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Showing versus telling

Showing versus telling

Abby Sarah's picture

I guess I’ll start with the barometer statement. It’s hard to place myself on that scale because even now as we’re talking about the slippery nature of language, there are, as you mention, many ways that we can envision what “poetry” looks like and what “prose” looks like. Some prose is intensely poetic, and some traditional verse is little more than exposition. That said, if this were class, I would have to take a stance, so I’m going to stand fairly far on the disagreeing side of the barometer.

Part of the reason that I disagree that “poetry conveys a more raw experience than prose” is the above mentioned fact that there are so many different ways to define something that is poetic versus something that is prose. A narrative in itself can be poetry. It’s poetry with action, as opposed to words. What Marian is describing makes me think of a piece of advice that anyone attempting any sort of creative endeavor (for me it’s been in both writing and theater) has possibly received, which “show us, don’t tell us.” This “showing” versus “telling” dichotomy seems at play here. The model of prose that is being put forth with this barometer statement is that poetry more often ‘shows’ us a particular emotional moment, mostly from what I can gather by prioritizing the emotional realities of a moment over the literal occurrences, or ‘motions,’ as it was put by Caleb and Marian. They continue to see prose then more as “telling;” it gives us the motions of the moment with the hope that we recognize the motions as indicators of certain emotional realities that we’ve had. Such is the point where more translation is occurring than in poetry.

However, the ‘motions’ put forth by prose can absolutely “show.” I think that the braided nature of the stories in The Hungry Tide is a form of showing a certain reality by simply doing it, not unlike the way poetry uses specific language to embody an emotional moment. In fact, if you consider a prose narrative being able to put forth action, which can be as simple as you do something or you don’t, and you imagine that emotion is an individual lens that colors the world, perhaps the representation of action is in itself more ‘raw,’ than the attempt at representation of emotion. (Which also happens to be the basis for most modern thought on acting theory.) That said, prose, like poetry, must contend with experience being translated to the page. The way that they go about doing so are often different, but one inherently doesn’t contain the ability to give us a more “raw” experience.

None of this necessarily answers the question of what Rilke is doing in the middle of this particular novel. Perhaps, similar to Marian’s suggestion, he exists in the novel to be for Nirmal what other texts that we found particularly ‘raw’ might be to us. Nirmal brings his own experience to Rilke’s poetry and in it finds something that he believes to be the right companion for the experience he’s trying to represent. Aren’t we attempting to do the same as we study all these different texts?  Poetry or prose might not inherently be more ‘raw’ than the other, but it becomes what it is upon contact with us, so for some of us poetry speaks more ‘truths’ and for others prose does. 

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I like the way you shift Marian and Caleb's question from what is more "raw" (btw, do y'all know the famous book, The Raw and the Cooked, by Claude Lévi-Strauss, which is a famous anthropologist's infamous description of what culture is doing: "cooking" what is "raw," "making it 'done'"?).

Maybe, rather than a distinct poetry/prose dichotomy in the structure of words—chapter vs. verse, narrative vs. exposé—we need to blur those lines and look more closely at "poet" as the word. I think if we disassociate "poet" from poetry as solely a genre category, we can open up some different conversations beyond the poetry/prose binary. Maybe a poet, like Nirmal, doesn't have to solely write in the genre poetry. If anything, Nirmal shows us that a poet, or one who "lives through poetry", does not have to fit into a poetry/prose dichotomy.