“In poetic prose a demand is made upon our senses and imagination. The magic use of words is intended as an invitation to participate.” (Nin, Ch. 7, location 3065)
I started writing when I was fourteen but my writing didn’t get very far because I was reading a different kind of fiction. I was conditioned to believe that I had my mother’s personality, saturated by over-emotion and foolish romanticism. I now know that this image, ingrained in me by my father, who sees all strong women as threats, was incredibly unjust and inaccurate, but at the time, I was drawn to read the romances of writers like Danielle Steele and Judith Michael. The stories were gripping but the style didn’t inspire me as a writer, clean, unassuming, diner words.
Then when I was sixteen, I stumbled upon a slim little paperback hidden among the shelves of a bookstore on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv. The book was Under A Glass Bell by Anais Nin. In it were character studies and short stories, most of them based on people Nin had known in the 1930’s and 1940’s, built upon observations she recorded in her infamous diaries. They intoxicated me like the purest absinthe.
In the stories, language opens up a sky full of stars, each word a spark of glitter on the velvet of a night sky. Words build images and emotions that are unexpected but sharp-eyed. In the story “The Mohican”, the title character’s speech:
“His talk was like the enormous wheel at the Fair, carrying little cages filled with people, the slow motion of the wheel, the little cages traveling spherically and the illusion of a vast circular voyage which never took one any never to the hub. One was picked up on the edge of the wheel, whirled in space, and deposited again without for an instant feeling nearer to its pulse.” (Nin, location 511)
Rather than tell us that the Mohican talks in circles, Nin gives us an image of a Ferris wheel so that we can visualize the way in which a conversation with the Mohican has a dizzying effect on all who listen to him.
Poetic prose has a breathless quality to it, a rhythm that has an improvisational effect, stepping up our pulse with living, breathing life. This is not to say that the Hemingway style of prose is dead words. But, as Nin points out, poetic prose makes us aware of the sensuality of language, its potential to transport us into an imaginary place and touch us in ways that we might not expect.
Sometimes poetic prose uses the language of psychological reality – that is, the language of dreams, nightmares, delusions, memories, creativity. It pieces together a mosaic where the stones by themselves look nothing like when they are put together. Of dream language, Jung says, “[it] has so much psychic energy that we are forced to pay attention to it.” (Jung, C. J., et al., Part 1, location 602). So poetic prose is about what one of my college professors called moving the grid – making us see the same thing we always have but in a different way, propping a mirror up to reality to show the stains and the gaps in the reflection.
In my novella, The Dark Haired Daughter, my narrator, Gena, is driving back to Waxwood after one of her harrowing days with her delusional Aunt Hetty:
“The ride back to Waxwood was slower than the ride out as my equilibrium took time to gain momentum from the air I was finally able to breathe. I drove at a slow speed, allowing other cars to shoot past, so that the wild flowers at the shoulders of the road and the open space of the dimming sky could ease away the bile of Aunt Hetty’s smeared love and bring me back into the tangible world. As I came into town, I could not see the ocean but it helped to imagine it, its waves opening up like the arms of an all-encompassing Mama.”
It was my aim to describe how the ride home for Gena was more than just a ritualistic drive. I think all of us have felt the relief of coming home after we’ve left a difficult situation or a difficult person, watching the wide sky and the endless road in front of us expand, fading out our feeling of pain and compression. Gena’s sense of relief is amplified by the memory of her years as the object of her aunt’s obsessive love and the unhinged visions stemming from her mental illness.
A caution about poetic prose: when carried away it can come off as what the writing world defines as “navel gazing” – tangential, dense, beauty that serves the writer more than the reader or the story. It can be a road that leads nowhere. But done well, it opens the mind to the riches of language.
Jung, Carl G., Von Franz, M.L., Henderson, Joseph L., Jacobi, Jolande, Jaffe Aniela. Man And His Symbols. Dell Publishing, 1964. Kindle digital file.
Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.
Nin, Anais. Under A Glass Bell. The Anais Nin Trust, 2010 (original publication date 1944). Kindle digital file.