Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Language is a storyteller's right arm. A knight's sword. A dancer's limbs.

Its use is also all but impossible to teach. Mostly, we ape the writers we admire, widening and narrowing our range of imitation until we are left with something that is 'us'. A natural way to learn, but we have to be careful to sample widely. And beautifully.

To learn language, image, rhythm, I read poetry. A poet can strike your soul the way a master swordsman cleaves flesh: you don't see the cut, only feel the blade lay open the bone...

"Behold, the grave of a wicked man"

by Stephen Crane

Behold, the grave of a wicked man,
And near it, a stern spirit.
There came a drooping maid with violets,
But the spirit grasped her arm.
“No flowers for him,” he said.
The maid wept:
“Ah, I loved him.”
But the spirit, grim and frowning:
“No flowers for him.”

Now, this is it —
If the spirit was just,
Why did the maid weep?


SQT said...

Good to see you back Steve.

Trying not to emulate, to the point of outright copying, ones favorite authors is very very hard. I usually find that my "voice" is more of a choir.

Charles Gramlich said...

I used to do a lot more analyzing of my own style or voice. I still agonize over word choice, but I don't think much about it as a bigger picture anymore. It's just what is right for that moment.

I think poetry is a great way to play with and acquire language.

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Sidney said...

I took a direct mail writing course in which they'd have you copy examples onto paper to let the style soak in, I guess. It's an interesting exercise and probably valuable in all forms to make you aware of voice.

Kind of like performing literature is a way of studying it, I guess.

cs harris said...

Good to see you back!

I fell in love with poetry late, in my early twenties. Before that I hated it. Perhaps if I'd come to it sooner...

Steve Malley said...

SQT, It's good to be back. :D

Charles, your posts lately have certainly been pretty poetic!

Audrey, with an unviewable profile, website instead of blog and what appears to be a focus on learning foreign languages, you'll forgive me if I think you're a spam robot...

Sidney, oddly enough, I'm having a similar experience right now: retyping my own work a page at a time, it's an interesting way to find the 'rough spots' in my voice.

CS, I didn't go all floppy-shirted and poetic until my late teens, either. Y'ask me, most young'uns aren't ready to connect with that sort of art before then.

Unless, of course, you present your three stanzas with a guitar bridge before the last chorus... ;p

Unknown said...

I loved peotry from early on...think it was my Irish grandfather's love it and continual reciting bits. Wrote journals full of the stuff through highschool and college but now never. I still find though when I read good poetry it reaches me in a way fiction never can :-)

Barbara Martin said...

I found voice in writing by doing it and reading those authors whose words flowed with brilliant description and meaning.

AvDB said...

I try not to overthink my voice, or let anyone else's work--no matter how much I admire it--influence me. My voice is just how it is, and any excess of tweaking has always resulted in it sounding stilted and hollow.

Shauna Roberts said...

When I started writing seriously, I spent a year writing short stories, purposely changing the tone, voice, and style of language in each, meanwhile continuing my job as a magazine writer. At the end of the year, I discovered that my voice was what was common to all of those different pieces.