Poetic Influence On Fictional Expository Prose

Exposition is rarely unnecessary in fiction — exposition generally aids readers in becoming emotionally invested in the characters and their story. Some writers excel at exposition, some do not.

We’ve all encountered those novels that indulge in detailing the decor of a Victorian library, or the way a certain blonde walks into a room. For pages and pages the historical merits of Persian textiles, the color red, adds aesthetic value to that library; the cruel memories of an overly sensitive mother and distant father can build emotional context for how that blonde enters the room.

Two of my favorite writers excel at creating intense expository prose by employing poetic skills — John Steinbeck and Marilynne Robinson. These two can construct breathtaking, haunting landscapes with the ease that can only be credited to genius. Their character development is uniquely beautiful. Most notable, however, are those instances when they wander from the moment at hand to reach into the past, or into the personal motivations of a heroine, a villain, or history of a place. These are moments of poetry at work.

Two excerpts from Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson:

Because, once alone, it is impossible to believe that one could ever have been otherwise. Loneliness is an absolute discovery.

Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, till there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water–-peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires.

Two excerpts from East of Eden, by John Steinbeck:

A kind of light spread out from her. And everything changed color. And the world opened out. And a day was good to awaken to. And there were no limits to anything. And the people of the world were good and handsome. And I was not afraid any more.

He was born in fury and he lived in lightning. Tom came headlong into life. He was a giant in joy and enthusiasms. He didn’t discover the world and its people, he created them. When he read his father’s books, he was the first. He lived in a world shining and fresh and as uninspected as Eden on the sixth day. His mind plunged like a colt in a happy pasture, and when later the world put up fences, he plunged against the wire, and when the final stockade surrounded him, he plunged right through it and out. And as he was capable of giant joy, so did he harbor huge sorrow.

These two stories couldn’t be more different in theme and setting. Housekeeping is a mere 219 pages long, while East of Eden is a weighty 640 pages. I dare to mention them both because of the obvious influence of poets on each author.

Robinson has an affinity for Byron and Poe; among Steinbeck’s favorites were Eliot and Browning. Both writers enjoyed growing up under the tutelage of family members who loved art and history. Neither made great strides in writing poetry — they filtered all that literary adoration and natural talent into great works of fiction.

In reading either novel I’ve mentioned, other influences are also apparent. Even so, the poetry is undeniable.

Poetry, as so aptly stated by Grant Faulkner, April 2012, “is a craft of compression. Poems don’t have many pages to make a point, so their narratives tend to move through fragments rather than exposition.”

East of Eden pays a great deal of attention to the change in physical surroundings — the way the land can heal itself, alter under the influence of climate and age from one type of beauty to another. And while this novel indulges in lengthier discussion of the landscape, of characters and the passage of time than Housekeeping, the “art of compression” is apparent — Steinbeck’s vibrant word choices create intensity, emotion, and movement unmatched by most epic trilogies and modern cinematographic feats presented on the big screen.

Another book I should mention is Of Bees and Mist, by Erick Setiawan. One of these days I will make the time for a second reading of this remarkable compilation of folk-tale, poetry, romance, and magical realism. The language, the depths of emotion, and again, the movement of the story is astonishing. Perhaps Brigit’s Flame should start up a book club …

More to today’s point, however: Do you enjoy novels that employ the poetic? Have you noticed poetic influence in past, or recent, fiction readings? Please feel free to share some of your favorites. Is it possible to name the source of those techniques? The poets who might have inspired these authors? 

It’s time to read and share feedback on our writers’ interpretations of August’s first prompt! Get your comments and votes in by Thursday night.

“Ignorance is Bliss” is the prompt for Week Two. Entries are due by Sunday — Just For Fun entries will be accepted if you didn’t get the opportunity to enter Week One.

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4 Responses to Poetic Influence On Fictional Expository Prose

  1. t.s.wright says:

    I’ll have to give Steinbeck a try. I like the excerpt.
    The othe author’s second excerpt did not interest me. Perhaps if I could envision Carthage or a salt calyx, but even then…

    I’ve read Of Bees And Mist, at your urging, and loved it. And I have shared with you some Alice Hoffman, who is my favorite of poemy-prose writers. Cathrynne M. Valente is another like Hoffman. I love her observations, metaphors, and similes.

    I don’t know enough poetry to offer a possible influence, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Books About Writing | Brigit's Flame Writing Community

  3. t.s.wright says:

    Steinbeck was listened to today. I chose “The Pearl”, because folklore. I’m really liking it. I wish I’d had more traffic today so I could finish it.
    I also picked up East of Eden. Going through the list on Audible, I realized I read Of Mice and Men in my theater class. I liked it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh, I’ve never read The Pearl! Enjoy East of Eden, just stay away from the film version — that was a criminal act.

    Reading through your earlier comment made me realize I should have mentioned Hoffman. Ever since you recommended that first book —The Red Garden — I’ve wanted to read it again 😉


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