Monday, 6 January 2014

Poetry and/or prose

I cycle past the little window of a whitewashed cottage on the way to work. I can never see inside. One summer's day the window was open. I heard a lady sneeze and a piano reverberate.

I've several snippets like this in my notebook. The underlying notion of this piece - something hidden becoming known in an unexpected way - can be exploited in a poem. E.g.

  • Tighten the language, throw in some linebreaks and with a hint in the title, present it as a little Imagist poem. Maybe like this
    One morning, cycling past the little cottage
    that I can never see inside, I hear a
    woman sneeze, a piano reverberate.
    (the syllabics are a bonus)
  • Juxtapose a second stanza to the Imagist poem - maybe about discovering an old friend or colleague's secret - leaving the reader to find the common factor.
  • Make the anecdote the heart of a longer, more leisurely poem, the description embellished (flowers in the windowbox, the uneven walls, the small panes of glass in black frames, how all I could see through the window is the back window) and the analogy explained.

Alternatively I could slip it innocuously into the start of a story, then make the character refer back to it, perhaps getting the character to explain the analogy to him/herself as a way to interpret some other episode, some uncovered revelation.

When people read short stories I doubt whether many of them would enjoy an embedded anecdote like this as much as they would enjoy the poem, even though the story might contain several such poems. To claim that the story option is better - or at least, less lazy, less of a cop-out - is as silly as saying that the Beatles should have made the "Yesterday" melody into a symphony rather than a 2' 06" track. That said, "Yesterday" is rather short.

Fortunately, the decision needn't be made. I could write both a story and a poem. It's a ploy used by Jim Murdoch too - at least 5 ideas from his poem collection This is not about what you think have another outing in his novel Living with the Truth.

I think one could extract many "found poems" from novels. I suspect many paragraphs (especially final ones) could be adapted. Consider this, from "Flight Behaviour" by Barbara Kingsolver

At the upper east corner of the field they began to make their way down along the property line between their pasture and the Cooks' dead orchard. The skeletal peach trees in their rows leaned into the slope with branches upstretched like begging hands. Casualties of the strange weather. The window in Preston and Cordie's room looked out on these trees, and for a while she'd kept the curtains drawn, it was so depressing. (p.355)

This is clearly from a novel rather than a short story. It could be made into a poem

Beyond our garden, a dead orchard.
I close the curtains of our child's bedroom
so he won't stare out too long.


  1. I’ve always been very conscious that my writing has a limited audience, Tim. I never deliberately set out to incorporate my poems in the novel but I found the novel was covering similar ground and I couldn’t think of better ways to say what I’d said so why not use excerpts from poems? I quote from them often. It puzzles me that more writers don’t quote themselves. A few years ago I put out a request for personal quotes to use in an article—these were e-mails, not simply a general request in a blog post or on Facebook—and I got one taker. I really was honestly flabbergasted. If you look on my website every page has a wee quote in the top right hand corner. When you think of most poems what comes to mind? Not the whole thing, just a few words like “nursing her wrath to keep it warm” (‘Tam o’Shanter) or “Not with a bang but a whimper” (‘The Hollow Men’). I think I’ve said things every bit as memorable. I don’t think it’s arrogant to say that. I’ve been writing for forty year. If I hadn’t said something memorable in all that time I would worry.

  2. Agreed. Even if self-quoting's seen as self-marketing, that's no worse than name-dropping. And there are lots of gems embedded in stories, if one reads slowly enough.