What do you think? Is a good novel a mix of poetry and prose? Should it be strictly prose and any poetry in it is the sign of a decadent amateur? Is it a continuum and it’s more about balance, or are there certain genres where you’ll get away with a mix and others not so much? For me, one author in particular holds the key: Stephen Lawhead.
But before we get onto him, let’s explore some of the extremes. What’s poetry all about? Is it about some really emotional, moody teenager who tells you how they’re feeling in a clumsy meter and making sure the endings of each line rhyme? No, it’s really not. Good poetry is about communication but it recognises a wide variety of techniques to achieve that goal. It can be very defined as to what techniques are a part of the canon (think Classical poetry) or can be very free and open (like the Romantics). At its heart though, it’s about deliberately choosing words because of how they interact with each other. It’s about appreciating sound and meaning as a part of a greater, interconnected whole.
Sounds good then. What’s the problem? Why can’t you fill your novel with poetry? Well, even if you know all the techniques, many poets fall into a few predictable traps when trying to write prose. At its heart, I think their problem comes down to that they want to be poetic more than they want to tell a story. Look here, a wonderful metaphor; and there, imagery to last three pages. But I’m bored. And I can’t remember where I’m up to. It might make me sit and wonder of the beauty of trees capturing the fading light of the Autumn evening but… oh wait, what’s the point? Worse, some poets have a tendency to be deliberately ambiguous so only the truly initiated, perhaps only they themselves, can truly understand what they’re doing. That’s fine for a poem in your secret diary locked away in your bedroom but for a book meant to be enjoyed by other people, yeah, it’s rather self-indulgent. If people want to read a novel, chances are they want good characterisation, an exciting plot and something at the end of it that makes them think long after they put the book down. If you have too much self-indulgent poetry in there, there’s a chance people will put your book down without finishing it.
Fine then. Should we go completely the other direction? No metaphors allowed. Only ever play with structure and big picture stuff and just let the words flow in a straightforward way. Don’t every use anything that might risk a reader stopping and thinking; keep them reading at all costs! Well, the best example I’ve actually got of this is a murder mystery I read in my first year of Uni. Now it was incredibly easy to read and the pacing was good, kept me excited and wanting to read more. When I finished it, I got my nice payoff and kick from not expecting the murderer and being cleverly fooled by the genius of the author. But you know what? I gave the book back to the person who lent it to me and I never read it again. And I’ve forgotten what it was called. All I know is it was the first novel of a journalist who obviously favoured a prose-focused approach. I read it, and perhaps that’s enough, but it wasn’t the sort of book to stand the test of time.
Queue Stephen Lawhead. This is a man who seems to get the balance perfectly. For the majority of his books, he’s somehow managed to have a style that you can read quickly if you want to, but if you chose to stop and appreciate it line by line, you could find something there to marvel at. He isn’t jarring and doesn’t take you off on detours constantly, but when he wants to really make a point at a moment of great emotion, he does often make use of poetic language to heighten the intensity. Moreover, he rewrites Welsh legends and puts them in the mouths of bards throughout his stories, giving you stories within stories as interesting asides if you choose to take them. When he wants to go on a sidetrack, he lets you know, in other words, and gives you the option to take him up on it.
This is a man who inspired my individual style more than any other. Don’t be afraid to be poetic, just choose your words carefully for a purpose rather than due to the whims of your fanciful mind. Don’t fill every page with irrelevant metaphors but don’t be afraid to use them either when they create the effect you want. Don’t be afraid to have asides for stories here and there, but find a way to alert the reader you’re doing that so they have a choice to follow it or not, and nevertheless, make sure it’s worthwhile for them if they do. Don’t just write in a bland way that just gets the story out there—appreciate how everything can have an effect, from plot and structure down to the meaning and sounds of words themselves. Everything can be useful so long as you subordinate it to one thing: the benefit of the reader.
And so this is where I personally stand on the relationship between poetry and prose: they should influence each other but you should know what your ultimate goal is. If your goal is to tell an engaging story for the benefit of your reader, by all means use all the techniques you have at your disposal, so long as you use them at the appropriate time for the right effect. Similarly for poetry, don’t be afraid to tell a story or let a character evolve—that might even be its chief purpose anyway—but if your poetry has a different purpose, don’t get sidelined here either by focusing on something it’s not meant to be. Let your goal guide you and be aware of all your tools, and see what you can come up with.
(Photo of part of the Mabinogion, the collection of Welsh legends and myths which inspired many of Lawhead’s asides within his novels. Accessed from Wikimedia Commons)