Writing Excuses 16.14: Poetic Language
Key Points: What do we mean by poetic language? Really beautifully prepared sushi, I slow down. Reading poetry, reading well-done purple prose, these give a similar experience. Dense, compressed, oblique. A glancing blow to reality. Sentences, or phrases, that are beautiful without context. Negative space. Word choice and sounds. Production of an effect. Think of spectra, sparse to lush, opaque to clear, simple to ornate, which can be used with any sentence or use of language.
[Season 16, Episode 14]
[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Poetic Language.
[Dan] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Amal] I’m Amal.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Mary Robinette] Were going to be talking about poetic language this time. Amal has… The starting question on her outline is, “What do we mean by this?” So, tell us, what do we mean by poetic language?
[Amal] I was going to throw that to you, but actually…
[Amal] I’m going to start with a tiny anecdote, which is, I am… I’m always… So, I have this book that I cowrote with my dear friend, Max Gladstone. The book is called This Is How You Lose the Time War. It’s a time traveling superspies write to each other letters and falling love sort of book. It’s very simple, very straightforward, obviously. But the… I’ve often seen people react to this book by saying, “Oh, the language of it is so poetic. It’s like reading poetry.” I’m always really interested by the people who say that as a feature and those who say that as a bug. I wanted to kind of ask you when… Like, if you were to read something and say that, “Oh, this is such poetic language,” what would you tend to mean by that?
[Howard] If you sit me in front of a really, really beautifully prepared with complementing flavors all the way through it plate of sushi, I know to slow down. If I’m at the all-you-can-eat sushi place, I’m just going to pack it in at the rate that feels comfortable for me.
[Mary Robinette] As fast as those little boats come by.
[Howard] As fast as those little boats come by. There is an experience to reading a poem and it is an experience that is not at all dissimilar to reading… I’m going to say purple prose, but I don’t mean purple in the bad way. To reading really beautifully crafted poetic in nature prose. The experiences similar for me and that I am slowing down and I am savoring every breath. I am reading it as if I were speaking it. Whereas if it’s not poetic, I am reading it in quadrants as my brain sucks up blocks of text from the page.
[Dan] So, I love that. This idea that there’s… That poetry can be… Poetic language is much more dense, that it can contain a lot of meaning compressed into a smaller area. I… But correlated with that is… I always consider poetic language to be a little more oblique. Roger Miller, who’s a folksinger and a songwriter, he said that, “While… Music doesn’t approach things head on, a song is a glancing blow to reality.” I love that phrase. It… I’m going to tell a little story here. I’m going to take a little bit of time. Generally considered to be one of, if not the very greatest writer of haiku of all time, was a Japanese poet named Basho. He would write these incredible things in this very small, very evocative poetic form. One of the ways that haiku used to be used, and possibly still is, but… At least back in the day, when Basho was around, is it was a game. People would sit around, often in a tavern, and write haiku about a topic. This story is about one night when they said the topic was the full moon. So everybody went around in a circle and they gave their little haiku about how the full moon is very bright or whatever. Then you get to Basho. He starts by saying, “The new moon…” They’re all like, “Dude! You got that wrong. We’re talking about the full moon right now.” He says, “Let me finish.” His haiku is this.
The new moon
Two weeks I have waited.
But, ah, tonight.
That isn’t directly about the full moon, but it packs so much meaning in there. It is so dense with imagery, and with this evocative emotion to it, that it is completely about the full moon anyway. I love that, and I love the way that poetic language is able to give that kind of glancing blow to reality, while still conveying this immense backlog of information and emotion.
[Amal] That is so beautiful.
[Mary Robinette] It really is, and interestingly, the exact opposite of where I would have gone.
[Dan] Well, that makes it even better. Let’s hear what you were going to say.
