Poetry for Fiction Writers: From Haiku to Pre-Islamic Arabic Verse

As noted in a prior post—Worry About Words—my greatest anxiety about creative writing is at the nitty-gritty word crafting level. I feel confident enough where non-fiction is concerned. But stringing together words that evoke time, place, action and emotion terrifies me. Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole, but you get the idea.

I’ve reviewed many editing resources: books, articles, videos, etc., so, I think I understand the principles of ruthless self-editing. If anything, I risk taking the word-crunching too far—cutting so close to the bone that there’s nothing left for the broth. Most beginning fiction writers over-write. I’ve been told that I tend to under-write. I’m content to lean towards minimalism, but I do want to leave the reader satisfied, not rushed through to a dry and exhausting end.

I recently stumbled upon a podcast about the value of poetry for fiction writers. The speaker happened to be an expert on Haiku—that minimalist Japanese genre that we all amused ourselves with in grade school. Intrigued, I ordered a couple of books—collections of the Haiku masters—and dove in. It required some refocusing of my brain but once I made my way, I found myself squealing with pleasure at these spare treasures.

How can you not love this stuff?

A bee
staggers out
of the peony.

Or,

Awake at night—
the sound of the water jar
cracking in the cold.

Or, one of my favorites:

Fleas, lice,
a horse peeing
near my pillow.

That last one made me LOL.

But seriously, the drilled-down immediacy of these tiny moments are exquisite and fun—like little STOP signs saying, Take notice! of everything.

Those three by Matsuo Bashō, 1644-1694 are just a sampling of the hundreds found in The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, & Issa, edited by Robert Hass.

Pre-Islamic Arabic Poetry:

At what may be the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve also begun reading pre-Islamic Arabic poetry—gleaning imagery, vocabulary and hopefully absorbing a bit of rhythm and worldview along the way.

This is from Reynold Alleyne Nicholson’s 1922 translation of the poet Labid’s Mu’allakat, so it is twice removed from our modern ears but that makes it all the more alluring.

Then quits he the field, the rain-floods ebbing round him:
He goes like a race-horse covered with cloths, no faster,
And makes for a winding gully; and now he ambles,
And now he puts forth the utmost of speed, unsparing:
His fore-feet cleave the shrub-sown sands of Dahna
As players for stakes who rummage amidst a sand-heap
He crosses the plain, alone, in his morning glory,
As bright as the blade of sword that is newly polished.

That’s just a taste. There’s so much more. But I’m holding back the best because I’m may put some of it in my characters’ mouths.

Authentic Language in Historical Fiction

Syriac_Sertâ_book_scriptStriving for authentic language is all very well when you are writing historical fiction that takes place in an English-speaking context – even going as far back as Shakespearean times.

But, what if you are writing about a time from which we have very few written sources, the ones available are in four or five languages, and each of those would require a PhD to be readable?

Written resources for my story’s exact period are few – there was too much upheaval for scribes to be writing it all down. I am thus limited to extant documents from the prior century, a few in my target century, and the rest written one hundred or more years on. And, they have to be available in English translation – because my pre-Quranic Arabic, Syriac, Aramaic, Latin and Greek are a bit rusty.

The other difficulty is: people don’t always speak the way they write. Does anyone really think the Elizabethans spoke in iambic pentameter? Formal Roman speeches probably did reflect written rhetoric because both were highly valued and intertwined skills. But, did they speak that way to their children? What about the speech of commoners? Soldiers? How do we know? We mostly don’t know.

(I once had a critique group member insist that people during my time period would not have used nicknames in dialogue. REALLY???  — Sorry, that’s still a sore spot.)

 

However, any good translation attempts to capture the style and syntax of the original. Since a direct translation of my period’s speech is impossible, and would be unreadable, my fiction efforts will focus on capturing hints of the cultural hierarchy in language, and some sense of rhetorical style, vocabulary, expressions and worldview. I will have to trust that my translated resources retain something of the original flavor.

But what I really want to know is: what English term do we use for “gunwale” when writing about pre-gunpowder times? Seriously, I can’t find a good substitute. I’ve seen other pre-gun era books use the term. If those writers even considered it, they probably decided to use “gunwale” rather than have to repeat over and over “that topmost strake of the boat”. I have found “saxboard” but no good etymology for the word – and would my readers know what it means? It sounds northern to me. I’m sure there was a term for the topmost strake in Aramaic, but, whatever it was, it would be meaningless to me and there seems to be no good English substitute.

You can see what I’m up against.

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction – Longlist:

I see a pattern. Do you?

  • A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie – England, Turkey, India – WWI
  • Arctic Summer by Damon GalgutEngland, Cairo, India – 1912 (unclear from reviews if/how much WWI figures into the story)
  • Mac and Me by Esther Freud – England WWI
  • The Lie by Helen Dunmore – WWI France; Post-WWI Cornwall
  • The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters – 1922 England, Post-WWI
  • Wake by Anna Hope – England Post-WWI
  • The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth – England Post-1066

Observations:

  1. Western writers and readers obviously still can’t get enough of WWI and WWII.
  2. The 1600s remains a popular era.
  3. The context of war is fertile soil for story.

Publishing note: The Wake by Paul Kingsworth appears to have been originally published in 2014 by a crowdsourcing process. See:

http://unbound.co.uk/books/the-wake

Can you guess which just jumped to the top of my TBR list?

The History of Byzantium Podcast

I just posted this on my Long Ago & Far Away blog:

I’ve been meaning to start a Resources page for this blog and will do so tonight.

But first, I want to highlight The History of Byzantium Podcast as it is a rich source of information as well as entertainment for treadmill duty or long drives up I95. I am partial to it since the eastern provinces of the old Roman Empire are my current focus, but I am convinced any lover of history will find them fascinating.

The blog posts include imagery, links to maps and to the related Facebook and Twitter sites. A few episodes are for sale – $5.00 – in order for the podcast’s creator, Robin Pierson, to help fund his otherwise voluntary effort. At this writing, the collection is up to 42 podcasts, the last of which covers AD 606-608.

Mr. Pierson began this project with the intent of continuing the efforts of Mike Duncan’s, The History of Rome podcasts – which started in July 2007 and ran to 179 episodes! I have linked to the first post/podcast, so you can start at the beginning.

Both of these sites have links to bibliographies and additional history podcasts.

Please let me know if you enjoy them or if you have other resources for our new Resource Page.

—- I will build a Resources Page for this site as well.

Happy listening!