Oct 052011


Mucking Up the Landscape: Poetic Tendencies in Prose

by Mary Stein


There’s a certain trend I’ve noticed among some essays and craft books on writing fiction: It hints at the idea of a beleaguered prose writer, imprisoned at her desk—a person who narrates rather than directly experiences life for the sake of fiction, a person held hostage by the endless pursuit of the right-hand margin. It’s an idea of the prose writer as sacrificial lamb for the god that is verisimilitude. Prose and its process can be intoned with a sense of drudgery—particularly in comparison to poetry. In “Rhyming Action,” Charles Baxter jokes, “Prose writers have to spend hours and hours in chairs, facing paper, adding one brick to another brick, piling on the great heap of endless observations, going through the addled inventory of all the items they’ve laboriously paid attention to, and it makes them surly—all this dawn-until-dusk sitting for the sake of substantial books that you could prop open a door with … Fiction writers get resentful, watching poets calling it quits at 9:30am.”

Now of course I don’t agree with the literal assessment of this statement—I know poets who work at least until 10:00, maybe 10:30 in the morning. (Poets must forgive me, I have to believe this farce exists, otherwise I’ll never have anything to aspire to.) But there’s something about the spirit behind the statement, the implicit (or, I suppose, explicit) idea of drudgery inherent to the prose-writing process leading to an implicit drudgery of prose itself—an idea that the reader is led through a corridor of scenes, narratives, backstory, interior and summary to get somewhere. In an interview with Lydia Davis, Sara Manguso asks, “How do you know a story’s a story?” Davis says, “I would say a story has to have a bit of narrative, if only ‘she says,’ and then enough of a creation of a different time and place to transport the reader. But, of course, it is not a narrative poem. It is flatter, rhythmically different from a poem, and less elliptical.” This is interesting coming from Lydia Davis considering her prose often slants toward all these poetic tendencies—elliptical movement, a poetic attention to rhythm, and a use of language that certainly doesn’t flatline by any means. In fact, many of Davis’s stories exemplify how poetic attention to syntax creates resonant effects in prose.



Eileen Myles is one example of a poet crossover. Her self proclaimed “poet’s novel,” Inferno, explores the confluence of poetry and prose. In her critical essay on novel writing, “Long and Social,” Myles says, “Poets should write novels en masse and reinvent the form and really muck up the landscape.” Although I don’t intend to discuss murky genre distinctions, if genres paralyze or constrict your writing process, I’d say forget about them or invent your own—at least while you’re writing.

I want to consider how these same poetic elements might help the reader engage with the text: regardless of genre, the manipulation of or play with syntax can demand a reader to become conscious of his or her interaction with the work. I want to examine how some fiction writers use syntax to amplify image patterns and create rhythm in order to motivate narrative movement—to muck up the landscape of prose.

In her essay, “Form As Response to Doubt,” Lydia Davis states:

Any interruption, either of our expectations or of the smooth surface of the work itself—by breaking it off, confusing it or leaving it actually unfinished––foregrounds the work as artifact, as object, rather than as invisible purveyor of meaning, emotion, atmosphere. Constant interruption, fragmentation, also keeps returning the reader not only to the real world but to a consciousness of his or her own mind at work (35).

We’ll look at three different prose writers whose work interrupts the expectations of the reader: Lydia Davis, Deb Olin Unferth and Mark Anthony Jarman write stories with innovative syntax, achieving various narrative effects. The dynamism of their prose challenges conventional ideas of verisimilitude, creating a more transparent narrative process that’s integral to the story itself. Rather than fixating on creating an accurate picture of a narrator’s relationship to her external environment, these writers create stories that achieve a verisimilitude of the mind; using syntax to depict the mechanics of thought or memory.

But before launching into prose, I’d like to first peek at Jillian Weise’s poem, Let me be Reckless With the Word Love.” Like Eileen Myles, Jillian Weise is a poet and novelist. This particular poem has a narrative sensibility while operating almost entirely from a place of metaphor. Without the aid of line breaks or enjambment, Weise’s poem is constructed in a relatively conventional sentence format while much of poetry at large is not. I chose this poem in the interest of adhering to Myles’s idea of mucking up the landscape. Without further ado:

Let Me Be Reckless with the Word Love

Let me drive it into the deepest ditch
in the darkest country and pop its hood
to inspect the engine for broken valves.
Let me salvage what I can of it, hike up

my skirt and scavenge a ride from a passerby
in a pickup truck. Let him talk dirty
while chewing tobacco and listening
to Willie Nelson. When he drops me off

at your parents’ house, let me walk it
through the living room, leaving tracks
in the plush pink carpet. Let it say,
I’m sorry. I seem to have made a mess.

