What We Can Learn from Poets
“Poetry is to prose,” wrote Paul Valery, “as dancing is to walking,” and in this post Ben Berman previews his upcoming Muse and the Marketplace session on what kind of dance moves prose writers can learn from poets.
A couple of summers ago, I decided to take a break from writing poetry in order to try my hand at penning a screenplay.
I thought it would be interesting to try to dramatize the inner transformation of my protagonist through a series of mirrored images – each shot in the first half of the script would correlate with an opposing shot in the second half of the script, and through this reversal of images I would convey just how much this character transformed.
I spent a little over a week sketching a treatment before I realized just how awful of an idea this was – I wasn’t writing a screenplay; I was writing a poem in the form of a screenplay. And it was a pretentious poem, at that.
That being said, the more I’ve branched out into writing in various genres, the more I’ve realized just how much I’ve benefitted from my background in poetry and how it’s taught me to pay close attention to the textures of language.
I’ll be leading a session at this year’s Muse and the Marketplace on what prose writers can learn from poets. With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to look closely at the work of Beth Ann Fennelly, a poet whose latest book, Heating and Cooling, is a collection of micro-memoirs.
Fennelly first published a number of the shorter pieces in The American Poetry Review under the name Reduced Sentences – a title that reveals her love of wit and word play. You can see them, here: https://aprweb.org/poems/reduced-sentences
All of the pieces are quite wonderful, but I thought it might be interesting to look at a specific one and the subsequent revisions that Fennelly made to it. In APR, the second entry reads, in its entirety:
Bought a bag of frozen peas to numb my husband’s sore testicles after his vasectomy.
That night I cooked pea soup.
This is quite funny, as is, but Fennelly made some slight revisions to this piece when she published it later in her book, Heating and Cooling. The revised piece reads like this:
Married Love, IV
Morning: bought a bag of frozen peas to numb my husband’s sore testicles after his vasectomy.
Evening: added thawed peas to our carbonara.
A piece of this size doesn’t give one much room to work with in terms of revisions. But poets are used to working with tweezers, and by examining the slight revisions that she did make we can better understand how minor moves can have major impacts.
First, Fennelly changed the title from Practical to Married Love, IV. No longer is this piece just about the quirky pragmatism of the speaker it is now part of a larger thematic sequence, bouncing off of the other Married Love entries to explore the complex layers of what love looks like twenty years into a marriage.
Second, Fennelly adds Morning: and Evening: at the beginning of each sentence. This doesn’t change the timeline of the two events; it simply heightens the tension between them. Poets often attend to patterns and forms, rhythms and cadences, and this is parallel structure at its finest, using syntactic similarities to highlight semantic differences.
Third, while the first sentence essentially stays the same, Fennelly changes a single detail in the second sentence. Pea soup works under the title, Practical, but it’s too mundane for Married Love. Carbonara, on the other hand, takes some effort to make – hints at a more romantic dinner – and thus contrasts even more strongly with the previous sentence. And there’s something about the image of thawed peas – rather than the ones blended into soup – that makes it harder to forget where they’d been resting all morning.
Poets specialize in the art of compression – saying as much as they can in as few words as possible – and Fennelly’s close attention to language provides us with a glimpse of what prose writers can learn from poets, offers us Reduced Sentences that are anything but reductive.
Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, came out last year from Able Muse Press. And his new book, Then Again, is due out in November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters. www.ben-berman.comSee other articles by Ben Berman