Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Poetry in Prose

Again I'm deviating from my series of "The Story in History" posts, but I really want to write about poetry, so I'm going to do just that.

Poetry and I have a complicated relationship.  I always appreciate it, but I only sometimes love it.  Most of the time I read a poem, think "That was nice," and never think of it again.  But occasionally, I'll read one that literally leaves me shaking.

My all-time favorite poem is "Where the Sidewalk Ends" by Shel Silverstein:

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins
And there the grass grows soft and white, 
 And there the sun burns crimson bright,
 And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

And so on.  I love this poem because I always associate it with a place from my childhood, which all poetry begs the reader to do:  create her own meaning.  When I read about the place where the sidewalk ends, I'm seven-years-old again, throwing my backpack on the ground and sprinting after my friends to a field beyond a wrought-iron fence.  We've done this so many times that we know exactly where the bent bars are; we squeeze between them, and we're momentarily free from "the place where the smoke blows black / And the dark street winds and bends."

I'm also a huge fan of T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."  You know, "Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky."  It's a beautiful, tragic love poem with quite a few lines that just pack a punch.  The one that comes to mind is "Do I dare disturb the universe?"

Gosh, I wish I could write poetry.  Unfortunately, I don't.  Not often, anyway.  About once a year I'll get inspired, but otherwise, I'm a prose kind of gal.  Yet, I have various poems hung up on my walls, not only because I think they're beautiful, but because as a fiction writer, I can learn something from them.  Someone once told me that "All good poetry should tell a story, and all good stories should sound like poetry," and that really hit home.  I'm not saying that writers should fill their work with purple prose.  That's a big no-no.  But beautiful, poetic sentences aren't off limits.  And not all poetic sentences may seem like poetry at a first glance.  After all, if you take one line of poetry, it's not obvious that it's from a poem.  Let's take the above example:

"To cool in the peppermint wind"

That's a poetic phrase, but it's also a phrase that could be put into prose without turning it purple.  "Peppermint wind" is much more poetic--and descriptive--than "wind" or "icy wind" or "refreshing wind."

It was Christmas in Williamsburg, which meant that the carolers were out--fur muffs, top hats, and all.  They stood directly across from Wythe's, which had started to display freshly-dipped caramel apples in the window.  Seven dollars each, and almost worth it.  But I had come for hot cider, so I ducked against the peppermint wind and strolled on until the carols melted away like hard candies on my tongue.
"Peppermint wind" goes along with the holiday feel, and since a lot of the paragraph focuses on sweets, it fits right in.

Do you have a favorite poem or poet?  Favorite line?

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