When you shake your head, I’ll blow it up
in the backyard while Doug and Donna
celebrate their anniversary. There’s a word
you don’t know. It means sticking with

the woman whose one foot dangles
from the window of a pickup truck.
The woman who has finally become
an apostrophe—and by that I mean not

possessive, but from Greek, to turn away
so you can’t see her face as she detonates
the word love and watches it explode.


Something is happening. There is a semblance of narrative, albeit abstract. The narrator is reckless. She crashes the word love into a ditch, salvages the parts, hitches a ride with a lewd tobacco-chewing dude who listens to Willie Nelson. She goes to someone’s house, dragging along what’s left of the word love. It leaves a mess, or maybe she does, or maybe they both do. The word love apologizes. She and the word love then go crash an anniversary party in the backyard. The poem reaches a crux with interior disclosure and then culminates with detonating the word love. The poem outlines a linear movement of an imagined moment.
……….Weise carefully removes this narrative from sentimental notions of love, turning the abstraction of “love” into a concrete object. Since love transforms from concept to object, the narrator’s ideas of love as concept are irrelevant. What the narrative seems to prioritize is the narrator’s relationship to love and how she totes it around like a mechanical pet.
……….Syntax creates and blurs narrative identity, and the poem’s metaphor for love and the narrator herself begin to merge. This ambiguity is established with the line break following the word detonates: “so you can’t see her face as she detonates/ the word love and watches it explode.” Not only does “the word love” detonate, but the breakage implies the narrator herself detonates. This slippage reinforces an ambiguity between the narrator and the word love that’s already evident. The poem’s earlier semantics convey an overlap in identity with the earlier word, “salvage” and the line, “let me … scavenge a ride”—and later with an ambiguous modifier regarding who leaves a mess in the line, “let me walk it/ through the living room, leaving tracks/ in the plush pink carpet.” Toward the end of the poem, the narrator also objectifies herself using synecdoche: she transforms into “The woman who has finally become/ an apostrophe” just as she earlier objectified love. The poem’s white space ultimately functions as an echo chamber, and the syntactic impact reverberates—reiterating a complex narrative identity. The poem’s content necessitates its form, and the metaphors resonate.

In his essay “Live Yak Pie,” poet James Tate asks:

Why is it that you can’t just take some well-written prose, divide it into lines, and call it poetry? … While most prose is a kind of continuous chatter, describing, naming, explaining, [See, there we go with the drudgery of prose again!] poetry speaks against an essential backdrop of silence. It is almost reluctant to speak at all, knowing that it can never fully name what is at the heart of its intention. There is a prayerful, haunted silence between words, between phrases, between images, ideas and lines … The reader, perhaps without knowing it, instinctively desires to peer between the crack into the other world where the unspoken rests in darkness.

If we compress Weise’s poem into prose format—which is easy to do with her conventional sentence structure—the emphasis on syntax is lost and the piece becomes flatter and faster. Though the meaning is essentially the same, its metaphors become less resonant:

Jillian Weise, poet and author of The Amputee’s Guide to Sex

Let me drive it into the deepest ditch in the darkest country and pop its hood to inspect the engine for broken valves. Let me salvage what I can of it, hike up my skirt and scavenge a ride from a passerby in a pickup truck. Let him talk dirty while chewing tobacco and listening to Willie Nelson. When he drops me off at your parents’ house, let me walk it through the living room, leaving tracks in the plush pink carpet. Let it say, I’m sorry. I seem to have made a mess. When you shake your head, I’ll blow it up in the backyard while Doug and Donna celebrate their anniversary. There’s a word you don’t know. It means sticking with the woman whose one foot dangles from the window of a pickup truck. The woman who has finally become an apostrophe––and by that I mean not possessive, but from Greek, to turn away so you can’t see her face as she detonates the word love and watches it explode.