[Mary Robinette] Because… I was sitting there thinking specifically when I am reading prose, what is it that makes me go, “Oh, this language is poetic.” For me, it is language that is beautiful even without context. Like the… One of the… One of my favorite very dead writers is a woman named Myrtle Reed who was writing prose in the early… Like 1907. She talks about someone who is arriving at this house, and that the… Oh, I’ve forgotten. Oh, there’s a word that has just gone out of my brain completely. But the porch was the unhappy afterthought of an architect. It’s just like that’s just so lovely and evocative. But without any other context. Like, that can stand on its own, and be a lovely thing by itself. That, for me, is, I think, part of it when I think about hitting poetic language in a novel. It’s that the lines contain a… I want to say grace. Beauty is not quite right, either. But there is a… They exist on their own, on their own merit. They have a shape to themselves that exists that does not need other context. Whereas… Like, when you read Where the Wild Things Are, which is wonderful, you get to that last line which is so beautiful and so evocative, “And it was still hot.” It needs context in order to understand why that is a beautiful thing.
[Amal] Oh, my gosh. I love both these answers so much because they… I mean, they… I feel like they touch on the kind of spectrum that I really would like to think about in terms of poetic language. But you… So what Dan was talking about feels like… There you’re describing poetry playing with negative space. Right? Like what Basho was doing there is… A bit like the way Mary Robinette talks about puppetry, and about the sort of the… I can’t remember if this was you who said this or if this was… Oh, no, snuffleupagus. Martin…
[Mary Robinette] Marty.
[Amal] Yes. Thank you. But you said like the poet… The poet? The poem… The puppet. Poem and puppet, basically the same.
[Mary Robinette] Same thing.
[Amal] But, yeah, the puppet is half alive, and it’s given like half its life by the audience and half by the puppeteer? I feel like this, what you’re describing in Basho’s poem, Dan, is that the poem is half there and the rest of it is made up by the audience. So… That is so much of the way that haiku functions, that it is sort of pinging on… A little bit the way that I remember seeing an abstract painting, and the way that this painting functioned was partly by making you aware of the afterimages that it left on your eyes when you closed your eyes. I think that poetry and poetic language can absolutely do that, and play with that, that negative space. Mary Robinette, what you were describing instead is like the completeness of a line of prose… Of a line of… Just a sentence in a novel that can stand on its own and give you a complete emotional experience. Just that line, taken out of its context. I think that that is a lot of the time the way that we interact with text. That that is a line that is singing all of a sudden.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah.
[Amal] That you’re giving your attention to it in a way that you would give to a performer or a performance, in a way that is different, that isn’t connected to other things. So, I love these answers, because a lot of the time when someone talks about language as being poetic, they are defaulting towards an assumption that the language is inherently more difficult to understand. I am so happy to have already challenged that.
[Amal] But let’s pause, I think, for our book of the week before getting into that.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. I think actually you were going to tell us about our book of the week, Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, which… Oh, no, Dan was going to tell us about it.
[Mary Robinette] Actually, I think many of us could rant and rave about…
[Dan] I think many of us could.
[Mary Robinette] This amazing book.
[Dan] Yeah. So, Trail of Lightning is… It’s a really delightful book. It is kind of an action adventure in some ways. Modern fantasy. But what I love about it is that it continues to redefine itself. I don’t consider it a spoiler to say once you get two, maybe three chapters into it, you realize it’s not a modern fantasy, it’s actually post-apocalyptic. It is filled with magic and gods and monsters and Native American culture and theology. The main character is like a vicious killer who is also a very sweet and kind of broken person who is trying to heal herself as she deals with these horrible monsters in the real world. Really, really love this. I listened to the audiobook and the reader is fantastic as well, which is always a plus. So, the Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse.
[Amal] I want that book to be a TV show so bad.
[Dan] Oh, it would be such a good one.
[Amal] I feel… I mean…
[Mary Robinette] Oh my goodness. Yes.
[Amal] I just feel like, hey, Supernatural is over now. So if there is a sort of urban fantasy shaped hole in your televisual lives, I think that this could absolutely fill it. It is just… It’s so suited, I think, to a television treatment. Also, I haven’t read the sequels yet, but I’m very [garbled eager?] to.
[Howard] In the discussion of poetic language, I… When I’m teaching humor, I like to cite Edgar Allan Poe’s The Bells is an example of how you use word choice to mean things that the words themselves are not meaning. When he’s talking about the silver bells, all the stars that over sprinkle, all the heavens seem to twinkle, with a crystalline delight, and he’s got all these words that sound silvery. When he’s talking about the golden bells, he’s using words that have rounder sounds to them. When I opened this… When I said the thing about the sushi, there are two word pairs, utterly consumed and totally devoured, both of which could be applied to the plate of sushi in front of me.
