I’ve just finished editing a 750 word story down to 250 words for a flash fiction submission. Such editing is a good discipline – it forces every word to earn its keep. And that’s what tight writing is all about. When you have 5,000 words to play with (let alone the 80,000 of a novel) the writer can be profligate – many of those words are just along for the ride. This is how superfluous adverbs slip in, along with any number of lazy elongated clauses.
It occurred to me that at some word length, to be experimentally determined (see below), the number of words, smelted and tempered, must be so small that the piece transitions from prose into poetry. My 250 word story is still prose. But what if I reduced it to 100 words, or 50, or 25? At some point an alchemical transmutation must occur. It must become haiku, the Japanese 17-syllable poetry form.
Take for example the poem that is probably the most famous of all the haiku, Basho’s frog. I don’t speak Japanese, so I have no idea what the original is like. But the translation I first came across as a teenager was Nobuyuki Yuasa’s
Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water —
A deep resonance.
On my shelves is also an early Victorian translation where the same poem receives this baroque rendering:
From out the depths
Of some old time pond
Is heard the plash
Where some lithe frog leaps in.
And then there’s James Kirkup’s brutally modernistic
You get the idea. It’s twilight, it’s eternal, it’s serene. Everything is ripe for realisation. And every word is doing really heavy lifting.
I looked on the Internet to find examples of very short stories. Fifty word stories were at a point of transition somewhere between prose and poetry. For example, this one by Brighid Ó Dochartaigh (http://scottishbooktrust.com/writing/love-to-write/the-50-word-fiction-competition/previous-winners)
I saw it through the swirling crowd. The red carnation tucked into your black wool jacket, just as you’d promised. Then he reached out and plucked it, lifted it to his lips, and smiled. You laughed and slipped your arm through his. I was only ten minutes late
But when you get down to ten words, the alchemy has occurred. For example, this one by pastelbitchquotes (https://www.tumblr.com/tagged/10-word-story):
I can’t keep kissing strangers and pretending that it’s you.
This led me in turn to wonder what the technical difference is between poetry and prose. In poetic writing, the words have to do double duty. Basho’s words are describing a frog jumping into a pond, but they are also evoking a sense of serenity. They carry a heavy charge of meaning. Perhaps that is one difference between prose and poetry – in prose, words mean what the mean, while in poetry words mean more than one thing. If you condense a piece of prose, like pressure on a lump of a coal, at some point the residual words take on a new form, and the coal becomes a diamond.
Metaphor, likening a thing to something else (‘shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’), seems to be central to this process. Metaphor goes to the core of how creativity and invention work.
I’m not just talking about poetry here. The same thing happens in science. One of the great unifying theories in science was James Clerk Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, which showed that electricity, magnetism and light were all manifestations of the same thing. He demonstrated that electrical and magnetic fields move through space as waves travelling at the speed of light. He borrowed the equations for wave motion from the study of water. It was a metaphor to say light is like a wave. This is how we understand new things, by seeing that they are “like” something we already know. Or take Darwin’s key realisation that the competitive struggle for survival drove evolution. He wrote The Origin of Species at a time when the competitive struggle for survival was all around him in industrial Britain.
Metaphor helps us understand the new thing, but it also transforms our understanding of the thing we already know. It creates a new tension between the things, which is not a relationship of identity but rather of kinship.
This may be how words come to take on a double cargo of meaning in poetry – they reveal a kinship we haven’t seen before. A work needn’t rhyme, or even scan, to be poetry, but it must have that double cargo.
Of course, new metaphors fade back into prose. They become so over-used they lose any revelatory power, and become clichés. ‘Emotional roller coaster’, for example. Eventually we forget they’re metaphors at all, and they become literal labels. We’ve forgotten that the words ‘bonnet’ and ‘boot’ for a car were anthropomorphic metaphors. Sadly, in Japan, Basho’s frog is so well known it has lost its power. We are fortunate that, for the rest of us, it still resonates.