Of course, the organic material of metaphor is still present. Though more resonant as a poem, when rearranged the work teeters on the boundaries of genre distinction, as does much syntactically-motivated work. This experiment raises a question: How can prose also achieve “prayerful haunted silences?” Manipulating the form of Weise’s poem establishes how syntax might be used in prose to imitate the effect of space in poetry. Syntax can salvage some poetic impact in the absence of enjambment and line breaks.

Prose maintains a different relationship to white space than poetry. Prose writers are typically unable to rely on line breaks in order to fulfill that perverse need to write all the way to the right-hand margin, or at the very least, to a full stop. But writers of prose can borrow poetic devices, and explore syntactic structures that will encourage a reader to engage with prose with the same attentiveness that’s inherent to reading a poem.

Lydia Davis, author of Almost No Memory

I want to start by looking at some works by Lydia Davis: In her collection, “Almost No Memory,” Davis’s stories range in length from one sentence to a few rogue longer stories that span about 10 to 15 pages. But most of her stories are quite short. It also seems important to note that Davis’s stories achieve an overall rhythm to the collection as a whole. The rhythm of her arrangement provides an important context without which some of her more experimental work may flounder. Specifically, what I mean by “experimental” in Davis’s case, is her tendency to bypass narrative interactions—at times, forfeiting plot entirely.

In much of her work, Davis relies on syntax to extrapolate a story’s narrative process. Davis’s less unconventional story structures often interrupt expectations, encouraging readers to interpret scene rather than interpret narrative. In an interview with Sarah Manguso, Davis states, “I am simply not interested, at this point, in creating scenes between characters” (69). Davis’s story, “This Condition,” is absent of a narrator or human subject. Instead, it’s written as a compiled list of actions and inanimate objects—words arranged to convey sexual urgency. Rather than put two characters in bed together, Davis uses syntax to establish a rhythm that elicits these feelings of urgency. Its overlong, single-sentence format mimes an unhalting momentum of arousal. The piece begins slowly, with words and syllables arranged into longer phrases between semicolons. For example,  “by the bare arm of a wooden chair, a round vase holding flowers, a little hot sunlight, a plate of pudding, a person entering a tunnel in the distance, a puddle of water, a hand alighting on a smooth stone, a hand alighting on a bare shoulder, a naked tree limb.” But this eventually leads to a series of shorter, verb-centric phrases with stark repetition and more direct associations: “any stream of water running, any stream running, any stream spurting, any stream spouting; any cry, any soft cry, any grunt” (244). The shift in syntax accelerates the rhythm to articulate a mounting sexual urgency. Though the story is without plot, it most certainly is not at the expense of momentum and clarity of effect. “This Condition” bypasses a human narrator, using syntax as a physical expression for a state of being.

Whereas “This Condition” translates direct experience, in another Davis story, “A Second Chance,” she uses syntax and parallelism for a different effect. “A Second Chance” is a short story about a woman who fixates on singular, unrepeatable moments one cannot perfect since they never occur a second time. The narrator focuses on losing her mother, juxtaposing how she wishes she could have experienced her mother’s death with how it actually occurred. Departing from the acceleration of her previous story, Davis uses syntax to slow the rhythm at the end of “A Second Chance.” The passage lingers in the narrative process, concluding with a compound sentence to illustrate the narrator’s meandering thoughts. Its syntax encourages the reader to experience the text in a manner that reflects the narrator’s thought processes:

If you could have your mother die a second time you might be prepared to fight for a private room that had no other person in it watching television while she died, but if you were prepared to fight for that, and did, you might have to lose your mother again in order to know enough to ask them to put her teeth in the right way and not the wrong way before you went into her room and saw her for the last time grinning so strangely, and then yet one more time to make sure her ashes were not buried again in that plain sort of airmail container in which she was sent north to the cemetery. (257)

