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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.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 11th, 2011 08:19 pm (UTC)
This is fascinating!
A local (to me) author, Ron Rash, is primarily a poet, but he's also written novels and I've heard him speak about choosing his words in his descriptions with the same care.

I'm going to have to try this.

(please don't parse my post ;) I'm sure it isn't poetic.)
Oct. 11th, 2011 09:27 pm (UTC)
The opening to Green, recast as poetry.

The first thing I can remember
In this life
Is my father
Driving his white ox
To the sky burial platforms
His back was before me
As we walked along a dusty road
All things were dusty
In the country of my birth
    Unless they were flooded
A ditch yawned at each side
To beckon me toward play
The fields beyond
Were drained of water and
    Filled with stubble
Though I could not now say
Which of the harvest seasons it was
Oct. 11th, 2011 10:38 pm (UTC)
Oooh! I like it, particularly a "white ox," "sky burial platforms," the contrast of dusty to flooded, and the last line. The ending sound, when done well, ties together the thought with a pleasant drum rush of meaning and rhythm. It reads to me like "WHICH of the HARvest SEAsons it WAS," with only a slight rise on "was," but an important one.

Thanks for playing!
Oct. 12th, 2011 03:11 am (UTC)
Thank you. I'm going to make a post about this tomorrow.
Oct. 11th, 2011 10:59 pm (UTC)
Excellent idea! I have a feeling it's going to bump my re-write sessions up several notches. (I already read aloud -- a tradition in our critique group -- and hear some of my infelicities before it's too late, but this is a step further.)
Oct. 12th, 2011 07:01 am (UTC)
How very cool.
Oct. 12th, 2011 12:38 pm (UTC)
What a neat idea. I'm going to have to try this.
Oct. 12th, 2011 12:47 pm (UTC)
[links] Link salad thinks about postage
User jaylake referenced to your post from [links] Link salad thinks about postage saying: [...] ;] Prose to Poetry and an Interesting Technique to Evaluate Your Own Writing [...]
Oct. 12th, 2011 12:51 pm (UTC)
[writing|process] Poetry and fiction
User jaylake referenced to your post from [writing|process] Poetry and fiction saying: [...] made a terrifically interesting post [...]
Oct. 12th, 2011 01:07 pm (UTC)
Brilliant post. You've made me think about poetry for quite a while today.
Oct. 14th, 2011 06:28 am (UTC)
Man, I want to try this . . . except that I have very little faith in my competence at the poetry side of things. Where should I put the line breaks? (It feels arbitrary to me, though I know it shouldn't be.) Am I really sure I'll be able to tell an uninteresting or even laughably bad poetic result from a good one? (Theoretically the answer is "yes," but I've read any number of poems other people agree are good, and been totally unmoved by them.)

I have more of a taste for formal poetry, because it's more likely to use the aural devices -- meter, rhyme, etc -- that I enjoy. Free verse is almost always a complete null for me.
Oct. 14th, 2011 12:42 pm (UTC)
Line breaks can happen almost anywhere, and each one produces a slightly different effect. You can see this by taking a poem and putting the breaks in somewhere else.

I think the value in the exercise is not that it makes for great poems, but that for the moment the writer is focusing on writing in small chunks. Cliches, for example, stand out when put into a poem, as does the overuse of linking verbs, needless repetitions, and bland word choice.

A poem is so small that every word has to count. I think much of the unsuccessful prose I read would improve it the writer took the same kind of care choosing words and forming sentences that he would if he was writing poetry.
Oct. 14th, 2011 02:27 pm (UTC)
"the way is clear / the light is good / I have no fear / and no one should"
User lnhammer referenced to your post from "the way is clear / the light is good / I have no fear / and no one should" saying: [...] ess (or a published novel) and line-break it into poetry. This was started as a diagnostic tool [...]
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )