Always be a poet, even in prose.
Welcome back! This week, we will explore syntax and cadence through prose poems and short short forms as a way to strengthen the fluidity of language within your short stories. You will create a scene with its own arc that can be read alone, as a short short story, or read as part of the longer short story. Through exploring short short forms and poetic prose, you will know your organic voice and cadence much better in both short works and longer works.
In prose, the literary writer will leave the formal, grammatical constructions of syntax behind and will employ an aesthetic that is both simple and lyrical. For the most part, the sentence structure follows a subject + predicate construction. The introductory sentence variety writers are taught in high school and early university composition courses has little to do with the art of literary storytelling, though, the literary storyteller must know the grammatical rules for the purposes of knowing when and how to break them. Two excellent books on formal structure and grammar are:
- Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English: Third Edition, Patricia T. O’Conner
- Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss
If you feel that your grammatical basis would benefit from some quick brushing up, these two works, Woe Is I and Eats, Shoot and Leaves, are fantastic reference works that are well organized resource books and quick reads.
The Prose Poem
One of the best ways to explore your authentic voice, syntax style and cadence is through the study of prose poetry. Prose poetry offers the best of prosaic logic combined with the lyricism of poetry. In reading and writing this form, the short story writer understands his/her language preferences, what “feels” right and “sounds” right to the ear. In this study, it is important that you read the below example works and your own works aloud so that the cadence is made definitive for you.
The prose poem will often appear as prose, structured in paragraphs, but read like poetry. In some cases, the prose poem may be structured with line breaks, such as a traditional poem, but the rhythm takes a narrative cadence and form that engages the reader much like prose. In the first issue of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, editor Peter Johnson explained, “Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels” (Peter Johnson, editor of The Prose Poem: An International Journal). This precarious position is a trademark of hybrid forms. The reader will often question where the work “fits.”
Within a narrative cadence, the prose poem will also use poetic techniques: fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. Narrative lengths can range from a few lines to several pages. Short short stories often combine with the prose poem form in order to create broader and deeper narratives up to 1000 words and less. Some editors and writers will allow short short forms to include up to 1500 words; however, 1000 words is the market standard and is a good word count for writers who wish to write short short stories, prose poems and essays, especially for online journals and venues from The Paris Review to The New York Times.
Prose poems can be found in early Bible translations and Lyrical Ballads of William Wordsworth. The form is most often traced to nineteenth-century French symbolists. An example is Charles Baudelaire’s “Be Drunk,” which concludes:
And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunk enness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking… ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”
Notice how Baudelaire uses repetition and listing of both words and contexts, often used in traditional poetic forms, to give the prose more than mere cadence, but rather, rhythm, lyricism, more overt metaphor and cyclical contexts. Contemporary novelists and short story writers, who are writing in a literary aesthetic, will employ the very same poetic elements within their prose styles to some degree:
- s, c: alliteration, consonance
- ing: terminal rhyme
- i, is: assonance
- the, wave, star, bird, clock: word repetition in addition to repetition of movement and imagery, a rounded sort of gliding, cyclical.
- ask, everything: repetition
- What other repetitions of language and context do you see?
- alliteration: the repetition of usually initial consonant sounds through a sequence of words—for example, “While I nodded, nearly napping” in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”
- assonance: the repetition of vowel sounds in a sequence of words with different endings—for example, “The death of the poet was kept from his poems” in W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.”
- consonance: a poetic device characterized by the repetition of the same consonant two or more times in short succession, as in “pitter patter” or in “all mammals named Sam are clammy”.
Prose Poem Readings
ALREADY! and other Essays on Prose Poems at The Paris Review (2014)
Rivers by Czeslaw Milosz, The Paris Review (1998)
Now it’s your turn. Write or revise a short scene (no more than 1000 words) that includes at least one poetic device studied in this lesson. Write the story in paragraph, prosaic form and follow the revision guidelines below, making sure to pay close attention to the aloud reading phase. As you revise each draft, read a paragraph or two of your favorite novel or short story by another author then revise your work. You might also try the ages old writing trick of handwriting a paragraph from a favorite and contemporary work. As you handwrite the passage, you’ll train your sensibilities and syntax toward that of your favorite writer.
Also, it is strongly recommended that you read your work aloud while recording yourself, several times and with each revision, so you can study the progression of cadence and syntax in your work as you revise. Remember, syntax and cadence is something that is foundational to the writer’s “voice.” A writer can spend a lifetime perfecting his or her voice and every voice is like a fingerprint, no two are exactly alike. Think of syntax and cadence as a marathon effort, the long run, rather than a sprint. Give yourself permission to let your voice change and define itself over time.
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