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Prose Poetry or Purple Passion?
Carl E Reed
Posted: Friday, May 27, 2011 4:22 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Before me, under a huge sun of sickly scarlet, Yondo reached interminable as the land of a hashish-dream against the black heavens. Far-off, on the utmost rim, were those orb-like mountains. . . . There were fallen cypresses that rotted by crumbling mausoleums, on whose lichen blotted marble fat chameleons crept with royal pearls in their mouths. Hidden by low ridges were cities of which no stela remained unbroken—immense and immemorial cities lapsing shard by shard, atom by atom, to feed infinities of desolation. I dragged my torture-weakened limbs over vast rubbish-heaps that had once been mighty temples; and fallen gods frowned in rotting psammite, or leered in riven porphyry at my feet.

         —Clark Ashton Smith, The Abominations of Yondo


How does the above passage sound to your ear? Is it pitch-perfect prose poetry, or hysterically-overwrought purple prose? Something in between these two polarized and polarizing categories of writing?

 As a fan of writers who write a denser, thicker prose (Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, William Faulkner, Anne Rice, et. al.) I find that I am in a decided minority today.

 Don’t get me wrong! I can appreciate a lean-and-mean, stripped-down literary style of muscular nouns and high-impact action verbs as well as the next summertime paperback buyer. Examples: Hemingway, Elmore Leonard, Ira Levin (and just about every other writing program graduate and best-selling writer working today). But there are times I hunger for something a little more picturesque, a little more baroque and ornate, a little more . . . purple . . . or do you say poetic?

 Where does your own writing and personal aesthetic sensibility fall on the prose poetry/purple prose axis? Are writers like those I referenced above masterful prose stylists whose work is all “spun gold and fell weavings”, or giggle-inducing florid-ians [sic] whose purple prose should be treated with sighs of exasperation and rolled eyes?

 Is there room in the marketplace and on your own bookshelf for both styles of writing, a blended combination of both styles, or dost thou firmly cry, "Nay!" at the first encountered nested-subordinate clause or striking adjective/noun combination? Are you firmly and irrevocably in one camp or the other: an ardent minimalist condemning all “florid and show-offy” writing, or a passionate purveyor of the poetic/purple?

What is your criteria for distinguishing between the two? 

Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Friday, May 27, 2011 7:49 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

I take styles in writing on a case by case basis. I love some of Lovecrafts work, but some of it is just...uh, precious? And Hemingway, holy crap, do I both love (The Sun Also Rises) and laugh at (A Moveable Feast) that man. My favorite prose stylist in English is Raymond Chandler. He manages to marry both the overtly poetic and the minimalist.

The passage that you quote doesn't interest me. In the first sentence we've got "sickly scarlet." Makes me think of a lead-in on The Match Game of yore, "Sickly Scarlet was so sickly..." Seriously, how is a bright red gonna be "sickly?" It's b.s. It's just phoney poetry for the ear and not the soul. Sorry, Ashton.

Carl E Reed
Posted: Friday, May 27, 2011 8:03 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

I'm laughing so hard I have tears rolling down my face: "Sickly Scarlet was so sickly . . ."

I'm so very sorry, Klarkash-Ton! I mean your memory and venerable ghost no disrespect. . . .
Charles Shell
Posted: Saturday, May 28, 2011 2:05 PM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 5

Y'know, I dig Lovecraft's flair a great deal. But it's often a love/hate relationship. While I adore the mood he can project with the purple prose, there are several stories where he just doesn't know where to quit.

And so far as his poetry . . .?

Well, aside from Kipling and a few Robert Frost selections, poetry does little for me, but I can appreciate it. But Lovecraft's? Egads. I'd rather try to psychoanalyze Timothy Leary.

To summarize: I can take the purple prose in small doses.
LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Saturday, May 28, 2011 4:14 PM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

I'm afraid that I too have to say that I can only take purple prose in small doses. I try to add a little bit of that when its necessary, but I spent a semester reading Hemingway and I am now ruined despite the fact that I prefer Fitzgerald's style better. He seems to marry that perfect balance between the beautiful sentence and the stripped down style. The thing I'm trying to adopt is Hemingway's ice burg theory where you have to figure out the 90% from the visible 10%. Unfortunately people don't respond well to it in fantasy writing. It "slows [them] down." I think thats the difference between purple prose and those that wield the "minimalist" style well. Those who do minimalist well can heap all those flowery words and information into just a few short lines.
Carl E Reed
Posted: Saturday, May 28, 2011 10:37 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Charles: re: Lovecraft: point taken. His is a style that almost begs for parody, with its heavy use of polysyllabic scientific nomenclature intermixed with descriptions of towering, cyclopean architecture of black basaltic rock and purple porphyry from which shamble hideous unnamable things that cause his well-mannered professorial protagonists to faint dead away upon contact—oftentimes whilst scribbling a panicked last word or two in their journals comprised of all ITALICS AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!!! The horror. . . . Heh!

