From rhyme schemes to time schemes, poetry to prose

07 June 2009

by Jacob Polley

Here's what I reckon you need to write a novel: decisiveness. I'm not used to exercising this particular quality when I'm writing a poem. A poem is a way of revealing, and it will reveal nothing if, in its writing, it isn't allowed to go somewhere unexpected, the directions to which are not mapped out in advance.

I began to write my first novel, Talk Of The Town, in this same spirit of suspended decisiveness. Surely if I write a whole heap of pages, I thought a few years ago, I might find a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. I had a character with a compelling voice, Chris, who was telling a story, and I knew he had a compelling problem - a missing best friend - but I was as ignorant as he was about what form his quest would take, and how it would end. I thought I'd trust the writing itself to show me the way.

So I wrote and wrote. And I loved the writing. I could have written Chris for hundreds of pages, following him for weeks, or years, rather than the day and the night covered by the book. I took wrong turns, because I'd doggedly allow the writing to flow, like water, where it wanted to go, waiting to see if a new scene or a new character would provide a solution to Chris's, and my, dilemma.

There comes a certain point in a narrative when what you've written contains all the seeds from which an end can bloom. This is a bit like our conception of fate. A life begins and, right at that moment, huge events are set in motion by seemingly minor decisions, strokes of fortune and traits of character; and it is in this vision of life as an accretion of small significances that 'gathers to a greatness' that we find drama - both tragedy and comedy. I reached such a point in my written narrative a few years ago. I had what I was pretty sure was three-quarters of the book, and I was pretty sure that this three-quarters contained all I needed to 'divine' a dramatically satisfying end.

I use the word 'divine' because here was the point in the writing when I had to decide, rather as the Greek gods lounging in their cloudy hall in the film Jason and the Argonauts decide, what the fate of Chris and his best mate Arthur would be. I was hearing the great Nick Cave singing 'I don't believe in an interventionist God', because against all my instincts as a writer of poems, I had then to become a writer who intervened and decided on the shape of a narrative based on an interpretation of what I had already written.

As I've said, I don't think you decide much in a poem. You might give yourself a scheme, like a rhyme scheme, but the fulfilment of such a scheme is only tangentially connected to where the poem is going. The scheme of a poem actually functions as a means to make decisions based, not on the content of a poem, but on the organisation of sounds; a means, in other words, of keeping the mind occupied by engaging the ear, in order to let one's thoughts - and the poem - wander somewhere unexpected. In my novel, I was dealing with different schemes entirely: I had a time-scheme - a chronology over which the events of the book took place - and I found that, as I decided on the end, my time-scheme could be decided too, and compressed right down to a day and a night.

And at this point the real work began. I'd written and written, and I'd gone in wrong directions, once for fifty pages or so, but now I had to do what you never get to do in life, which is to go back over the 'fate' I had generated in the book and finesse the details, either by reducing what was no longer quite as necessary to the clear revelation of that fate, or by firming up the details of the 'real' time over which the book is set. Let me give you an obsessive example of this firming up: some of the book takes place on the night of August 31st, 1986, and it became vitally important to me that I knew at what phase the moon was on that night. I think this is probably a fairly normal writer's obsession, and actually chimes with my experience of writing poems; for it was an example of writing with complete freedom around an immovable certainty, which in a poem's case can be the inevitability of a rhyme word and, in the case of my novel, was the fact of the moon's appearance on an imaginary night when my character, Chris, was hurtling in the dark towards a fate that had become as real and solid to me in the writing as the whole world.

Jacob is the author of two poetry collections, The Brink and The Havocs, and a novel, Talk of the Town.

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