Over the last few days I’ve regularly been dipping into The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy, the poet laureate. I didn’t expect to like it much because frankly very little modern poetry appeals to me. I’ve always felt that much of the stuff I’ve come across would simply read like not very good prose if you stripped it of its Emperor’s Clothes of fancy formatting. To me, simply setting out a few random thoughts into broken sentences on separate lines with indentations of differing lengths, great poetry doth not make. But that certainly couldn’t be said of The Bees, which has been a real treat and made me want to explore more of her work.
From a prose fiction writer’s point of view, it’s also been interesting to be reminded of the overlaps between that craft and the poetic one. Regular readers of this blog (both of them) will know I’m a big fan of F Scott Fitzgerald, and he’s been in the news quite a bit lately because of the new Great Gatsby film. One article I read reminded me of how important Fitzgerald felt an appreciation of poetry was to the fiction writer. Of course, he was coming at it from the standpoint of a ‘literary’ writer. If you’re in the ‘genre’ field such as thrillers, sci-fi and so on being too poetic might actually even get in the way or seem out of place. But I do know that he spent a lot of time crafting his original drafts and looking for the same sort of word selection and imagery as the great poets. I’ve dug out a couple of quotations from my copy of F Scott Fitzgerald on Writing. Both are from letters to his daughter: “The chief fault in your style is its lack of distinction – something which is inclined to grow with the years. You had distinction once – there’s some in your diary – and the only way to increase it is to cultivate your own garden. And the only thing that will help you is poetry, which is the most concentrated form of style.”
When he refers to “distinction” I’m sure it’s what now tends to be called a writer’s “voice”. The second quotation is a little more specific: “About adjectives: all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make the sentence move. Probably the finest technical poem in English is Keats’ Eve of Saint Agnes. A line like ‘The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass’ is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement – the limping, trembling and freezing is going on before your own eyes.”