When fiction writers refer to putting poetry in our prose, we’re usually thinking of extended metaphors, expansive descriptions, and lyrical writing, all of which are indeed poetic and bring beauty and depth to a piece of prose. In The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, as mentioned elsewhere in this blog, the bees act as an extended metaphor, foreshadowing the early threats in the plot and becoming part of what is nurtured by the end. Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha is rich with exotic descriptions. And all the novels recommended on these pages have lyrical writing, by which I mean words that are soaked in the voice of the protagonist and laid down with an ear for the rhythm behind sentences and the build of beats that drives each paragraph to its end. I hope to say more about all of these in the future. But a less obvious kind of poetry underlies the most engaging of fiction, regardless of genre: that of deep connection.
A novel is a work of sympathetic imagination. To achieve that, we need to allow ourselves to sink into our characters, share their heads and eyes, delve their feelings, and find their truest words. When Olive’s husband observes her alone in the garden in the beginning of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, “[h]e wanted to put his arms around her, but she had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away.” We get both his insight about Olive, which is stunning, and his confession of the distance between them, which is all the more heartbreaking in its restraint. We see two lives in one flash.
Another striking example appears in The Hours by Michael Cunningham, when Virginia Woolf grapples with one of her headaches: “Strands of pain announce themselves, throw shivers of brightness into her eyes so insistently she must remind herself that others can’t see them. Pain colonizes her, quickly replaces what was Virginia with more and more of itself, and its advance is so forceful, its jagged contours so distinct, that she can’t help imagining it as an entity with a life of its own.” Her words are too analytical for most of our characters, but they seem so right for Virginia – I ache for her as she tries to manage the unmanageable with her fierce intelligence, all the while knowing how futile it is.
But the character doesn’t have to be a poetic writer herself for the writer to find the poetry in another mind. In Disobedience by Jane Hamilton, the teenage Henry confides in the reader: “To picture my mother a lover, I had at first to break her in my mind’s eye, hold her over my knee, like a stick, bust her in two. When that was done, when I had changed her like that, I could see her in a different way. I could put her through the motions like a jointed puppet, all dancy in the limbs, loose, nothing to hold her up but me.” I believe the writer found that insight by submerging herself so deeply in Henry’s perspective, that she could look up at his mother along with him and discover how he felt.
In essence, that’s what deep connection with a character is: writing the poetry our characters would write if they could. Their perspective, their voice. The confessions of another soul.