Prose writers of worlds unite
As prose writers we need to become adept at developing absorbing storylines, blending action and narrative, fleshing out characters, plotting their rise or downfall, architecting large worlds, interweaving subplots, layering subtext, while maintaining reader interest. (Phew! that’s a lot to be keeping track of.) But, sometimes all of this distracts us from something important: language itself.
If our stories represent some kind of internal cityscape we seek to bring alive, then language are the bricks and mortar. They are the basic components we use to put everything together. Some writers prefer to use these in a utilitarian way—minimal, unadorned facades, nothing fancy—such as Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. On the other end of the spectrum, there are others who like to embellish and decorate. They create great looming towers of prose that shimmer and shine. They enjoy the playfulness of language, such writers include Salman Rushdie and Umberto Eco.
By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.
— Cormac McCarthy,
A book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements and clumsy hands. So the librarian protects the books not only against mankind but also against nature and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion.
— Umberto Eco,
McCarthy uses a simile to succinctly compare the sun circling the earth to a ‘grieving mother with a lamp’, and therefore giving the reader a sense of loss and gloom (literal and figurative). Eco uses a metaphor to comment on the book’s status as a living, ‘fragile creature’ which lives and breathes in the hands of readers. But which must be protected from the ravages of time, rodents, and clumsiness. (One could argue that ‘rodents’ itself is also a metaphor for a devourer who does not appreciate the true beauty of the book.)
Whether using simple or more complex prose, both writers have used unusual ways to describe familiar objects. This helps make the story more engaging by further stoking the reader’s imagination. It’s worth noting that similies are easier to understand, whereas metaphors usually require some abstract thought—so it’s best not to overuse them.
Clichés are not your friends
One of the major proponents of simplicity and clarity of language was George Orwell. In his essay, Politics and the English Language, Orwell recommended six rules for writing. The one we are most interested in here is the first one:
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Clichés are drab, everybody’s seen them before. If you want to make your world attractive to readers then you need to add in some unique features: statues and parks, distinctive buildings and bridges. Use words—your bricks and mortar—in inventive ways as McCarthy and Eco did.
I should say that it is permissible to use clichés in dialogue because that’s just how people talk, although do it sparingly. However, leave one hanging around in your prose and it’ll stick out like a sore thumb (see what I did there?)
In praise of poetry
Ray Bradbury in his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, advocates reading poetry:
Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand. And, above all, poetry is compacted metaphor or simile. Such metaphors, like Japanese paper flowers, may expand outward into gigantic shapes. Ideas lie everywhere through the poetry books, yet how rarely have I heard short story teachers recommending them for browsing.
― Ray Bradbury,
Reading poetry regularly helps avoid old and tired metaphors and similes. It helps bring your prose alive. Poetry compresses life, condenses images, it plays with sounds—plosives, assonance, consonance, alliteration, internal rhymes, half-rhymes; through it you learn to construct your own metaphors, and discover new similes that will set your prose apart and alive.
Recommended poetry collections
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table
— T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
I’ve written many times about T.S. Eliot. Eliot is highly regarded as one of the great modernisers of literature and a pioneer of free verse. I can’t recommend him enough. From the psychological roller coaster ride inside the mind of neurotic J. Alfred Prufrock; the heart-rending separation of the beautiful La Figlia Che Piange; the torment and damnation of The Hollow Men (hauntingly delivered by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now); the breath-taking, fragmented journey across centuries of hurt, loss, love, insanity, and spiritual destitution of The Waste Land; through to the redemption of the self, and the exploration of the nature of time of the Four Quartets. For me Eliot has it all. All of these poems are contained in the Collected Poems 1909–1962.
But I realise reading Eliot solely doesn’t give me a very wide palette. So I try to familiarise myself with the works of other poets.
Other collections I’ve enjoyed, and highly recommend are:
- John Berryman (1914–1972), 77 Dream Songs (surreal, passionate, pining)
- Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), Ariel (brutally honest, uncompromising)
- Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), The Flowers of Evil (sleazy, cynical savage, it brutally dragged poetry from the idyllic pastures of the Romantics into the depraved cities of modern life)
- Philip Larkin (1922–1985), High Windows (brimming with pathos, cynical and savage as Baudelaire, but with an air of restrained Britishness).
I’ve recently discovered the wonderful poems of Dame Edith Sitwell (1887–1964). Sitwell is an often forgotten poet of the early twentieth century, and is regarded as one of the first avant-garde poets. Her early poems are very lyrical, melodic, savage, and surreal with images full of laughter and pathos. Her later ones are more restrained, but no less evocative:
Huge is the sun of amethysts and rubies,
And in the purple perfumes of the polar sun
And homeless cold they wander.
But winter is the time for comfort, and for friendship,
From warmth and food—
And a talk beside a fire like the Midnight Sun
— Edith Sitwell, The Song of the Cold
Reading Sitwell, I get the impression she was having fun with language first and foremost—tearing and ripping and rearranging it; but also that she knew something of its magic that I have still yet to learn.
One book I always keep on my desk is the Faber Book of Modern Verse. It features over 400 pages of poems by more obscure as well as well-known English-speaking poets starting with Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) through to James Fenton (1949–). This is a great anthology to add to your book shelf, and for dipping into.
So it’s worth remembering that even if you are only interested in writing prose, reading (and remembering) poetry will give you a wider appreciation of sounds and images, it will engage your senses more. And most importantly, as a writer, it will help you construct beautiful, brutal, and unique metaphors and similes that will make your prose sing. Or if nothing else it will give you a break from thinking about narrative, plots, location, and characters for a while.
A selection of poems
Do you have any favourite poets or poetry collections? Do you also feel that reading poetry has also helped you as a prose writer? Or do you think poetry should have no bearing on prose writing? Let me know below.
Image credit: Álvaro Serrano via Unsplash