The nice thing about poetry is that you’re always stretching the definitions of words. Lawyers and scientists and scholars of one sort or another try to restrict the definitions, hoping that they can prevent people from fooling each other. But that doesn’t stop people from lying.
Cezanne painted a red barn by painting it ten shades of color: purple to yellow. And he got a red barn. Similarly, a poet will describe things many different ways, circling around it, to get to the truth.
— Pete Seeger
I love this quote. Once upon a time poetry was one of my two word mediums. (Nonfiction was the other.) I loved working with traditional forms, especially sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas. They taught me to listen to the words, to say them out loud. Every word had to count, and I had to trust each word to do its job, all the while knowing that I couldn’t control exactly what it did once I let it go.
Gradually my lines got longer and longer. One multi-voice poem turned into a one-act play. From plays I slowly eased into fiction, though I’ve never ceased to think of myself as primarily a nonfiction writer.
It’s been a very long time since I tried to write a poem, but every day I draw on what writing poetry taught me: to listen to the words, to play with them, to let them play with each other.
Am I still “stretching the definitions of words”? Probably not. An essay can include many hundreds of words, a novel many thousands. Too much stretchiness causes ambiguity, which is fine in a work short enough to be read and reread several times but not so fine in a long work whose readers may accept the occasional detour but still expect forward motion.
Still, I do plenty of circling around in both fiction and nonfiction, less with the words themselves than with the images and scenes I create with them. They blend and they clash, they resonate and dissonate. (Two dictionaries think I made “dissonate” up — maybe I’m stretching words after all.) Sometimes they startle me.
Wrote Emily Dickinson, a master of the poet’s art:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Perhaps the truth really is too blinding to be faced directly. I have no idea. I’ll let you know when I find it. For now, exquisite precision doesn’t seem to be getting me any closer, so I’m putting my faith in slant and indirection.