Though scene is established in this passage, it’s literally secondary to how the narrator expresses a seemingly perfunctory desire. The sentence is arranged to prioritize narrative interior. Each clause first reveals a conditional desire, then ends with descriptive material rooted in scene. This pattern builds tension between how the narrator would have liked to experience her mother’s death and how it truly occurred—creating dissonance between the narrator’s desire contrasted with the reality of scene. The sentence syntactically boomerangs, departing from and returning to the idea of a second (and third and fourth) chance at losing her mother. But similar in effect to Weise’s earlier poem, the story’s spare use of scene and preference toward this syntactic storytelling avoids sentimentality. Phrasing and syntax accurately reflects how the narrator’s memory operates: not only does the text express the narrator’s desire, but its parallel form illustrates the landscape of her obsession—reliving her mother’s death over and over. Though “Second Chance” has greater emphasis on narrative than does “This Condition,” its syntax still prioritizes verisimilitude of the mind.

The last Davis story we’ll look at, “Examples of Confusion”—is a 7-page series of fragmented interior observations. Similar to Weise’s poem, it also uses synecdoche and syntax to create a complex metaphor that depicts the narrator’s examination of identity: “I see my white jacket fluttering past disembodied, moving quickly since it is late. I think how remote I am, if that is me. Then think how remote at least, that fluttering white thing is, for being me.” In a later segment, Davis uses syntax to buttress the metaphor in the previous line, “I am filled that day with vile or evil feelings––ill will toward one I think I should love.” Davis uses the anagram (vile and evil) to express variations of the same thing—a distortion. She also uses aural and visual rhyme with the word pair “ill and will” to a similar effect. This later passage ends with an image that echoes the story’s beginning: “Suddenly there it is, my own spirit: an old white dog with bowed legs and swaying head starting around the corner of the porch with one mad, cataract-filled eye.” The image of the white dog repeats the image of the fluttering coat. The syntax in these passages creates an echo chamber effect similar to impact of white space. Once again, Davis prioritizes revealing the narrator’s mind at work over logistics of scene. Davis’s syntactic structures adhere to Flannery O’Connor’s statement in her critical essay, “The Fiction Writer and His Country”: “for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning.” In much of Davis’s work, each word and phrase is a microcosm of the narrative process. She relies on syntax to reveal a story’s impact, cultivating her own notions of verisimilitude.

Whereas Davis’s syntax represents how narrators construct thought or memory, Deb Olin Unferth often uses poetic devices to reveal her story as an organism: Unferth is conscious of how words take shape on the page, considering the story as an object she can visualize. In an interview with Tao Lin, Unferth states, “I think: I want to write this book. I can see it in my mind, it’s perfectly formed, the structure is sound. It’s like an apple, it’s like something in nature. Why can’t I get it to look the same on the page?” This visual impetus appears in her story, “Passport.”

In the following excerpt of the story, Unferth repeats use of the conjunction “Or” to illustrate the extent of the narrator’s uncertainty:

It was robbed from her hotel room along with everything else. Or not the hotel room, but her person on the train. Or not the train, but the locked box or the bag. Or it happened in the hallway, or on the stairs. Or she never received it in the first place and had to call after it like a lost dog. Or she got one but good only for a year, renewable each November for the next ten. Or she sat in transit for hours and held it in her hand.
……….Or she wanted one but didn’t have one, or she lost one, or it was missing. Or she never had one, or she nearly had one, or someone did, someone with a name and face like hers, or someone with a mind, a head like hers.
……….Or she offered it to strangers, or she didn’t, or swore she didn’t, or she stood on a bridge and let it slip through her fingers.
……….Because she didn’t want to go home.
……….Because she thought home was here. (46)

Deb Olin Unferth, author of Minor Robberies

The placement of “Or” at the beginning of each sentence adheres to Olin Unferth’s visual impetus. Its repetition serves as a visual guide threading the reader’s gaze through the frenetic narrative. The syntax has a kinesthetic quality that reiterates narrative movement. Visually, it appears as a loophole a reader can literally slip through. And a reader might as well slip through these sentences because they’re structured to express the narrator’s reluctance to find her passport. The abrupt ending of the “Or” sequence emphasizes what follows the paragraph break, punctuating the narrator’s unequivocal desire with a direct disclosure that reveals the true reason she is frantic: “Because she didn’t want to go home. Because she thought home was here.” The last two lines read similarly to a couplet, and turning away from the “Or” sequence represents a narrative shift.

