The Poetry of Prose in Creative Nonfiction

Snow in Trees

Finished reading James Agee’s “A Death in the Family.” Been thinking a lot about the “poetry of prose” in creative nonfiction these days.   Not just the lyrical beauty of prose, though it’s hard not to get stuck in a brilliant passage like this, “fiction” as it may be, from Agee as he describes the evening noises of a neighborhood settling down toward sleep, the fathers after dinner hosing down the summer yards:

Meantime from low in the dark, just outside the swaying horizons of the hoses, conveying always grass in the damp of dew and its strong green-black smear of smell, the regular yet spaced noises of the crickets, each a sweet cold silver noise three-noted, like the slipping each time of three matched links of a small chain.

Look at that little piece of figurative language, those links of a silver chain slipping.  Just look and listen.   In a piece I did for Essay Daily on the lyric impulse, about a student who wouldn’t look at her own bricks strewed throughout her essay on building a house, I quoted from the philologist Max Mueller, who said, “man, as he develops his conceptions of immaterial things, must perforce express them in terms of material things because his language lags behind his needs.” What I understood then was that figurative language becomes the vehicle for greater precision of expression; exactitude grows through metaphor, not necessarily through narrative.

I still believe it. Leonard sent me to a stunning essay published in the New York Times, I’m Going to Die. I May as Well Be Cheerful About It, by Mary PipherMy mom is almost 91 and she wants to die, which she tells me every time I see her, so I think a lot about death now.

At the end Pipher’s essay, Pipher suddenly turns to the image of snow, what becomes the profound metaphor of her piece: “All of my life I have loved snow.” She then describes a beautiful memory of her and her family safely ensconced in their home while a Nebraska blizzard raged outside. That memory becomes a spiritual experience, snow outward and inward until death becomes a whiteout.  There is the great precision, the greater exactitude of metaphor:

Snow falls inside and outside of me. It settles my brain and calms my body.

I hope death feels like watching the snow grow thicker and thicker. Doctors call dying of a morphine overdose being “snowed.” I would not mind that at all. I would like to disappear in a whiteout.

As I tried to tell that student of mine so long ago who wouldn’t pick up the gift of the bricks she had given herself for even a moment,  sometimes we have to hold the thing our heart sends us, though unbidden, though not always understood, and let it just be for a little while, filled with mystery and some other kind of better truth.

#writerat9600ft

My newest book, Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children from Saddle Road Press, available through Amazon, Barnes & Nobles, Powell’s Books, and Indie Bound.

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