Killer Year–The Class of 2007


Ode to Poetry
March 7, 2007, 12:09 pm
Filed under: Derek Nikitas, Killer Year Members

Last weekend I saw a presentation by Walter Mosley as part of a convention for college creative writing instructors.  I was excited to see him, not only because he was one of the few fellow noir writers to crash the literary party, but also because I’d been reading Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress.  I’ve been getting cut to pieces by his razor sharp language, and I wanted to meet the man behind the masterpiece. Mosley has just written a novel-writing instructional book called This Year You Write Your Novel, though its not out until April.  The book’s purpose is evident in its title, and its introduction (which Mosley read to his audience) reveals it’s a beginner-level book that “demystifies” the writing process and encourages anyone with an itch to write to write.  In essence, he’s taking novel writing to the streets.

The presentation was supposed to have been a debate of sorts between Mosley and Francine Prose, who, apparently, has also recently written a book about writing—one that undoubtedly characterizes great writing as an alchemical process that only those studied specimens of cultural and aesthetic greatness could possibly achieve.  It would’ve been a great debate, and Mosley was looking forward to it, but Prose had to cancel because of a family emergency—leaving Walt alone before a crowd that you might say was politely hostile to his claims. 

But Mosley didn’t give a damn.  In the first five minutes he said he didn’t know what all the fuss was about in writing instruction—that, given sixty minutes, he could tell a student everything he knew about writing a novel.  He was telling this, you understand, to a crowd of people who congregate under the doctrine that learning how to write takes hundred upon hundreds of hours, years of practice, and at least a master’s degree.  Me, I was just star struck, so I didn’t give a shit how I felt about what he was saying.  Mostly.  What he said to us is what you’d hear in any intro fiction writing class, stuff I’d been telling my own students for years.  But I was impressed by his ability to sharpen ideas down to their cutting edges, like his notion that plot is nothing but “the structure of revelation.”  That is, plot is simply the author’s conscientious selection about when and where to reveal story information.  Simple enough, but Mosley said it in four words.  Then he told a fantastic dirty joke to illustrate his point, one that I won’t ruin here.  Hopefully it’ll be in the book.

The most surprising moment in Mosley’s presentation was his claim that eighty percent of fiction is poetry.  I stopped breathing for a second.  He seemed to know that he’d shocked his audience—populist, genre-hack, simplifying Walt was telling us that the most “literary” and “mystical” form of writing, poetry, was the most essential tool for a fiction writer.  Eighty percent!  He called himself a failed poet, but he claimed that reading poets had taught him the most about writing—about the language itself, rhythms and figures of speech, syntax, metaphors, etc.  Because he was trying to whet our appetites for his book, he didn’t really get into much detail about his claim.  Yet he’s still got me thinking about it days later.

I agree with Mosley about the relationship between fiction and poetry, even though I know that many published writers out there don’t think much about language, not consciously anyway.  Me, I anguish over every line, every word—not just in terms of diction but also sound.  When a copyeditor sends back a manuscript in which some of my word choices have been replaced, or my clauses moved around, I sometimes feel as if I’ve been struck in the back of the head with a lead pipe.  Change a word, especially if the new word has a different number of syllables or a different stress pattern, and you change the whole voice of the sentence.  To me, it’s like those bowdlerized movies you see on television, where a swear word is conspicuously replaced by a nicety spoken in somebody else’s voice.  The first sentence of Donald Westlake’s The Ax is: “I’ve never actually killed anybody before, murdered another person, snuffed out another human being.”  Look at the way each clause adds more syllables to say the same thing, each time using more clinical language, as if the speaker is running this idea through his head over and over, trying to make it sound acceptable and do-able.  Replace any of those words and the whole sentiment crumbles. 