As a reader, I am struck by the poignancy of the narrator’s disclosure because of how the narrative is arranged. Syntax bears as much meaning as semantics, providing texture to the language, illustrating the narrator’s frantic state, and propelling the narrative. In her critical essay “The Killers,” Kathy Acker asks, “Where in the narration lies the real? … it lies in the connection between the ‘real’ events and the holes, the silences. In the slippages.” Unferth complicates conventional notions of verisimilitude, using the “Or” sequence to bridge the “real” external situation with the narrator’s interior state.

Virginia Tufte, in Artful Sentences: Syntax and Style, talks about “sentence perspective.” She says that, “the opening words of a sentence glance both backward and forward, establishing a relationship with what precedes and then bringing into view the new information” (155). But Unferth achieves a dynamic sentence perspective within the nucleus of a sentence itself. Unferth uses syntax so that her sentences and fragments simultaneously inform and reflect. Unferth plays with the relationship between semantics and syntax so her sentences implode then emanate with the sentiment of a word’s meaning—achieving a certain resonance

Specifically, in her story, “Ax” Unferth executes this effect with variations of the word vague; “A vague feeling of wrongness and possibly mistrust between them.” (Ax, 90). The fragment plays with parts of speech, using the abstract noun, “wrongness” and the qualifier in “possibly mistrust”: this usage insinuates uncertainty and a lack of clarity that harks back to the subject—the “vague feeling.” The sentence is verbless so there is literally no movement within the fragment. The line stagnates, creating a rhythmic lull to echo the meaning of “vague.” In a different story, “There, There,” Unferth reiterates the word vague through sonic repetition: “Drew, it turns out, is very vaguely very religious” (99). The twice-used “very” loops the reader back to the word vaguely through its rhythm and repetition. Though these fragments are not as rhythmic as some of the other examples, their elliptical forms share a likeness to some poetry.

Both Davis and Unferth are formalists whose prose reflects a degree of syntactic obsession. But these poetic structures don’t simply exist for the sake of lyricism or ornamentation. Their syntax creates a textual physicality crucial to the story. But the last author we’ll look at, Mark Anthony Jarman, forges a balance between syntax and narrative: rather than using syntax to replace narrative, he uses syntax to reinforce narrative. Jarman’s stories are typically longer with a greater emphasis on plot development and scene, but not at the expense of highly sophisticated and meaningful syntax.

Mark Anthony Jarman, author of 19 Knives

In an interview, Jarman says of his process, “I try to consider the reader, hope they can follow easily and that the sentences make a kind of sense, maybe in tone if not always in order or logic.”  Often relying on tone to resonate with a story’s meaning, Jarman uses syntax to reinforce plot in some of his nonlinear stories. His story, “19 Knives,” is a story about a father—having long-recovered from a narcotic addiction—whose son dies after mistaking his methadone doses for orange juice. The story is structured in shorter, nonlinear sections. In the interest of cohesion, Jarman uses syntax and image patterns to buttress the story’s nonlinear plot. The image from his line, “A strip of masking tape on my juice, where I wrote in big felt pen: DO NOT DRINK!!”  links to the reappearing tape in the section that follows: “Maybe he’s half asleep, floor cool, floating in pale pyjamas, ghostly, across our kitchen floor to the fridge, hesitates like a blank tape” (83). The punctuation and language create poetry of the line. Commas isolate fragments of a hypothesized memory of his son. The syncopation of the phrase creates suspense, emphasizing each fragment or word. The resonance achieved through syntax and image patterns isn’t merely ornamental lyric, but essential to narrative movement, heightening its dramatic effect.

There is an important resonance that occurs with Jarman’s repetition and phrasing. Because “19 Knives” is nonlinear, these repetitions simultaneously propel narrative and anchor the reader into the story’s events. Repetition and sonic patterns in the following line also reinforce the narrative process. Jarman writes; “He wakes up thirsty, a thirst like me, a night owl like me, like me his glasses folded on his nightstand, the night sky violet, quiet as a pyramid in the desert, no one up in our little house, kitchen clock ticking like an IV drip.” His repetition of “like me” establishes the narrator’s relationship to his son. Elliptical word and sonic repetition stratify the metaphor: The rhyme between “violet” and “quiet” and “ticking” and “drip” and repetition of the words “thirst” and “night” emphasizes not only the likeness between the object and its metaphor, but between the father and son.

