Friday, March 21, 2008

The Limitations of Form

I wrote poetry for a year or so. I enjoyed it, then said everything I needed to say, so I stopped. Some of my favorite music uses poetic imagery. But the form of writing limits the author's ability to incorporate different elements.

Fiction authors that attempt to use poetic imagery throughout their work may fail to understand the limits of form. What this reader wants is a story that gets started and keeps moving. Once the motion of the story is established and the reader is inside the author's world, the author has more freedom to use strong poetic images. But, at first, the images are hit-and-miss. The author first has to orient the reader and build up the atmosphere.

In George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones the most cunning, merciless, schemer tells the most heroic, noble, honest character, "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground." In its place, that is a powerful line. The line cannot have the same power in this blog because the reader is not "in" the world of the story.

I recently read the lyrics to Tom Waits's song, A Soldier's Things. It is a powerful, moving song--all the moreso for its subtlety. But the lyrics do not convey the power of the song. The tenderness of the piano and the vulnerability of Waits's voice build the atmosphere. The slow speed of delivery hands the reader one image at a time, slowly, to ponder. Then the last two or three lines of each stanza delivers the punch. It is unbelievably powerful.

But the lyrics of A Soldier's Things on paper or computer screen rob the song of its power. The reader's eye moves too quickly to give the mind time to engage and build the emotional power. A Soldier's Things succeeds as a song, but, for me, fails as a poem. A short story that related the same experience would have many of Waits's excellent concrete images, but they would be couched in the words necessary to make a story and the images would lose their power, being so disbursed.

Many of the songs that I most like are similar to short stories. They have characters, a setting, action/plot, and atmosphere. But very little popular music has these elements. Mostly it has fragmented emotions attached to nothing.

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