Thursday 7 May 2015

When the language flexes its muscles.

The other day I made a post about poetry that immediately gathered a bunch of comments that can be summarised by a single example. "I hate poetry." That particular comment was made by a prize-winning science fiction author whose d├ębut I enjoyed a few years back and who likes my own work a fair bit.

A lot of people say they hate poetry. That's fair enough - the school system bears a considerable responsibility for that. Nothing sucks the joy out of something like taking it apart, force-feeding the pieces to children, and requiring them to vomit them back out.

Poetry is a distillation, the highest concentration of linguistic content, and like all strong flavours it won't be for everyone at every stage in their life.

Another side of the coin of course is that many readers don't understand what poetic language is. They often don't know they're reading it, even as it affects them.

A well-know blogger who liked Prince of Thorns very much told me that he didn't think my prose was at all poetic. It turns out that to him poetic prose is prose with lots of curls and twiddles, prose with endless description, flowers and clouds a la Wordsworth's famous daffodils.

I do write poetic prose. No question about it. But I'm more of the Philip Larkin school. I also write actual poetry, but poetic prose is a different beast, it's poetry diluted to taste.

Poetic prose, done right, is about wringing more out of a single line.

There are currently 1066 individual quotes listed from my writing on Goodreads. Some of them because they tickled someone's funny-bone, or encapsulated a moment/character, but many because the poetry gives them power, makes them noticed.

The 4th most popular quote is an example:

There’s something brittle in me that will break before it bends.

It could easily have been: You can only push me so far before I snap. It does the same job. Nobody would ever have listed it as a quote, 369 people wouldn't have troubled to push 'like' on it, nobody would have remembered it.

There’s something brittle in me that will break before it bends.

is a poetic line - the alliteration, the cadence, the imagery ... all of it is the language flexing its muscles, getting inside your head, making the line matter.

They say that in a great book the language, the words, should be invisible, you should forget that you are reading. I both do and don't agree with that. You certainly shouldn't notice the language for any reason other than it does great things for you. From a story-teller's point of view you shouldn't notice it ever - but from a writer's point of view, it's OK to notice it occasionally - to be stopped by one line not because it's awkward or grating, but because it makes the hairs on the backs of your arms pay attention.

The blogger who thought my prose was not poetic had read this:

I tried to look at her. No point in her held constant. As if definition were a thing for mortals, a reduction that her essence would not allow. She wore pale, in shades. She had the eyes of everyone who ever cared. And wings – she had those too, but not in white and feathers, rather in the surety of flight. The potential of sky wrapped her. Sometimes her skin seemed to be clouds, moving one across the other. I looked away.

That practically is a poem.

So - you may say you don't like poetry, and perhaps even without a formal education you would have never taken to it, but don't close yourself off to the power of the language and the fact that as prose edges toward the poetic it says more with less. Books are about story, but they're also about words, and lines. Take a moment to appreciate the parts as well as the whole. Often they're the reason a passage or scene sticks with you your whole life.


When it comes to actual poetry in fantasy books - I'm less keen, partly because often it's bad poetry. I did feel though that some of the poems in Lord of the Rings added to it, specifically:

The Road Goes Ever On
All that is Gold does not Glitter
The World was young in Durin's day

I also liked from The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant this cheerful ditty that sets the tone:

These are the pale death
Which men miscall their lives:
for all the scents of green things growing,
each breathe is but an exhalation of the grave.
Bodies jerk like puppet corpses,
And hell walks laughing -

And from Stephen King's IT this haiku:

Your hair is winter fire
January embers
My heart burns there, too.


  1. This is so interesting... If pressed, I would fall on the camp of those who say they don't like poetry, yet I love poetic prose, poetic language within a book. In my world, I call it "making art with words", and not many can do that well: you, 100%.

  2. Honestly, I think why most people hate poetry is because most poetry doesn't evoke anything and is mostly crap. It is an ultimate fail, for me at least (and I am not saying what I describe next does not have its place too), for a poet to think that poetry needs to be convoluted and "unclear as to what the author meant". For me, good poetry should always be very clear in its meaning, it says what it has to say so well, that it is the clearest it can get. That is why your kind of poetry works, its general and ultimate clarity shows the nature of things as they are, and does not veil them in a convoluted mess.

  3. Your poetic prose can be powerful, and memorable indeed, Mark.

  4. Case in point:

    "From a story-teller's point of view you shouldn't notice it ever - but from a writer's point of view, it's OK to notice it occasionally - to be stopped by one line not because it's awkward or grating, but because it makes the hairs on the backs of your arms pay attention."

    THIS. ^^^^ I don't usually go for books with a high body count. If it hadn't been recommended to me, I probably would have seen all the skeletons on the front cover of "Prince of Thorns" and placed it back on the library shelf thank-you-very-much.

    But it was recommended, so I opened and began to read...

