Dear friends — I’ve been out of the blogosphere for some time, because of activism and teaching. I’m excited to share that my little book on how to write Magical Realism is coming out in a few weeks. I’ll keep you posted. But along the way, I wanted to share my thoughts about prose versus poetry, because I’ve been talking to alot of writer-friends about those connections.
I write both poetry and prose fiction (as well as occasional nonfiction), and I know alot of folx who write both poetry and prose. At the same time though, I’m in conversations with alot of other writers, where much is made of the difference between prose and poetry. Since I talk to both sets of people, I’m always amused/aghast by/at how much poets fear having to tell a big complicated story while prose writers confess to me that they are often terrified of the complex symbolism in poetry. “Oh my GOD!” one group says about the other group. “HOW do they DO that? It’s impossible.”
It’s a funny situation. But it’s also an unnecessary one.
The fact is that ever since Romanticism (and in Japan and other Asian countries at least, long before that time), the difference between the two types of writing has been challenged.
One of my favorite writers, Friedrich Schlegel says something important in his famous aphorism about Romantic poetry. Here it is in part:
“Romantic poetry is a progressive universal poetry. Its destiny is not merely to reunite all of the different genres and to put poetry in touch with philosophy and rhetoric. Romantic poetry wants to and should combine and fuse poetry and prose, genius and criticism, art poetry and nature poetry. It should make poetry lively and sociable, and make life and society poetic. It should poeticize wit and fill all of art’s forms with sound material of every kind to form the human soul, to animate it with flights of humor.” (I’ve bolded the parts I want you to see; read the whole aphorism here)
Schlegel goes on to talk about how “Romantic poetry embraces everything that is purely poetic, from the greatest art systems, which contain within them still more systems, all the way down to the sigh, the kiss that a poeticizing child breathes out in an artless song.”
But the main point that interests me is Schlegel’s view of literary genres as becoming hyridized and “melted’ together (like a cheese sandwich!).
How does magical realism fit into this description? Well, I think that magical realism is very much a part of this melting, in that the writing tends to be very lyrical and/or descriptive and what the Romantics would call the “feeling” of the world is at least as important (if not more important) than what actually “happens.”
It’s certainly true that the big difference between a poem and a story is that in the latter, to misquote novelist E.M. Forster, something “has to happen.” But it doesn’t have to be alot. Think of Ryka Aoki, Kathleen Alcala, Haruki Murakami, George Saunders, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and many other writers. Their work feels SO FULL, but alot of it is lyrical description.
Consider this passage:
“They did not even have to clean off his face to know that the dead man was a stranger. The village was made up of only twenty-odd wooden houses that had stone courtyards with no flowers and which were spread about on the end of a desert-like cape. There was so little land that mothers always went about with the fear that the wind would carry off their children and the few dead that the years had caused among them had to be thrown off the cliffs. But the sea was calm and bountiful and all the men fitted into seven boats. So when they found the drowned man they simply had to look at one another to see that they were all there.” (Marquez, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”… read the whole thing here)
So, if you’re a poet, try writing a story sometime. If you’re a fiction writer, stop, smell the roses, or the garbage, and write a little about that feeling.
And stay tuned for a prompt using this very Marquez story, from my book on magical realism! It’s coming down the track! 🙂
PS — Friedrich Schegel actually spans the 18th and the 19th Centuries. He’s a great exponent of thinking with beyond the European Enlightenment. Sure, he’s fanciful and bold, but you wouldn’t get him, or Romanticism, without 18th Century writers like Voltaire and Diderot.