The first sentence of Elmore Leonard’s Bandits is: “Every time they got a call from leper hospital to pick up a body Jack Delaney would feel himself coming down with the flu or something.”  Leonard is not a writer full of flashy language effects, but the effects are nonetheless there—masterful because they don’t call attention to themselves.  Imagine if this sentence had a comma before the word Jack (it is technically supposed to) or if “coming down with” were replaced with “getting.”  Total destruction.  Some reader might not see it, but they feel it in their bones when the words of the sentences tumble against their own natural body rhythms. 

I couldn’t read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for years because the first paragraph terrified me with its power: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.  My sin, my soul.  Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.  Lo.  Lee. Ta.”  It’s almost orgasmic—the rhythms, the beating of the “l,” “s,” “p” and “t” sounds, the graphic description of what one’s tongue does in one’s mouth when one says the word Lolita.  The narrator doesn’t say “I’m obsessed with a pre-teen girl,” but all the nastiness, oppressiveness, obsession, yearning and poesy is there in just a few words.  Throughout the novel, Nabokov will play poetically with this name and its parts.  Lolita’s mom will call her “Lo,” and Lolita will reply, “and behold.”  The middle syllable, Lee, will be thematically connected to E.A. Poe’s poem “Annabelle Lee,” an obsessive, gothic poem about a man yearning for his dead teenage lover.  The associations are endless, and they are all the calculated, conscious poetics of a man who wrote his novels paragraph by paragraph on index cards, revising each until they were as perfect as poems.

As a beginning writer, an undergraduate, I was not conscious of the rhythms of my prose.  Somewhere along the line, probably in graduate school, (see, it does take more than an hour!) I learned to listen to my syllables and stresses.  Still, I never learned to consciously manipulate them until I had to start teaching undergraduates how to write poetry.  Suddenly, I was immersed in meter, in iambs, trochees, anapests, dactyls.  Suddenly, I realized the power of metrical feet, and how they could be employed to make prose sing, even “tough” noir prose.  These days I’m in a PhD program at Georgia State University, studying poetry as a student for the first time.  Entering the program last year, I anticipated learning poetry for the sake of teaching poetry, not quite realizing that what I’d be learning would be directly applicable to my own prose.  But, even as I write this, I’m taking an intensive class called Form and Theory of Poetry—a course which is shedding a glaring light onto my dim writing abilities.  Sure, I listened to my prose and worked it until it sounded right, but I never could’ve explained to myself or anyone else WHY it sounded right.

Now I’m learning, and the knowledge is thrilling.  And Mosley’s eighty percent seems more correct with each new effect I learn.  Who knew that the English language was mostly made up of iambs (two-syllable units, the first syllable unstressed and the second syllable stressed)?  It’s baseline speech: duh-DUH, duh-DUH, duh-DUH.  Notice the sentence “It’s baseline speech” is two iambs.  As long as you’re writing in iambs, generally speaking, your prose is going to sound like regular talk.  Mess around with it by substituting different kinds of metrical feet, and your prose starts to have cool effects, different emotions.  Take the anapest (unstressed-unstressed-STRESSED).  This is a very light, lyrical, almost comic foot.  Limericks are mostly made of anapests, and that’s partly why they’re funny.  They just sound funny; “there once was a man from Nantucket” is iamb-anapest-anapest (with one syllable left over at the end, which makes it even sillier; compare it to, for instance, “there once was a man from Kent,” where the tough finality of the final stressed syllable gives the line a tough, less-funny ending).                

