Revisionism (part 5)

Here the focus changes to Bob, a centaur from Elegy Beach. Clearly the phrasing of the first sentence deliberately departs from a more standard, declarative narration. A flat statement would be “Bob raised a hand and the tribe stopped behind him.” Nothing wrong with that. But once again it’s a line that rises to the level of utility and no further. The interjection of rhythm into the sentence continues the sense of musicality, and I like that it lets the sentence and the action end on the word “stopped.”

There’s a sort of archaic tone to the line as well. I might as well just say that I want the narrative itself, not just the events it depicts, to rise to the level of myth. Whether or not it succeeds is in a way not really up to me. But to some extent I don’t really care about that. The point is to aim high. I’d rather do that and fall short than feel some satisfaction in the security of reiterating what everyone already does.

So after that comes one of my patented sentence fragments: “The sight before them beautiful and sad and wholly unimagined.” It’s funny, I can explain a lot about what I do to achieve certain effects, and why I go about doing it, even though I’m not really conscious of the underlying reasons at the time I do it (what, you think all this analysis goes on as I write this stuff? Good god no. That would be horrible). But I’d be hard pressed to explain why this sort of unpunctuated run-on fragment crops up all the time in my work. Lemme think about this a bit. But not too much.

So I cut “legend” out of the next sentence cuz it goes too far. One word too many, especially given the odd construction. Even with it out, the phrasing of “The girl their former nightmare sat upon the ground” demands a certain attention from the reader. It’s basically a dependent clause integrated into the sentence through the absence of punctuation. But if I’d set it apart the way most proofreaders would mark the thing up — “The girl, their former nightmare, sat upon the ground,” I’d end up with something that feels clumsy, with no rhythm whatsoever, and rendered merely descriptive. What an anvil drop of a sentence that would be. Argue about commas and people think you’re some kind of micromanaging OCD prima donna. But look at at the difference in that sentence without the commas. My loyalty is to the beauty or effectiveness of the sentence, not to its grammatical correctness.

Okay, so: Interestingly, I defragment the next line and render it grammatically correct. I think probably because too many fragments in a row starts to sound like a grocery list, but also because it’s a long sentence, and a long sentence fragment is kind of unfair, as the reader starts looking for subject/verb/predicate. (Well, initially readers look for these in short fragments, too, but I kind of teach them how to read me as I go. I don’t mean that to sound didactic, I simply mean that I try to ensure that the narrative provides clues to its interpretation: the cipher contains the decoder.)

Adding the word “real” doesn’t really add anything to the sentence in terms of meaning or focus — but it makes the rhythm more appealing (really). I changed this sentence still further later on.

I added a phrase to the last line because I didn’t like the clunky way it ended:  “and her intent was clear.” Clunk. I also didn’t like the way the narrative intrusion stood out. But “and they all stood mute amazed and honored” really wakes that sentence up, and doing it without commas causes a kind of image fusion, a connective association, between the words “mute” and “amazed” that wouldn’t exist if it were punctuated.  “They all stood mute, amazed, and honored” is just a list. There’s no music there. No resonance. No sense of mythic aim.

No poetry.

I won’t attempt to define poetry here (or anywhere). But I will say this: I want poetry in my prose. I want the poet’s sensibility present there. Because despite all the technique I’ve talked about, poetry isn’t in the words or their order or the way they are or aren’t punctuated. It isn’t in the sequencing and juxtaposition of images. It isn’t even in the meter or the sound. Poetry doesn’t happen on the page at all. It happens before the words ever get there. Because poetry is a way of looking at the world. It’s a lens that colors (or distorts, or diffracts, or magnifies) the language that goes through it.

What I’m talking about when I talk about writing or revision, when I vivisect those lines and show my tricks — elegant or shabby, obvious or invisible — is poetry.

2 Replies to “Revisionism (part 5)”

  1. Howdy, Phil! Comparisons to McCarthy do seem inevitable; a few reviews of Elegy Beach mentioned him as well. It’s a more interesting story than one writer being influenced by another, and I’ll be posting about it after this Revisionism series.

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