Saturday, September 26, 2009

Virginia Woolf's Poetic Prose

There are some things that we struggle to define in literature. One of these seems to be poetry. I feel it can only be defined in opposition to prose. But what happens when an author uses the conventions of poetry in prose? Do you have a prose poem? This is not always the case. Virginia Woolf seems to weave the conventions of poetry into her short stories and it seems in some of her short stories, she is writing a prose poem. It seems that poetry and prose are defined as the author defines them. Woolf’s short stories blur the line between poetry and prose by using conventions from poetry with the presentation of prose (the continued lines without line breaks that create white space).

Kemp says “Woolf also expressed admiration for the Russian novelists, and shard with them a sense that chaotic or incoherent experience should be included in fiction” (62). I believe that this is why Woolf seems more poetic than conventional prose writers. One convention that Woolf uses that is present in all of her short stories is stream of consciousness. Though poetry is not considered to be stream of consciousness, modern and contemporary poetry lack a plot. Rather this poetry presents images and words that evoke the emotion.. Often these images and emotions can be seemingly unrelated. However, the poet strings them together in order to elicit an emotion. Compare how Dean young uses several images in his poem “Poem without Forgiveness” to the way Virginia Woolf uses stream of conscious to do the same thing for her readers.

You want to take back

the ugly thing you said, but some shrapnel

remains in the wound, some mud.

Night after night Tybalt’s stabbed

so the lovers are ground in mechanical

aftermath. Think of the gunk that never

comes off the roasting pan, the goofs

of a diamond cutter. But wasn’t it

electricity’s blunder into inert clay

that started this whole mess (Young 5-14)

Here young is using several different images, ideas, and metaphors in order to talk about an emotion/reaction to an event in a more abstract way, rather than just creating a straightforward plot. Woolf does this also in her short stories. For example, she says in “Monday or Tuesday,” “red is the dome; coins hang on the trees; smoke trails from the chimneys; bark, shout, cry ‘Iron for Sale’—and the truth?” In “Blue and Green,” she also does this, and she does it define the emotion or reaction that each color elicits. Woolf also does this on a larger scale with in her stories, jumping from character description to object, etc. For example, in “An Unwritten Novel,” there seems to be the cohesive idea of a woman with the speaker on a train. However, the speaker jumps from minute detail to description of inner thought so readily that a distinct plot is lost, and instead, we gain a sense of character and emotion. Woolf also uses concise word choice, something that modern and contemporary poets favor.

Woolf also uses alliteration in her short stories. In “An Unwritten Novel,” Woolf says, “They would say she kept her sorrow, suppressed her secret—her sex they’d say—the scientific people. But what flummery to saddle her with sex” (23). This repetition of “s” sound makes the sentence flow smoothly, and this uses of alliteration reminds the reader more of a poem than of short story. Both “Monday or Tuesday” and “An Unwritten Novel” are rich in these alliterations. Woolf also uses similes, which are not unique to poetry but are found more readily there. Also, she uses the repletion of phrases such as “that’s what always happens” and “hang still” in “An Unwritten Novel.” I feel like “Kew Garden” and “The Mark on the Wall” contain stronger plots and less poetic language. However, they do keep with strong imagery and a less clear plot than conventional short stories.

Having never read Virginia Woolf’s short stories, I was surprised by them. I loved the language and fluidity of the text. There is just so much going on in these short and concise stories that I feel I could read them repeatedly and still find them enjoyable because they don’t rely on plot.

Dean Young's “Poem Without Forgiveness” can be found at The Paris Review website.

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