    And the hairs on the backs of my arms paid attention. I kept reading, and my brain latched onto the words with a tenacity that belied the gratuitous violence and the brazen approach of a fourteen-year-old kid who knows sixteen ways to torture a man, and would put his dagger into a man's eyeball on a pure whim. Having just emerged from the "typical" dystopian series that featured young teens killing each other for entertainment (and all the hue and cry raised over that) one might consider a character like Jorg as more of the same--

    But in truth, it was the language that fired all my senses and set the Broken Empire books in a class transcending all the "mundane" dystopian literature; it was the unfolding of a world that was so very different yet traitorously familiar, using words and references that I recognized, mixed with metaphors that made me literally sit up and take notice, combing through each phrase carefully as understanding dawned...

    And overall, I came away with a new appreciation and sense of appraisal for the world I observed. This is why the Thorn Trilogy is numbered among the best books I have ever read: not because I enjoy gore and violence, but because instead of drawing me away from my real-world life, the poignant use of conscientious prose prompted me deeper into understanding it. (Favorite quote of Ray Bradbury, from "Farenheit 451", which is another book that I enjoyed more for the thoughts it evoked than the actual story: "Good writers touch life often..." In other words, the best books come from writers who keep themselves acutely aware of reality, and fashion their fiction from there... at least, that's how I understand it...)

    The obviously deliberate use of language blew my mind every time. I love it when that happens.

  5. Mark: "The Broken Empire" trilogy is generally described as fantasy, with a tacit understanding that it is prose. I have a different viewpoint, which I have expressed before, and this seems an appropriate time to reiterate it. I consider "The Broken Empire" to be fantasy, science fiction, horror, and literary fiction all at once, but more importantly, I also consider it to be both prose and poetry, or if you prefer, poetic prose and prose poetry (calling it prosaic poetry might be misunderstood). As you slyly point out, poetry and prose as categories are not so clearly differentiable. To many, free verse looks like prose, and prose full of rhetorical devices looks like poetry. Thus, many will also miss that you swim in space while also floating in time. It's all relative.

  6. I think saying you don't like poetry is like saying you don't like food because you once ate some eggs that didn't agree with you, so you decided to give up on eating as a bad job.

    I am definitely one of the people who was somewhat put off poetry at school. I think a large part of the reason is because the poetry we were forced to read wasn't saying anything that meant anything to me. The one that always stuck out to me was a poem explaining how love is like an onion. I don't remember much about the actual poem, presumably it has a great deal of artistic merit, but I remember thinking "so poetry is basically this thing were you take a simple concept and wrap it up in an elaborate metaphor to show off how clever you are" and that just wasn't for me, especially as the subject matter we were reading about just had no relevance or meaning for my life, making it pretty much impossible to connect with the material.

    GCSE English put me off poetry for years until I was introduced to a poem called We Wear the Mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar which really resonated with me. From there I started to come across more poems that actually grabbed me and showed me what the form could be used for, including a lot of performance poetry and, although I can't pretend to be a huge poetry fan now, I do at least understand that poetry is as varied and valuable as people chose to make it.

    With regards to poetic prose, I occupy broadly the same territory as you. If every line was self consciously poetic I think I would soon lose the flow of the story amongst the prose as it would be slightly too much effort to take in and damage the flow. However, well-executed Orwellian prose interjected with moments of poetry to help a thought or instance stand out and stick in the mind works very well for me.

  7. Mark, your work is proof that stories about love-struck artists and Victorian chamber maids do not have a monopoly on well-crafted, thoughtful poetic prose. You shun flowery words in favor of thorny prose. That, to me, makes all the difference. Flowers smell sweet, but the thorns dig deep under the skin, leaving marks that stay with you long after you've pulled them away.

    One last note: My teenage sons also love your work. They generally don't read for pleasure, but are very thoughtful. Your work is the only fiction they read voluntarily. They particularly enjoy telling me about the great quotes they 'find' in your books. Thank you for that.

  8. Unfortunately, as with many things, people approach poetry with entrenched perceptions most of which are negative. I think the difference between straightforward and literal prose and poetic prose is that the latter can require more patience and approaches ideas on many levels at the same time. The possible difference between poetic prose and actual poetry is even more patience and economy, but the exercise of patience reaps even greater rewards. Poetry is an amazing vehicle for expressing things that are not easily shared. Poetry can be circuitous, cryptic or ambiguous not for the purpose of obfuscation but because the very attempt at expression is fraught with difficulty. Poetry in all its forms, including poetic prose, is perhaps the most expressive, meaningful language.

  9. This is, by far, the biggest reason your work resonated with me as soon as I started reading the Prince of Thorns! I love poetry (I recommend that you pick up "Poems That Make Grown Men Cry" and "Poems That Make Grown Women Cry"). I have mostly written poetry and have done so since early in high school. Once I was introduced to fantasy (and a bit of sci-fi writing), I become engrossed in a new world of books and love for characters. I am so thankful to have found your writing, words, language, and beauty dance out of your work! A sweet marriage of poetry and prose consummates.

  10. My experience as someone teaching literature at the college level is that most students come scarred by the approach to poems that treat them like puzzles that must be solved with the “correct” answer or interpretation, as if there could be only one proper response. Many of them feel liberated when I tell them I’m not interested in the correct answer but rather by what the poems — and their individual words — evoke in them.