The simile, “quiet as a pyramid in the desert” characterizes not only the house, but the son, alluding to his interest in ancient Egyptian society. The line, “ticking like an IV drip” also links to previous images of the narrator’s drug use in addition the scene when the son drinks the narrator’s methadone. Jarman’s metaphors and images connect backstory to the present drama. The line, “The door open, fridge light on the lino like blue light by the sea,” harks back to the narrator’s past salmon-fishing days. These metaphors not only transition seamlessly between the narrative moment and backstory, and provide narrative cohesion among sections in the absence of a linear plot. This cohesion hinges on the story’s syntax, sonics and image patterning.

Unlike Davis and Unferth, Jarman’s story prioritizes a balance between scene and syntax. But its syntax—simultaneously reflecting an interior state and narrative details—still complicates traditional notions of verisimilitude. Within the story’s poetic structure, the impact of metaphor resonates.

All three of these writers use syntax as metaphor, eliciting a sense of poetry in their prose that’s crucial to the architecture of the story: in the same interview with Sara Manguso quoted earlier, Davis says of poetry:

If I consider only poems with line breaks, then there’s an obvious rhythmical difference––the suspension at the end of each line, as opposed to the pause at the end of each sentence. But beyond that, I see each word or phrase in a true poem as being explosive, in a sense—it should open out or blossom in a reader’s mind.

Regardless of whether we consider poetry as a mode for prayerful haunted silences, or Davis’s notion of elliptical writing where each word blossoms in a reader’s mind—Davis, Unferth and Jarman each use syntax to muck up the landscape of fiction, creating a poetic effect while adhering to the general form of prose.

For my conclusion, I have a confession to make. There is a perverse and envious part of me convinced poets are permitted to dip from the well of inspiration at their bidding—in fact, that part of me feels that poets’ well of inspiration is larger and more vast than those puddles from which we prose writers must crouch, dog-like, to lap at their damp muddy edges. But of course I know this isn’t true. I know that poets torture themselves with the tedium of each word—that poets also experience feelings of drudgery. But narratives in poetry are circumstantial; poems with narratives are called “narrative poems,” whereas stories with narratives are called stories, and stories with little or no narrative might be dismissed as “experimental” or kitsch. A bias toward narrative storytelling is where some conventional notions of verisimilitude take root.

In her essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” Flannery O’Connor reminds us that “in strictly naturalistic work the detail is there because it is natural to life, not because it is natural to the work” (70). For prose writers, it’s important seek what the work desires rather than superimpose predetermined truth or meaning. In work that is nonlinear, or that prioritizes interior landscapes over exterior narrative scenes, syntax can function as metaphor to provide an alternative structure—a structure that physically realizes its narrative, similar in effect to some poetry.

In truth, the origin of my poet-envy stems from the idea that poets are inherently permitted to explore James Tate’s idea of “prayerful, haunted silences”; they’re permitted to reinvent ideas of verisimilitude as it pertains to their work—poems where the narrative process can be considered the heart of its truth. Poetry can use space (or refuse space) in order to explore or ignore these silences. There’s an inherent choice. In prose, a similar sense of space can be conveyed through intentional omission or fragmentation—using syntax to create slippages that provide space for resonance. These slippages can exist between the narrative process and narrative scenes; they can exist between the story told through narrative and the story expressed through syntax.

Davis, Unferth and Jarman showcase stories with syntactic structures that are integral to each story’s narrative. Their innovative syntax inspires readers to engage consciously with the text, aware of their role as reader while also staying aware of the narrative process. Though this aligns with Davis’s notion of work as artifact and Unferth’s idea of text as a physical object, it is not to suggest these works are artificial, but to suggest they engage with a kind of storytelling that purports the narrator’s mind at work. They are stories the problematize conventional notions of narrative and verisimilitude. Much like poetry, their use of syntax creates a form that is necessary to and inseparable from its content—inventing forms which demand readers to operate from a different set of assumptions or expectations.

