Almost every poet that I know is afflicted, to some degree, with ‘poetry voice:’ a form of speaking that’s characterized by an even volume, even pace, and a steady rise and fall in tone. For an example, listen to the following recording.
Anyway, it’s not the poets’ fault. They’re taught to read poems this way, in order to let the words speak for themselves. And when I’m listening to poetry, I can tolerate it.
But sometimes I’ll find myself reading a novel, and I’ll find that the writing reminds me, in some way, of poetry voice, and that is a thing I cannot tolerate. I hope you know the books I am talking about, since they are legion. These are the books with lots of short declarative clauses that contain short little Anglo-Saxon verbs and short little Anglo-saxon nouns: “I grew up in Eastwick. My mother was a swan. My father kept her in a cage, and eventually her feathers fell out. My sisters and I had little to eat, and our growth was stunted. But our house was full of love.”
These novels often have a very poetic syntax, in that they’re full of the sorts of poetic devices that abound in poetic speech, but are absent from regular speech. They are filled with chiasmus (“I don’t like my mother, and my mother does not like me”) and parallel construction (“Every morning, we pray to the sun, and every night we sing to the moon”) and asyndeton* (“My mother cleans and cooks and prays and fights and picks lice from our hair with her shiny beak”) and anaphora** (“I hate my mother. I love my father. I am indifferent to myself.”) and all those other little syntactical tricks that people have been picking up from the Greek and Roman orators for the last few thousand years. Part of the reason for these tricks, is, I think, that a lack of variation in the structure of your clauses means that the writing becomes very boring, on a sonic level, unless you find ways to contrast the clauses with each other.
You see writing like this in some literary fiction, but it’s also a style that’s very prevalent in fantasy novels. I think perhaps this is because it’s hard to hold very much information in short sentences like this. You can put a noun in there and you can have the noun do things, but you can’t say very much about who and what that noun is, and why it’s different from all the other nouns. Which means that the noun pretty much has to stand for itself. And that, in turn, allows you to work directly with archetypes. In this case, what do we know about my character’s mother? All we know is that she’s a swan. This writing style can be expanded a little. For instance, I could say, “My mother was a swan. I rarely saw her, though, since she’d only appear when I was unhappy. But that was seldom.” However, if you were to write something like, “My mother was a swan. A very large swan, actually: perhaps half the size and weight of my father. When I was young, she was absolutely silent, but sometime around my seventh birthday, my father tied bells to her feet, and after that, her presence always carried the sound of tiny, tinkling bells,” then, as you can see, we’ve pushed too much information into our paragraphs, and now the lyricism is starting to crack.
Personally, I cannot stand this sort of writing. I’ll open a book and read three sentences of “My mother was a swan” and then put it away. Because, I just don’t think the effect of the lyricism is worth the downsides. Sure, it does sound good, but it’s the prose equivalent of Muzak. It’s pleasant, but not pleasurable. It feels and sounds like important statements are being made, but they’re not. Instead, the lyrical wrapping constrains the prose so much that it becomes difficult to actually say or do anything. Not only does it leave you unable to describe what things look like or how people live or where they came from, but you also become unable to capture the rhythms of ordinary speech.
Still, if you read any randomly selected science fiction or fantasy short story, or pick up any critically acclaimed YA novel, you’re more likely than not to find writing that’s of the “My mother was a swan” variety. I don’t quite understand it. The crotchety part of me is tempted to just say, “Meh, these kids are operating off received notions of ‘good writing.’ They don’t have an ear for language, so they’re mechanically adopting certain tips and tricks without understanding the downsides of what they’re doing.”
However, the truth is probably that my own priorities are just different, and that other people genuinely enjoy and appreciate this kind of lyrical writing to a greater degree than I’m able to.
Still, ‘My mother was a swan’ writing is the number one reason why I’m sometimes unable to click with books that other people recommend to me.
*repetition of conjunctions
**repetition of the initial word in successive clauses
P.S. If you want to hear an example of a poet who is not using ‘poetry voice,’ then take a look at this video: