Monday, September 22, 2014

Poetry vs. Memoir: "Forcing a Genre"

By “forcing a genre,” I mean insisting on writing a piece in a certain form, even if that form is not right for that specific work. I see this on a regular basis as a contributing editor of Catamaran Literary Reader. A writer will submit a poem that is divided into lines, the way a poem usually is, but the line breaks feel artificial. The language has the warp and woof of prose. It doesn’t have any of the compression or music that marks strong poetry.

Often when I see this happen, the author is writing very autobiographically. The story might be extremely compelling. So compelling, the writer feels such urgency to tell the story that he or she doesn't have the time to enrich the language with metaphor, imagery, and the sounds of words. It may not seem to that writer as if he or she has the luxury of using all those literary tools, since the message is so immediate. 

So why not write that piece as prose memoir? Memoir and poetry can be extremely close. Some writing that may feel thin when written as poetry can make wonderful memoir. 

Poets often recount particularly intense moments from their lives, as do memoirists. But for writing to be poetry, it requires a different approach, an approach where the writer is determined to wrestle the experience into art, rather than simply to recount part of a life. Poetry also often focuses on a small moment of large significance, whereas memoir usually tells a story over a longer period of time.

A book that's useful to look at in this context is Linda McCarriston’s Eva-Mary, a collection of poetry that is deeply rooted in the poet’s family history.

Linda McCarriston
Eva-Mary is partly focused on the abuse that McCarriston and other family members experienced when the author was growing up. There is nothing prosy about the writing in this book. The experiences that McCarriston recounts are memoir, in the sense that she is testifying that she witnessed them, but they are also poetry in every sense of the word. The music of the language and McCarriston’s deft use of metaphor all contribute to make this book pure poetry:

                               her heart
the bursting heart of someone
snagged among rocks deep
in a sharkpool

(from “To Judge Faolain, Dead Long Enough: A Summons”)

McCarriston's book also tells the story of a family, but focused on particular, highly charged moments.

I don’t think that all autobiographical writing should be poetry, or that it should all be memoir. But it’s important to recognize when a piece of your writing wants to be a different genre from the one you are forcing it into. Often this happens when a poem should really be memoir.

This can also happen in reverse. A piece of prose can be so dense, so tangled with metaphor and imagery that it demands the breathing room of line breaks to be assimilated and appreciated. Or a memoir that is fixed on particular moments in time could work better as a series of poems.

One caution about switching a work to another genre. Once you switch, there are alterations you have to make. The demands of prose are different from the demands of poetry. A prose version of exactly the same story may require more elaboration, more development of certain details or characters. Some poetic diction may have to be purged in the interest of maintaining authenticity. 

Conversely, a verse version of a story may require focusing more on a particular moment. Poetry also requires more figurative language and more focus on the rhythms and sounds of the words, so even the most poetic prose will need heightening to make it sing when it is broken into lines.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

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