Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Once Upon a Time

I recently read two books of poems by Naomi Shihab Nye. She has a beautiful style that paints personalities in just a few words. She writes about the beauty of life and the difficulties of human relationships. She speaks for her subjects with optimism and sentimentality, using free verse.

I also employ quite a bit of free verse in my poetry, and I've noticed that when you take out the line breaks it becomes difficult to distinguish a free verse poem from regular old prose. Jack, the poet in Love That Dog, read a famous poem and said,

     If that is a poem . . .
     then any words
     can be a poem.
     You've just got to

It turns out, Jack was wrong. But why? What makes Nye's poems poetic? It's not just the great metaphors, though I love her imagery. It's not the introspection--prose can do that. It is, I think, in the efficiency of her words: they fit a huge amount of story into a minimum of plot.

If you are confused by that sentence, you aren't alone. Until a month ago I'd never considered that story and plot are not the synonyms we so often mistake them for. Consider, for example, this plot synopsis of a well-known play:

"After his father's ghost instructs him to kill his uncle (who committed regicide and married the queen), a young prince thinks aloud a lot and verbally abuses his girlfriend. Both of them and their families die."

Although trite, that actually does sum up Hamlet quite well. Even if I extended the synopsis to explain all of the events and characters, you would still only have the plot of Shakespeare's most famous work. What happens is important, but much less important than how those happenings influence Hamlet and company. The story is not about what occurs but about the people involved. Hamlet is amazing because of the people in it, not because of the sword fighting or the suspense or the ghost. Story contains the character arcs and their interactions, the elements of humanity that have nothing to do with Denmark and everything to do with being and not being.
(For more trite plot summaries, see this blog post by Shannon Hale).

There are these two elements, then, that go into a work. Assuming that both are good quality, the balance determines the genre of writing. More story than plot? It's a poem. About equal? It's a good book. More plot than story? Good fun escapism. (My obviously oversimplistic definition doesn't apply to all poetry, of course. Some of it is still about the sound of words and the richness of images.)

Plot can be exciting, but story is what ignites our imaginations, story is what powers our personalities, and story is, in the end, what we love.

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