phil Hess (with your permission, of course.)
@jilly That's a wonderful idea--this would be an interesting exercise to show the how influential linebreaks can be to the overall tone and meaning of the piece. Especially with more ornate writers like Joseph Conrad or Oscar Wilde who have wonderfully dense and meticulous sentences that have always reminded me of poetry.
@phil-hess Thanks for sharing this advice, Phil. Looks like it was a hit!
@jilly: Sure, please use that example if you think they would have fun with it.
It might be interesting for many of us if you wrote a bit here about what students read these days, what they look for in prose and poetry. Song lyrics over poetry maybe? That sort of thing.
Thank you, Phil! Hmmm... interesting suggestion you make regarding student reading choices. I live in Florida and about half of my students are comprised of those fleeing Venezuela - those students are keenly interested in reading non-fictional texts that have some political or social import. In general, today's high school students (mine are all seniors) are drawn to lyrics because it incorporates music, production and performance. Spoken word poetry really revs them, for this same reason. With regards to reading and writing poetry, seven or eight years ago they all said they hated poetry, but the tide is turning. That, again, might be the influence of students from Latin America since poetry is more a part of their world.
@jilly: Wow, that's fascinating about your students and their preference for non-fiction. When I was their age I subsisted on a strict regimen of sci-fi.
Recently I've been re-reading some of the books I enjoyed in the past and this week read John Muir's A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. Are you familiar with that book? I wonder is that's something suitable for high school students.
This book is based on Muir's journal of his 1867 walk from Louisville to the Gulf. Much of it takes place in Florida as he walked from Fernandina to Cedar Keys via the railroad right-of-way since that was the only passable route at the time. One night he can't even find a dry spot to lie down - this is wet, flowery Florida, before it was drained.
The South in 1867 was full of displaced people, former slaves eking out an existence in the wilderness, "long-haired ex-guerillas" roaming the hills. He's always afraid of being robbed. Fortunately Muir carries nothing of value: his plant press, Milton's Paradise Lost, a New Testament, the poems of Robert Burns.
Muir is sometimes out of his element, almost a rube at times. An immigrant (Scotland) and a Northerner (Wisconsin, Indiana), he's never seen anyone dip tobacco, has never tasted pomegranate, is fearful of alligators.
And then he's a nature lover. I can't tell from the text if he's read Thoreau or Whitman yet, but he almost puts them to shame. His fellow humans are "creation's braggart lords"; in a war between "Lord Man" and wild beasts, he declares himself on the side of the bears. There's nature poetry on just about every page.
This is the Muir that no one seems to know anything about, the odd young man who hasn't yet been to California. A fascinating read and a glimpse of an almost science-fictional America.
I love the wildness of Muir! I'm familiar with that book but have never read it. I will put it on my short list based on your recommendation. Isn't there a category here in VB for recommendations of things to read? This post should go there so that more see your enthusiastic review.
Going from Fernandina over to Cedar Key would currently take one through scrub palms and cattle country, though it is close to the swampy areas of southern Georgia; basically the route of I-10. Being afraid of gators would not have made his trip a pleasant one and I look forward to reading about it. Do share other things you are reading as you go along, Phil!