The Lyrical Nature of Short Prose

“In a short story that’s next to the poem, almost every word has got to be almost exactly right.”
– William Faulkner

    In the literary triad of the poem, short story and novel, Faulkner puts the short story closer to the poem.  He does so because he says you can be careless with the novel and still perhaps come away with a passable thing.  But that certainly cannot happen in a poem and, he contends, neither can it happen in a short story.  There really is not much room for error in either.  The kinship of the story with the poem goes beyond the mere limitations of length though.  One finds in both a use of language which is rhythmic and full of unsaid meaning.  Of course this is the most natural aspect of poetry.  It turns out it is natural in short prose too – both the story and the personal essay.

    First let me state that I’m not an English professor or student.  I’m an amateur – a.k.a. simply a reader.  But I’ve been reading short prose for so many years now I think I know lyricism when I read it.  I may not know how to deconstruct a text (or even know what that means), but I know how words, when placed in just the right order, can create sentences, that, falling in just the right order, can deliver something more than just mere information or story line; can deliver the same emotional impact as a poem.

    Take one of the most famous examples in literature – one I can’t go wrong with because it’s been analyzed countless times: the final five paragraphs of James Joyce’s The Dead.  Joyce’s contribution to modern narrative technique was the epiphany [1], that moment, as Edward P. Jones says, “however grand, however seemingly insignificant, in a character’s life when the earth shifts…”[2]   Joyce himself described it as “a sudden spiritual manifestation.” [1]  At the end of The Dead he does more than describe the main character’s epiphany; he writes with such skill and care that the character‘s epiphany becomes the reader‘s too.  To do this he uses language which in places is as lyrical as might be found in any free verse poem.  One only need consider the very last paragraph’s repeated use of the word “falling“, or even just the last sentence and its balancing of the phrases “falling faintly” and “faintly falling”.

    The final paragraph of Guests of the Nation, fellow Irishman Frank O’Connor’s short story, has the natural flow of a wave building and crashing, and then, in the final thirty one words, the quietness of the water flowing back.  O’Connor achieves the same thing here that Joyce does: the lyrical rendering of revelatory moment.  It is not surprising that we come upon a lot of lyrical endings in short stories.  The end has a large responsibility.  As Charles E. May has written concerning The Dead:

    “[It] cannot be understood  in a way that most novels are read, one thing after another; rather, it exemplifies the way in which the modern short story must be read – as aesthetically patterned  in such a way that only the end makes the rest of the story meaningful.” [3]

    O’Connor’s story also illustrates how cadence, so critical to a proper reading of any poem, must be paid attention to in the reading of short stories too.  For the absolute awfulness of the last line to have full effect, one needs to pause briefly before reading it.  If however the mind’s eye glosses over it, happy to have reached the end of the story, the reader risks making the line weak and empty.  And though I believe more rare, it can also happen that some pieces of prose are like fast flowing rivers and need to be read that way.  Take, for example, Faulkner’s story of a poor, itinerant farming family in Barn Burning.  The story centers around the family’s young boy and his conflicted emotions concerning his father, an angry man, who commits acts of arson as they trudge from farm to farm.  The third paragraph from the story’s end describes the boy’s vain attempt to save his father, out to commit another act of arson, even after betraying him to the wealthy land owner they currently work for.  The paragraph is only three sentences long, but the third and final sentence, in which the boy is running down a road and is almost trampled by the land owner on his horse and on his way to kill the boy‘s father, is an incredible one hundred ninety-three (“exactly right”!) words long.  It may take two or three readings to get the exact pace correct, but if each word is not gulped, almost as if the reader were mentally trying to drink a tall glass of water, then again, the full effect is lost I believe.  The boy is exhausted at the end and so too should be the reader.

    We can find examples of lyricism elsewhere too.  To move from short story to essay, from story writer to essayist, consider The Judgment of the Birds, by Loren Eiseley.  Eiseley has been called a prose stylist and this is true.  But any good personal essayist is that.  Eiseley wrote poetry too and perhaps that is why it seems that in his best essays his sentences sparkle with a poetic style.  Such an essay is The Judgment of the Birds, though the most lyrical part, the actual judgment he witnessed from which the title is taken, does not constitute the entire essay.  It occurs about two-thirds of the way and takes about seven paragraphs to describe, but in those few paragraphs he allows the reader to witness a chance dramatic event side by side with him.  His use of repeated phrases, similar to Joyce, contributes to the lyrical quality of the final paragraph of this section. [4]  Even though Eiseley is a scientist by training, he is clearly a poet at heart.

    The examples are truly endless because lyricism is engrained in the very nature of the short form.  Space is not available to describe every detail so metaphors must be used.  Economy of words means each must carry a large weight.  The language must be chosen to not only provide impact but force after thought, because it is up to you, Dear Reader, to connect the dots in the end.  

    Lyricism is thus as critical to the literary short form as it is to poetry.  Speaking for myself, it is one of their most pleasing aspects.  It’s  what makes the very best of these types of writing literary works of Art.

1. May, Charles E., The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice, pg. 57, (2002).
2. The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, 6th Edition, Cassill, R.V. and Bausch, Richard, eds., pg. 1310, (2000).
3. May, Charles E., The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice, pg. 59, (2002).
4. To read another’s comments on the use of repeat and parallel structures to add poetic meaning and rhythm to prose, see William Safire’s introduction to the Gettysburg Address in Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History, pg. 49, (1992)



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