October 11th, 2011

Saturn Ring Blues

Prose to Poetry and an Interesting Technique to Evaluate Your Own Writing

One of my assignments in A.P. English for their reading of The Great Gatsby, is to take any passage from the book that they find particularly evocative, and then to put in on the page as a poem.  This helps them focus on language as language instead of each part of the story as an indivisible part of a whole work (not seeing a piece of literature as an assemblage of related parts instead of a seamless whole is one of the reasons students have so much trouble with literary analysis).

I get really interesting poems from the kids when they look closely, like this one: 

Red Circle of Water
 
There was a faint,
Barely perceptible movement
Of the water
As the fresh flow from one end
Urged its way toward
The drain at the other.
With little ripples that were
Hardly the shadows of waves,
The laden mattress moved
Irregularly down the pool.
A small gust of wind
That scarcely corrugated
The surface was enough
To disturb its accidental
Course with its
Accidental burden.
The touch of a cluster of leaves 
Revolved it slowly, tracing,
Like the leg of transit,
A thin red circle
In the water.


See!  Isn't that cool?  Fitzgerald writes in a way that produces poetry over and over again in his work.  He is a genius at this.  Because the student arranged the section as a poem, some of the beautiful word choices Fitzgerald makes shine out from the page, like how the water "urged" its way across the pool, and the ripples that are "hardly shadows of waves," and the wind that "scarcely corrugated" the surface, and the "accidental" course of water with its "accidental burden."

He made a half dozen interesting language choices in that tiny space.

You can use this technique to see what the writers you admire are doing.  I did the same with a bit out of George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, Connie Willis's Firewatch,  a paragraph from a Robert E. Howard Conan the Barbarian story, some H.P. Lovecraft, and a segment of a Carrie Vaughn short story.  I'm looking forward to poemifying Ring Lardner, Ernest Hemingway and Margaret Atwood.

Where this technique becomes very interesting and useful is to take a piece of your own writing and try to arrange it as a poem.  Are you making interesting language choices?  Are there any moments of surprise in your writing?  What verbs surface when you break your prose into poetic lines? 

I took a paragraph from a mediocre student essay, and another from a copy of a not-so-successful short story I critiqued at a WorldCon workshop, and tried the poetry technique.  They both produced uninteresting or laughably bad poems.  Their language faults jumped out, just like Fitzgerald's language gems had sparkled.

Fitzgerald made a handful of interesting language decisions in a hundred words.  I read a ton of student work and workshop submissions that make no interesting language choices in thousands of words.

There's something to be learned there.