Poetic Prose: The Art and Craft of Description

As a prose writer, I’m always looking for ways to gain valuable insight from other genres, and Mark Doty’s The Art of Description offered helpful cross-training for creating more powerful, descriptive prose. The book is summed up thusly: “Description is an art to the degree that it gives us not just the world but the inner life of the witness.”

The absolute best advice from this book is this: remove every adverb and adjective from your sentence and see what you have left. Then, strengthen every noun and verb by choosing the words with precision and accuracy. This is reminiscent of advice on writing dialogue, which was to elide all the dialogue from a scene and see if the speech still told a story. If not, rewrite it.

Doty begins by noting that perception is layered, and we often describe it in hollow ways, excluding strata of sensory perception that can give life to a description. Proust called it the “simultaneity of perception.” Doty notes that, although inadequate, it is a lovely feeling when the words click into place, and you feel that you have roundly described something.

He examines Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” which describes the fish as a “grunting weight,” evoking both sound and weight in a synesthesia, or melding of multiple senses. Writing is an attempt to make concrete moments out of life, which is anything but concrete. The use of detail in your description can help render it more lifelike, although it will only ever be an interpretation.

Detail in description can be used to slow down time and draw attention. He uses as an example Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which spent ten pages on a dinner, but passes a decade in a paragraph.

Description is, perhaps, innate, but can also be an acquired talent. Gerard Manley Hopkins kept notebooks of detailed observations about nature and used this to inform his poetry. This is important because the more accurate and sensory the description, the more the reader feels the observer and engages with the story and hears the “distinctive voice.”

This does not entail a catalogue of words—merely just the right words, evocatively used. The perfect example given is E. M. Forster’s description of the poet Cavafy as “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” This description says so much in so few words, evoking courtliness, rakishness, unyieldingness, and idiosyncrasy in the space of seventeen words.

The choice of one word can change the emotional impact of a sentence. He notes the use of “apparition” by Ezra Pound, which could easily have been “vision” or even “sight,” but would have lost the ethereal connotations.

The use of certain words evokes feelings. Sun, blaze, and golden evoke feelings of warmth, while pale, shrouded, and blue give off a cool feeling. This is the power that poetry can bring to prose—where every word can have power.

He walks through an exercise of naming a door, proceeding from “door,” which is wholly unsatisfactory, to “rough, scraped red door,” which evokes color and the tactile sensation of feeling the roughness, running fingers over the gouges. The same is true of leaves, which are a combination of tones and half-tones, and, to give the reader the true vision of them, must be described as such, and, to have synesthesia, should include their sound, or feel, or smell. As he notes, the more you look, the more you see, and the more information you get (this reminds me of the Art of Subtext, which spoke of the attentiveness of a child to an argument).

He proposes the use of simile and metaphor to enhance the “texture of experience,” as they draw on shared knowledge to make comparisons. In a way, he finds metaphor to be inquiringly descriptive, as you are inviting the reader to buy into your comparison—or not. This might especially be the case when you use a metaphor that juxtaposes natural and artificial—like grass that looks like knives.

He notes that occasionally you must admit you cannot adequately describe something but try to mine the power of that admission. Pablo Neruda’s description of the blood of children running in the streets during the Spanish Civil War was that it “ran simply, like children’s blood.” His “anti-simile” is all the more powerful for its directness.

There is an admonition to not fear treading on trodden ground, because if you avoid the “scaffolding” of expected seeing, you will awaken something in your reader, and yourself. However, balance this with the scalpel, because not everything needs to be described. The choice of what to evoke in a scene is the crux.

My takeaways:

  1. Practice the exercise of pulling adjectives and adverbs from each scene and give the nouns and verbs muscularity through precision.
  2. Decide the emotional impact you want scenes to have and pay attention to the word choices and descriptions to maximize that.
  3. Don’t over-describe the non-essential.
  4. Practice synesthetic description, especially when you want to slow down a scene and emphasize the importance or impact of it.

Stuart Phillips is a graduate of Ole Miss and Pepperdine Law School, now pursuing his MFA at Fairfield. He spends his time reading, writing, and going to concerts. You can follow his adventures on his site http://www.stuartphillips.work

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