Oh look, it’s one of those things where a load of bloggers write responses to each other’s posts! Kind of. John Hansen wrote a post about not having a lyrical style, whereas Liam wrote one countering it saying that you can learn to do that. I in turn wrote a comment on Liam’s blog that I’m now turning into an entire blog post. Hopefully.
You see, I think having a lyrical style or whatever is less about writing and more the observations that led to the poetry / poetic prose in the first place. Like art, where drawing is about depth perception and perspective more than about moving the pencil on the page, there’s a certain element to it that some people don’t have. You can teach someone to move a pencil, for example: I’ve done some beautiful calligraphy in my time. But I can’t perceive depth and I find it almost impossible to draw 3D objects. Likewise, you can teach someone how to express ideas, but you can’t teach them to have the ideas in the first place.
I don’t entirely know how to explain what I mean about this, but there are sort of levels to description. When you’re writing poetry, or writing poetic / lyrical prose, you work on a different level than when you’re writing more functional prose designed to be a window to the plot rather than a particular feature in its own right.
Where I live there are autumn leaves everywhere and my college is very autumnal in appearance, so we’ll use that as an example.
Functional prose would probably say something like, “The grass was covered in fallen leaves.” Simple, ordinary, gets the point across. We can see it. This is, of course, a massively simple way to look at it: the functional prose writer might show the character wading through drifts of leaves, or jumping on some particularly crunchy ones, rather than just describing the grass, but we’re going to take these basic descriptive approaches because it’s easier to show the contrast.
Imagine it’s a line from a poem. The grass is covered in fallen leaves. Simple.
Then, on the next level, you begin to make it more complex. Often, this is about changing the verb to imply something more than just ‘covered’. If we used littered here, it sounds casual, almost wasteful, whereas blanketed gives it a sense of nature enveloping the world. Fallen could be replaced with dead or flame-coloured.
So now we have the grass is littered with dead leaves or perhaps there is a blanket of flame-coloured leaves over the grass. The second of these examples already begins to sound more poetic (and in some ways, more pretentious, but hey, it’s poetry. You have to suspend your awareness of pretentious writing for at least the first draft, right?).
Then I think a big part of writing in a poetic manner, or writing poetry itself, is about drawing unexpected links and creating associations that people wouldn’t have thought of immediately, which is the hardest part. Autumn leaves, fire… it’s kind of a common association, isn’t it? So to make it profound and poetic, you have to think of something more unusual. My mind leapt to bronze, and from there to ancient weaponry, associating the idea with the Bronze Age and Greek warriors. I’m not sure how I’m going to link this to leaves yet, but I’m working on it. It’s an idea.
Still, I’m not sure how I’m going to use it yet, so maybe I should thinking of some other examples. Leaves are rotting when they’re on the ground, which could be an idea I could draw into it if I wanted to create a melancholy or uncomfortable mood in this description. Or they can be crackling and sharp, which can give a brighter impression. Do I want them sodden after October rains, or crunching under the feet of anyone who walks by?
And they’re covering the grass, yeah, but that very much makes it about the leaves. Why are we mentioning the grass in the first place? Do we need to say that they’re on the grass? What impression does it give that the living grass is hidden under the dead leaves? Why is that important to that description?
You start drawing all these threads together and you get a new sentence: the grass drowns under rotting bronze-armoured bodies, fallen around their oaken commander. Okay, that’s ridiculous pretentious, but you can already see how we’ve drawn associations from the original idea of fallen leaves to create a more abstract idea. We’ve turned an autumnal scene into an Homeric battlefield, which is a pretty far cry away from the original. Works fine for poetry itself.
And with poetry you can go further. Start taking words out, substituting verbs for ones where the meaning is not entirely appropriate but which sound nice. (I like to talk about emotions sparking inside people, and I have a weird obsession with the verb ‘slice’.) Make it abstract. Add line breaks. If you’re me, decide that capital letters are pointless and ignore them.
october battlefield with bodies
in bronze, in wet, rotting
as rain drives them deeper:
consumed into the mulch,
life-givers to grass green.
In prose it can be harder to do this. You might wish you’d stopped at level two, where you were just beginning to make things poetic. That’s a totally legit thing to do. (Prose should never, in my opinion, be as obscure and full of symbolism as poetry, but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring.)
It’s at this point, with prose, that I’d probably start thinking more about emotional associations too. Since prose is mostly narrative, whereas poems can simply be capturing a moment (although I’m not saying you don’t get narrative poetry), you’ll often have characters, and they’re the ones who will shape the associations you draw with dead leaves. They’re going to see imagery in that. Whether they see the leaves rotting like death or whether they notice that they’re fertilising the ground below says a lot about the character as a person.
The fields are sodden and on fire. Autumn has crept up on the city while Isabel was away, and now the trees have shed skin as bright as Samantha’s hair, carpeting the ground with a damp mulch that clings to her shoes as she slips and wades her way across.
There are poetic elements here, but the sentence doesn’t read like overwrought description (I hope). For example, the idea that the leaves are the “skin” of the tree is not a straightforward descriptive phrase. However, I made it about how Isabel perceives things — the leaves are the colour of somebody’s hair, the seasons have changed while she wasn’t there, they’re making it difficult for her to get where she needs to go — and as a result, it reads more as a commentary on her thoughts than a simple description of the scene.
Um. This post kind of deviated from what it was originally going to be about, so I’ll just sum up what I was trying to say.
There are different levels to description. Anyone can imitate any of these levels. In the simplest terms, they’re about how you put words on the page. I can choose to describe leaves as compost or as Greek soldiers, and they’re still both coming from my head. The part that’s personal is the association I drew between them and Bronze Age warriors. The thing that makes a poem is the thinking that triggers the description more than the description itself.
In one of my poems from Crossroads Poetry I described scars as “Ogham inscriptions”, because that’s an association I made between straight lines and ancient writings. The poetry wasn’t in the words I used to say that, but in the link I made in the first place.
Does that make sense? I’m really not sure I’m making sense. Feel free to tell me I’m being an idiot and that my prose is dumb and overblown or whatever.