On the other hand, trochees (STRESSED-unstressed) and dactyls (STRESSED-unstressed-unstressed) are tough and sudden.  If you’re going along talking or writing in iambs, the sudden trochee or dactyl has the power of a slap or a punch.  It’s no surprise that the word “sudden” is a trochee “suddenly” is a dactyl, as are the names of many countries (Mexico, Canada, Germany, Italy—sounds tough).  I wrote an entire noir novel and many noir short stories while having no idea of the power of a trochee, but now that I know I feel it’s indispensable.  Tough guy or tough gal prose is full of troches and dactyls.  In fact, a late 19th Century writer named Gerard Manley Hopkins devised a unique kind of poetic rhythm called “sprung rhythm” meant to counteract the milquetoast iambic writing that predominated the metrical poetry of his age.  He wanted his poetry to have muscle and power (mainly for religious purposes), so he wrote lines like: “but ah, but Oh thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me/They wring-world right foot rock? Lay a lion limb against me…” (he’s asking God why God is beating him up emotionally and spiritually).  Sprung rhythm is all trochees, dactyls, spondees (two stressed syllables), and even strings of single-stressed-syllable feet like “wring-world right foot rock.” 

The more I thought about it, the more I began to think that Hopkins’s sprung rhythm might have marked the dawn of noir prose, since Cain and Hammett and Chandler and Hemmingway came shortly after Hopkins.  Look at the first sentence of James Ellroy’s White Jazz: “The job: take down a bookie mill, let the press in—get some ink to compete with the fight probe.”  That’s sprung rhythm, folks, and Ellroy doesn’t let up for the rest of the book.  The manipulation of language with metrical feet is just one of the dozens of poetic tools that seem to me directly applicable to fiction writing.  And I’m just beginning to learn this stuff.  Sorry, Mr. Mosley—I’m with you on the poetry thing, but not the “give me sixty minutes” thing. 

Give me a lifetime and I won’t learn everything that poetry can teach me about novel writing.  Take density, for instance: the poet’s ability to say a lot in a few words, to make every line resonate with other lines, to make language sounds echo and contain each other, to surprise the reader at every turn and set up the next utterance, to make the reader slow down and intuit much, much more than what is actually on the page.  Is this not a lesson for the fiction writer to learn? 

If you take another look at Ellroy’s White Jazz sentence, you see density at work.  Ellroy could’ve written shit like:  “I’m a member of law enforcement and my commanding officers have given me a job.  Part of my job will be to raid a gambling establishment and arrest the bookies, but another part of my job will also be to ensure that newspaper reporters are alerted to the raid and permitted entry into the scene after the arrests have been made.  I understand that this raid on the gambling establishment is not happening so much because of law enforcement; rather, it’s happening because of politics, as my commanding officers hope that the media attention the raid will receive will help deflect the public’s attention away from another news item that is embarrassing them—namely, the police department’s involvement in an illegal scheme of fixing boxing matches.” 

That’s NOT density.

Understand, I’m not suggesting that a fiction writer needs to know any of this stuff consciously in order to be successful—though I do believe an unconscious feel for it, at least, is essential.  Nobody who writes like the above bastardized version of Ellroy’s prose is going to be a successful writer.  I’m also certainly not suggesting that most readers have a conscious sense of prose rhythm.  It’s all smoke and mirrors; when it works, readers usually has no idea how it’s working.  They do, however, bristle when the writer is tone deaf.  Something’s wrong, even if the reader doesn’t know what. 

All I’m suggesting, finally, is that my recent foray into studies in poetic form has left me enlightened, invigorated, inspired, and more confident in my abilities to make good fiction.  More importantly, my studies have convinced me that fiction writers—even the ones who convince somebody to publish them—never stop learning how to write—and there are yet worlds and worlds of skill out there for us to strive toward.  

Derek Nikitas
Author of Pyres 
St. Martin’s Minoutaur
October, 2007        

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8 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Thanks for the detailed post. I’m always interested in what Walter Mosley has to say.

Comment by Naomi

Wow. Fascinating. Truly. Your post alone is enough to inspire a writer to change the way they look at their craft. I know I will.

Comment by Rob

Terrific post, Derek (as usual). I know that I learned a great deal about prose from poetry, but also from music (I play the piano) and from painting (layering, effect of light and shadow). In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that next week I’ll post on the latter to as a companion piece to yours here, rather than take up a lot of room in the comments section.

Comment by toni mcgee causey

Wow. My head is spinning.

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