What allows Lovecraft to endure, however, is the utter conviction with which he writes, the assured and pedantic and utterly queer enthusiasm with which he chronicles and describes the terrors of his oneiric visions: monsters from non-Euclidian space, aliens from other dimensions, elder gods that slumber beneath the Antarctic ice or Pacific ocean. HPL’s recondite and bizarre literary style—archaisms, stilted phraseology, descriptions that are half prose poetry, half scientific adumbration—allows him to weave a literary mood that is entirely his own: infused with dread and existential helplessness, shot through with an otherworldly cosmicism that at times breaks into open authorial awe and admiration for the extraterrestrial. It is . . . unique.

LeeAnna: re: Hemingway: his journalistic training in writing the flat (though information-packed) declarative sentence served him well. Two of my favorite “Hemingway-on-Hemingway” quotes are:

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.
—A Moveable Feast, p. 12

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.
—Interview: Paris Review 18, Spring 1958

LeeAnna Holt
Posted: Monday, May 30, 2011 12:33 AM
Joined: 4/30/2011
Posts: 662

@Carl: I've read A Moveable Feast. I actually still own it, and yes I love that quote. The second one I really like the most though. It is so true. I actually can't read a lot of fantasy because, well frankly, many of the words are useless. People always tell me I need more explanation, more description. Its a shame they can't see that it isn't always needed. Why would I want to describe a book on a table, that serves no purpose, you only see once?
L R Waterbury
Posted: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 5:45 AM
Joined: 4/28/2011
Posts: 60

I can appreciate a primely produced paragraph of purple prose (so how do we feel about alliteration?). I can even admire it and enjoy purple prose in short-story form because I have the patience to read it carefully and savor the words, knowing I don't have another 300 pages of it to plow through. But, I have to admit, I get impatient with it in the context of a novel. Get on the with the damn story already!

In cases of novels full of purple prose, my reading tends to go something like this: Ooh, a paragraph with plot. I'll read that. Blech, paragraphs with purple prose. Skip it. Another one. Skip it. Wait, here's some more. Skip it. Is that plot I detect? Yippee!

I think one of the greatest compliments writers can receive is to be told their writing is evocative (I said "one of," damn it! No jumping down my throat. I don't want to have to buy some lozenges). Some people think that thick description (sorry, anthropology term) full of adjectives and adverbs and extremely long sentences is the key to being evocative. I was just re-reading Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver and she has an uncanny knack for being evocative with an absolute minimum of purple prose or long paragraphs and sentences.

And, no, I don't fill my prose with parenthetical statements. I only do that on message boards (and e-mails (only the longer ones, of course)). I will, however, admit to a long-standing affair with the clause. Don't tell that to my digressions. They might get jealous.
Carl E Reed
Posted: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 7:29 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Thanks for checking in and sharing your thoughts on this topic, LR!

I know what you mean about prose poetry being too much of a good thing in “the long form”; there’s something exhausting and over-rich about extended reading sessions of Thomas Wolfe, Melville, Faulkner, et. al. It requires much more of the reader: stamina, fierce focus, a heightened poetic sensitivity and a willing collusion with the writer in creating and sustaining a lyrical voice that—let’s be frank here—most 21st-century readers are simply incapable of. That may be a combative and unpopular assertion. If it is, so be it—I stand by it. (Ever hear your co-workers read aloud? Of course you have. In most instances I’ll bet the experience was . . . painful . . . for you and for them, eh?)

So when Bradbury writes (BRADBURY SPEAKS: TOO SOON FROM THE CAVE, TOO FAR FROM THE STARS. NY: William Morrow, 2005, p. 5): “If you must write of assassinations, rapes, and Ophelia suicides, speak the speech, I pray thee, poetry in your breath, metaphors on your tongue. Remember how glad Iago was to think on Othello’s fall. How, with smiles, Hamlet prepared his uncle’s death,”—I smile myself and inwardly applaud, but stop reading at the end of the chapter. I need time to catch my breath.

The fault is not Ray Bradbury’s, the fault is my own. I can eat only so much rich chocolate fudge before hungering for a bit of palate-cleansing bloody steak.

