Thoughts on Style

I used to view poetry and prose as literary forms on opposite ends of some imagined spectrum. At one end, the Severely Poetic end, were the kinds of experimental, dissociated poems I couldn’t understand. The literary equivalent of a concert using only the sound of dripping water and squealing brakes. At the other end was Utilitarian Prose, like much of what gets written on blogs such and mine. All content, little to no concern for form. Beside each of these extremes I imagined popular poetry and popular literary prose. The poetry beautiful, perhaps, but built of words for their own sake. The prose subservient to the story it was used to tell. On this continuum I would place the writers I knew. ee cummings close to the Severely Poetic, David Eddings stuck within the confines of Utilitarian Prose, Guy Gavriel Kay a crossover artist, living in both worlds at once.

This spectrum was bullshit, but not bullshit entirely of my creation. The world of modern literature adheres largely to some version of this spectrum. Prose and poetry are separate entities, both built of words but using those words to different ends. One man can write in both styles, but not at once. Mixing styles may be possible, but results in prose that is poetic but is still prose. It’s a perceptual divide that wasn’t built entirely by one group, nor was it built suddenly. In fact, I think writers may be most to blame.

For much of history, there was no real difference between poetry and prose. At least, not when it came to fiction. Nearly every great work of ancient fiction was written in one meter or another. Most religious works were metered as well, including sizable chunks of the Bible. I’m no linguistic historian, but I think it’s safe to say this is due to storytelling’s origins as an oral form. The spoken word always works best when there’s a rhythm and consistent phrasing to it, and that’s basically meter. Prose as we know it was more often used for non-fiction, where the effect of meter and phrasing wasn’t a factor and where an oral tradition wasn’t as strong. In other words, the intended effect dictated the style, not the content itself.

There’s a trend in an art form to define itself more and more fully. When an art form begins, it often happens subconsciously, as an expression of the time and culture and intended audience and available materials. They don’t start off trying to be a specific form of art. They just start off trying to have a different effect than the other forms out there. It’s not until later that names and definitions get applied. Once the setting of boundaries begins, the rules and regulations become more important than the effect of the art. To be classical music is to use a specific kind of phrase variation. To be ballet is to adhere to certain postures and movements.

After a while, the lines on the chalkboard become the art form, and the everyone – artists included – accept them as fact. That style starts to become inbred, producing no important new works because that would require something crossing one of those lines. After a while, artists start producing a form only for other artists of that form. Then it dies. Classical music is a historical artifact to be appreciated but not reproduced. The same can be said for most forms of Opera, ballet and Gregorian chant. I fear it’s happening to poetry.

Through self infliction and the market forces of the publishing industry, poetry has become an art form separate from others. Poetry isn’t a way of telling stories or delivering a message, but a funny collection of short lines and (sometimes) rhyming words. The part in people that respond to verse has been usurped by popular music, leaving the broader form of poetry out in the cold. Poets write for other poets. I know, because I had this opinion myself, engaging in discussions of the perils of free verse poetry and pointless abstraction, missing the more important point that meter and structure carries a power other forms don’t. Poetry isn’t a point on a spectrum of literary styles. There is no spectrum in the first place.

The art of using words is too complicated to be restricted by simple styles. Styles are important. They’re a kind of cognitive contract between writer and reader, giving them a hint as to what they’re in for. Taken too far, though, and they lead to someone sitting in a classroom bemoaning poetry and wanting to just read another book, never noticing that the two are cut from the same cloth. They lead to me.

If art has a point, it’s found within the effect it has on its audience. That’s what matters. The effect. All of the stylistic choices we make are an expression of our emotional state or our opinions, fashioned in the hope of making someone else feel what we feel. I write prose because it’s a form I know how to manipulate. It’s a style I can use to a predictable effect. That’s as far as I should take it. It’s not prose vs. poetry. That’s simplifying something whose beauty is in its complexity. It’s time to challenge that enforced simplicity before we marginalize an important style of writing.

I’ve probably gone off the rails a few times in this one, making broad statements that don’t hold up. Fire back if I’m wrong. I’m just rolling this one around right now, trying to see where it leads me. That’s bound to lead down some dead ends.

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