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Whether Prose or Poetry

Does every writer, regardless of genre, have an urge to dabble in poetry? Does the ebb and flow of syllabic rhythm entice the essayist to pay more attention to the lyricism of her own work? Is there a true difference between the cadence of a lovely line of poetry and a well-crafted sentence that leads the reader into the first paragraph of a novel?

Brooks Landon, non-fiction writer and professor at the University of Iowa, believes that all writing can benefit from understanding how sentences operate. He says:

“Sentences are shaped by specific context and driven by specific purpose, so no rules or mechanical protocols can prepare us for the infinite number of tasks our sentences must accomplish.”

By the time I got through half of his course, I understood his meaning. I could no longer look at something written and see only the story that the words conveyed. Suddenly I noticed the length of sentences, the patterns used in assembling them, and the syntax of each segment comprising them.

I also understood that poetry, for all of its forms and eccentricities, was no different from prose in its syntax and overall structure. I’ll give you an example. A couple of years ago, I wrote a small piece of creative non-fiction for specific audience. I then translated that piece into poetry, just to see if the piece suffered any ill-effects. You tell me whether I succeeded in making both versions work.

The creative non-fiction piece goes like this:

THE MOONLIGHT DANCE

Moonlight flows across the lawn’s clear center, chasing larger shadows and forming a stage with spotlight. Rustling sounds emerge from the right, loud enough to grab the attention of a watcher. Into the spotlight amble four ebony bodies. Each sports a broad white stripe.

The largest of the troupe leads the single line of dancers into position. They pause. Noses rise to sniff the cool night air. Tongues flick in and out to taste that same air.

Faint chattering escapes young throats.

Chorus dancers, small and new, follow the lead of the diva, their mother. One faint command releases them for movement. Slow revolutions begin counter-clockwise.

One. Two. Three. The line pauses.

Each nose rises to sniff the air. Tongues flick out to taste. Another faint command comes from the leader.

Again they move.

The diva pivots in place to face the line. Each small dancer echoes the movement. Slow revolutions clockwise.

One. Two. Three. The line pauses.

The command voice changes to a more enticing note. The ritual is repeated by the troupe. Counter-clockwise followed by clockwise. After three full ritual dances, the troupe stops as precisely as it began.

A low crooning issues from the diva to her dancers, and they amble off into the shadows to disappear into the night. The watcher stands entranced and questioning. Why did they dance? Had anyone else ever seen such skunk behavior?

The poetic form came out as follows:

MOONLIGHT DANCE

 

Moonlight flows across lawn’s clear center,

chasing larger shadows to form a stage with spotlight.

Rustling sounds emerge from the right,

loud enough to snag a watcher’s attention.

 

Into the spotlight four dark bodies amble,

each sporting a broad white stripe.

The troupe’s largest leads a single

line of dancers into position.

 

They pause, noses rise to sniff cool night air.

Tongues flick in and out tasting a slight breeze.

Faint chattering escapes young throats.

 

Chorus dancers–small, new–follow their diva mother.

One faint command releases them for movement.

Slow revolutions, counter-clockwise, begin.

One. Two. Three. The line pauses.

 
Each nose rises to sniff the air.

Tongues flick out to taste.

Another faint command issues from leader’s throat.

Again they move as diva pivots to face the line.

 

Each small dancer echoes her movement.

Slow revolutions clockwise.

One. Two. Three. The line pauses.

 

The command voice changes to enticing note.

The ritual resumes. Counter-clockwise

followed by clockwise.

After three full ritual dances,

 

The troupe stops as precisely as it began.

Low crooning issues from the diva to her dancers.

They amble off to disappear into night’s shadows.

The watcher stands entranced, questioning.

 

Why did they dance?

Had anyone ever seen such skunk behavior?

Who’s to believe such beauty and grace?

                     *  *  *  *

The prose version came together in only 257 words. The poem took considerably less due to formatting and condensed lyric needs. Whether either piece could win a prize is irrelevant.

How each form uses semantics and sentence structure does matter. Reversal of word position in the poetic form allowed for smoother sound, which all poetry needs. It allowed, also, for fewer words needed to express the image. The prose form could be tightened further to reduce word count and increase lyric line without losing either semantics or syntax.

The experience both versions speak to is the same. The flavor of each is similar to the other. The cadence is different in verse form than in prose. In essence, they are identical in content.

What does this have to do with sentence structure? If you look closely at each verse of the poem, you will find sentences; sentences stripped down to their skivvies. Approximately forty words disappeared from prose to verse, by which the image was tightened, accentuated, and given form.

By shifting word and phrase placement, meaning takes on new power and new life, which is something Landon emphasizes in his course work. Writing needs both to captivate the reader and to give pleasure over time.

Whether prose or poetry, each takes its meaning from the words used to form it. Verse exists in a sparer form than prose, without losing meaning. It relies on the reader to fill in mentally the small, extraneous words. Prose takes a different, lengthier, route of expression.

Different routes, same story, shaved sentences; all of these develop a writer’s colorful palette during the creative process.

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  1. Me
    March 3, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    I like this! I often wonder if some of the things I write have a lyrical, poetry sound to them. But since I’m not technically a “poet” I haven’t tried to transition my writing to that side yet. I may try it one of these days. 🙂
    -Michele

    • claudsy
      March 3, 2012 at 5:32 pm

      Hey, Me. I learned early on that the only way to know if something is written right is to read it aloud. The ear will tell you what your eyes can’t recognize. It helps find all those awkward phrases, points of confusion, etc.

      It also allows you to hear the cadence of your words. I will warn you that the habit flows over onto everything you read. If you find yourself reading your emails aloud, you’ll know you’ve arrived at the habit stage and it will never be completely broken.

      I’ve come to the stage where I read aloud all the words I’m typing onto the screen, before the keys get punched.

      Good luck with the trip you’re taking. Enjoy the ride. The scenery’s worth the effort of the drive.

      Claudsy

  2. March 3, 2012 at 8:36 pm

    Excellent advice. I could certainly benefit from thinking this way before editing. Then perhaps editing wouldn’t hurt so much. Thanks for sharing.

    • claudsy
      March 3, 2012 at 11:27 pm

      Thank you, Kim. Glad you could find something useful in the post.

      Claudsy

  3. claudsy
    March 3, 2012 at 11:25 pm

    Thanks for the pingback, Malena.

  1. March 3, 2012 at 10:18 pm

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