[Howard] Depending on the context of the rest of the story I’m trying to tell, I will choose one or the other of those because of what they sound like, because of the other words whose sounds they echo. Especially if I’m trying to tell a joke. If there is a little bit of a rhyme in there, or if there’s wordplay, conflict and consumed, somewhere. Those are how I make those choices. So when we talk about poetic language, I lean into this hard when I’m writing jokes, because there are words that are technically synonyms which, once I put them in place, will mean completely different things.
[Amal] That is so, so true. I love that you bring up comedy as well, because I feel like comedy, like horror, in some ways, is defined a lot by a certain pace, right? By a certain kind of… Also by the production of an effect, essentially. When we talk about science fiction, we talk about fantasy as genres, we usually talk about them in terms of their contents, or the things that you expect to find in them. But when we talk about comedy and horror, we’re talking about an effect that you’re producing. You’re talking about something that’s going to make you laugh and something that’s going to make you scared. I think that that dovetails very well with poetry, because poetry is so often oriented towards affect. Towards making you feel something first. Primarily. Whether it’s telling you a narrative, whether it’s… Whether it’s a limerick, for that matter. Whether it’s any number of different shapes and forms, the language is calculated, crafted, to produce an effect. To that end, I want to just wrap this up by saying that instead of thinking about poetic language as inherently one kind of way, whether that’s dense or whether that’s difficult or whether that’s thick with metaphor or what have you, I’d like for you to think about it is a series of spectra essentially. That you can have with any sentence, with any use of language. A whole spectrum from sparse to lush, right? Or from opaque to clear. If you think in those terms, instead of poetic versus not poetic, you’ll get a lot closer to using a kind of more granular set of tools for shaping your own writing. I want to give you an example of some very, very sparse and clear and simple language that creates a very opaque image. Or something… I mean, I can do this in prose, but with reference to… I don’t know, something like Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants. Right? Very simply written, small words, not ornate, not a ton of metaphor going on there. But the question of but what are they talking about, like, there’s an opacity to the whole thing that is kind of at odds with the simplicity of the language. Similarly, there’s a poet called H. D., who’s Hilda Doolittle, but she’s a kind of early 20th century poet. She has this extremely short poem called Oread. It goes
Whirl up, sea –
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks,
hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.
It’s super short. It is six lines and in those six lines, you have several repetitions of the same word. It’s very simple. But like a haiku, you kind of have to sit with it, and kind of let it resonate. Let it kind of rattle around in your brain until you go what is it even about? Those kind of bright images that happen from it. Conversely, you can have really lush, really ornate language that is actually very easy to understand. So something like Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, which is a very long poem, which is full of lists of gorgeous fruits and stuff, has a very straightforward narrative. Has a very lilting sort of nursery rhyme and rhythm.
Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy, come buy:”
It’s much simpler, even though lists of plump, dew-checked peaches and things like that are going to be… You can feel your mouth full of them. But nevertheless, like, you don’t really lose the thread of the story being told.
[Amal] So, based on that, I want to move to our homework for this episode. The homework is this. It is basically asking you to both distill and expand a very short and simple sentence. So, here is your sentence. “It’s a dark, grey winter’s day; there’s a lot of snow on the ground, and a cold wind’s blowing.” I want you to take that sentence, and I want you to distill it. I want you to do whatever you feel is going to result in making that sentence feel like a poem. It can mean cutting out the connective tissue like the prepositions. It can mean introducing linebreaks. It can mean reorganizing the words however you want. I want you to turn this sentence into something dense and compact that feels like a very short poem. Once you’ve done that, I want you to then take that very short, compact poem, and I want you to elaborate on it. Expand on it outwards, while still maintaining that poetic feeling. I want you to consider how you can keep it feeling like a poem, while giving it more shape and length. You might want to refer to a night brain exercise from a previous episode in order to help you do that. But the idea is to just contract and then expand that language in a way that feels like you’re playing a poetic accordion.
[Mary Robinette] This is amazing, and I immediately want to go do that.
[Mary Robinette] Thank you so much, Amal. So, for all of you. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.