April 30, 2020
Writing is both a craft, which is learned and honed over time, and an art, which is unique and adds to our collective culture. And within the realm of writing, we generally divide this art by prose and poetry. Prose contains both fiction and nonfiction but for the sake of this little chat, let's focus on story (which can be fiction or narrative nonfiction). So, the art of story and the art of poetry.
Story Expands Our World
The whole purpose of story is to expand our experience beyond what we can actually live. Real life tends to have limits. We can only travel so far and experience so much in our lifetime. But story can let you visit any part of this world, and beyond. In story, we can experience life on a space station or even an alien planet. In story, we can live under the sea. Story expands our experience and lets us journey far beyond places we've ever been or ever will be.
Story isn't bound by time either. Story can take us into the past, both the historical past and even further into the past we know only vaguely through what little evidence is left behind. Story can take us into the future, or a possible future anyway. Story can let us meet famous people long dead or predict the birth of those who may or may not live someday. Story can even let us see what might have happened if history had unfolded a different way.
There's a line from the opening narration of the "Outer Limits", an old television anthology, that says, "We can deluge you with a thousand channels or expand one single image to crystal clarity and beyond." Whenever I think of poetry, I am reminded of that line because the whole point of poetry is to expand a single moment, a single emotion to crystal clarity and beyond. Story may take us on a breakneck pace through time and space, but poetry makes us pause. It says, "Slow down; hold up; look at this." Poetry often doesn't try to take us to someplace far outside our experience and instead zeros in on things we probably have experienced or felt but maybe not paid proper attention to.
Even when poetry is used to tell a story (as in novels in verse), the book is often made up of these tiny snapshots of very specific moments. It is only when all the snapshots are viewed together that the collage of them makes the larger overall story.
Story can take us on epic journeys in the space of a few hundred pages (or even fewer in the case of picture books). In bare handfuls of words my favorite of all picture books, Where the Wild Things Are, took us far from Max's home and introduced us to a new land filled with wild things. The illustrations helped slow down the journey a bit but overall, that trip was made at breakneck speed. But in a poem, we throw on the brakes and spend time contemplating the smallest thing. Think of the very famous William Carlos Williams' poem about someone who ate plums from the icebox. The poem is barely over two dozen words long but it makes us pause and think about the physical experience of eating plums, but also the very act of taking something that isn't yours and then dealing with the aftermath of having done it. In those bare few words, he illustrates the perfect "sorry, not sorry" moment. The poem does so much by making us stop and pause and ponder this very specific moment.
So which is better: to be intensely present in a single moment or to journey beyond ourselves? Both offer the reader important pieces of being alive. Both are necessary, even though the lift they give us can be so very different. So this piece is a salute to both the prose writer and the poet. Too often in the struggle to produce, we forget that this thing we are producing is important. As we slog through the frustration of submission and dealing with rejection, we can forget that the end result is worth the struggle. Without story and poetry, our culture would be smaller, colder, and duller. Poetry and story make us stronger and more aware. They're worth our time. So whichever you do today, I salute you. Be brave. Keep on creating. You may be the one who creates the art that lifts the heart of someone who needs it so very much. In my book, that makes you a hero.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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