Like some poetry, syntactically-driven work often appears deceivingly “inspired” or “spontaneous.” But what might stem from inspiration still must be honed and revised to the point of tedium if the syntax of image patterning, metaphor or phrasing can successfully compensate for more conventional narrative devices. It’s important not to consider the notion of syntactic “play” or “experimentation” haphazardly or at the expense of careful intention. Prose writers don’t want to engage in wordplay for the sake of mere ornamentation or because it sounds good or lyrical.

Trust me. I have written droves of plotless, lyrical stories. I still do. And what happens is that you will find yourself sitting in workshop among a tribunal of writers telling you the story has “nice language” or “beautiful prose.” This will be followed by an uncomfortable silence while workshop participants try to think of a nice way to tell you that nothing happens in your story. Beautiful language and syntax is nice, but it’s not a story. Prose writers might be able to thwart drudgery, but not at the expense of obsessive revision. In an interview, Mark Jarman explains the confluence of intuition and intention in his own process: “My process may influence the end result as I collect bits and pieces all the time and I move around parts until they seem to resonate with each other somehow. It’s a gut feeling and not really spontaneous in that I keep trying over time, trying different mixes and collisions.”



But when an intentional balance (or an intentional imbalance) is achieved between the emphasis on syntax and emphasis on narrative, a piece can venture beyond verisimilitude as we may know it. In her book, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing,  Helene Cixous states, “[Writers] go toward the best known unknown thing, where knowing and not knowing touch … writing is writing what you cannot know before you have written: it is preknowing and not knowing, blindly with words. It occurs at the point where blindness and light meet” (38). These slippages, the space between the knowing and unknowing allows opportunity for resonance. Resonance is one vehicle for a story’s truth; and form is one vehicle for resonance. I believe if prose writers explore poetic tendencies—if we unhinge ourselves from the drudgery of attempting to perfectly depict a narrative universe within staunch confines of realism—we may discover or invent poetic forms that answer to our work’s desire.

—Mary Stein


Acker, Kathy. “The Killers.” Biting the Error: Writers Explore NarrativeEd. Mary Burger, Robert Glück et al.
…..Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004. Print.

Baxter, Charles. “Rhyming Action.” Burning Down the House. St. Paul: Graywolf Press. 2008. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. New York: Columbia University Press. 1993. Print.

Davis, Lydia. “Form as Response to Doubt.” Biting the Error: Writers Explore NarrativeEd. Mary Burger, Robert …..Glück et al. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004. Print.

Eggers, Dave, Sarah Manguso and Deb Olin Unferth. One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box: Hard
.….to Admit and Harder to Escape, How the Water Feels to Fishes, and Minor Robberies. San Francisco:
 …..McSweeney’s Books, 2007. Print.

Davis, Lydia. The Collected Works of Lydia Davis. New York: Picadour, 2009. Print.

Jarman, Mark. “19 Knives.” 19 Knives. Toronto: Anansi, 2000. Print.

Jarman, Mark. “Round 2!” Message to the author. 28 Mar. 2011. E-mail

Myles, Eileen. “Long and Social.” Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative. Ed. Mary Burger, Robert Glück et
…..al. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004. Print.

O’Connor Flannery, “The Fiction Writer and His Country.” Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. New York:
…..Ferrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1970. Print.

Tate, James. “Live Yak Pie.” The Route as Briefed. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002. Print.

Tufte, Virginia. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Cheshire: Graphics Press LLC, 2006. Print

Weise, Jillian. “Let Me Be Reckless With the Word Love.” Satelitte Convulsions. Portland, OR: Tin House Books,
…..2008. Print.

  13 Responses to “Mucking Up the Landscape: Poetic Tendencies in Prose |Essay — Mary Stein”

  1. This is worth reading over and over and over again – Thanks Mary.

  2. Nicely done, Ms. Stein. I find that poets write terrific essays…what this has to do with your terrific essay is clearly beside the point, but it does run through my mind.

  3. Thanks for this eloquent and impassioned case for mucking up the landscape.

  4. This is a fascinating article.

  5. Mary, thanks for this convincing argument for bringing a poetic attention to words and syntax into the fiction writing process. As I write more poetry, I find myself becoming less satisfied with my accustomed approach to writing prose. Your essay has helped to clear some of the fog surrounding this bridge I seem to be crossing into a more poetic approach to prose.

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