For some reason, I recently found myself thinking about a poetry course that I took back in the early 2000s. I remember the professor extolling William Carlos Williams' dictum "no ideas but in things." At the time this struck me as an impossibility. How can you express ideas without, well, ideas I wondered? The professor's response was to share two poems, one by Williams and one by Ezra Pound.
The Red Wheelbarrow
William Carlos Williams
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
I won't be so bold as to hazard an interpretation, but the one thing I will share is that both poems make me cock my head (perhaps a bit like the white chickens) and think differently about how I experience what I'm reading. I can absolutely experience the red wheel barrow and the passing crowd in the metro station, even though the information provided is so minimal. What an amazing accomplishment by these poets. And for me, it's not just the words themselves. Even the line breaks are critical to the impact of the images in both poems. They create an emphasis and a rhythm that drives the experience home.
Isn't that what all good writing should do -- catapult the reader into a visceral experience? And if that's true, it seems to me that looking at the tools that poets use learning how to employ them is a great idea for fiction, memoir and nonfiction writers. I researched some examples of "lyrical" fiction writing to illustrate this. Here are a couple of remarkable passages:
First, from Sherman Alexie's "What You Pawn I Will Redeem."
"I wrapped myself in my grandmother’s regalia and breathed her in. I stepped off the sidewalk and into the intersection. Pedestrians stopped. Cars stopped. The city stopped. They all watched me dance with my grandmother. I was my grandmother, dancing." (Blasphemy, p. 464)
Now, from Jhumpa Lahiri's "A Real Durwan."
"She was sixty-four years old, with hair in a knot no larger than a walnut, and she looked almost as narrow from the front as she did from the side.
"In fact, the only thing that appeared three-dimensional about Boori Ma was her voice: brittle with sorrows, as tart as curds, and shrill enough to grate meat from a coconut." (p. 70)
The beauty of these prose examples has to do with rhythm, word choice, imagery, and metaphor. Most prose writers focus on things like the story arc, sub plots, character development and the like. At some point in the writing, however, thinking about word choices, the rhythm of sentences, the use of metaphors, and the use of images is also essential. I guess that's an argument that prose writers also need to embrace -- or to develop -- their inner poet.