In my own writing (for the most part), I strive for a mixed style: straight-forward descriptive paragraphs alternating with short, sharp bursts of dialogue (unless the characters are professorial in nature or academics of one stripe or another). I cast a skeptical eye on adverbs and speech tags other than said, replied and asked. I’ll write prose poetry (others call it purple prose) when the story seems to call for it: heightened character consciousness, drama or mood. I never stay in that register for long; the majority of the tale—say, 80%—must be told in as fast-moving and direct (though exact and evocative) a fashion as possible. The master of this kind of blended style—part smash-mouth tough guy, part elegiac prose poet—is Cormac McCarthy. (For example I submit any of his novels, in their entirety.)

I’ll close with a final bit of sharp, picturesque writing from the incomparable Mr. Bradbury, the master who shows us how it’s done:

“A little dog trotted by with clever eyes; so clever that Mr. Benedict could not meet its gaze.”

—DARK CARNIVAL (Springfield, PA: Gauntlet Publications, 2001, p. 179)

That's a clever dog, eh?

Mimi Speike
Posted: Saturday, January 7, 2012 6:49 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014


I have just stumbled upon this very interesting discussion, and I will be addressing the issues which you have touched upon shortly, after I gather my thoughts. 

Purple Prose - I had no clue what it was, until now. I had thought it must be something akin to blue material. I write Purple Prose, I see, to my astonishment. But I try to vary dense passages of description with what I think of as rata-tat-tat bursts of dialog, as a change of pace. And my on-and-on tendencies are (I insist) part of my joke. I have to say that nothing I write is anywhere near as difficult as the smidgen of The Abominations which you quote.

I've been reading and writing for over fifty years. I therefore claim to possess some judgement about what works, and what makes for an enjoyable read.

I'm old. Ancient! I grew up watching Bonanza on a black and white TV, in a time when the bad kids were the ones who chewed gum in class, when we went out on Halloween alone and no one worried, when I knew of only one schoolmate whose mother was not a stay-at-home mom. Your Swashbuckling Sam's cell phone playing music evocative of the simpler, saner world of my childhood, in that eerie setting, seemed to me inspired. 

World-building, which we both do, requires a good deal of explanation. I've built my whacko version of the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment in detail, from the lice up, and I've had a grand time doing it, exploiting every opportunity to be ridiculous. (And, believe me, there were plenty.)

I've just made a Request to Connect because, despite the fact that you seem to write Twilight Zone/Contemporary and I write Sixteenth Century/Off The Wall, I feel that we are kindred spirits. 

You are one of the people on Book Country who I want to keeps tabs on. You are a find, sir! That Waterbury dame is another.

I applaud your bravery in calling a spade a spade, which I've seen you do on more than one occasion.

I am working on a review of Rapture Red. I just deleted a comment that I felt went a bit too far, though I softened it with a plea that the Book Country community not virtually tar and feather me, that I am willing to reconsider my arrogant stance. (I actually believe my snide remark wholeheartedly.)

Do I dare put it back in? I've already annoyed one person with my no-quarter-given diatribes.

Maybe, if I have a few glasses of wine first.

Carl E Reed
Posted: Sunday, January 8, 2012 8:33 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Thanks for checking in on the issues, Mimi!


By the way—I'm not one who believes in savaging any one particular story/person; I always try to couch my criticism in as constructive and direct and supportive a tone as possible. But if we're talking in general terms about a topic such as: "Writers-who-won't-read-other-writers-while-they're-writing-for-fear-of-cross-polinating,-contaminating-or-otherwise-diminishing-their-own-genius”, say; then I let rip with exactly what I think and feel.


And I must say that I applaud and approve your deleting a comment that you yourself said “went a bit too far.” Remember: being on the receiving end of criticism always feels more uncomfortable for the recipient than the giver, regardless of who the people involved are. So there’s no need to get nasty, or to be especially witty/snarky/snide at another’s expense; it just makes the critiquer look small and smarmy.


On the other hand, if in reading any one particular work you feel the writer (I’m not talking about any one writer or work here; this is a general comment) is completely blind and/or tone-deaf to certain glaring errors they’ve made in the construction of their narrative, well . . . you’ve got to point that out.


It’s a tricky business, for writer and reviewer both.


But we’ve wandered off-topic, eh?

Mimi Speike
Posted: Sunday, January 8, 2012 9:30 AM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014

My! You are an early riser (for a Sunday). My iMac is right next to me. I can write while lying in bed.

The remark that I deleted was not meant for Lisa Marie, it was aimed at several reviewers who objected to her calling her work Noir. I did some research on the term and feel that the objection is not valid, but is based on a wrong-headed idea that has gained acceptance through frequent repetition.  

But you're right. I should cool it. I tend to flip out over things that really bug me although, believe it or not, I'm actually considered a very mild person. 

Carl E Reed
Posted: Sunday, January 8, 2012 12:47 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Re: Lisa Maire and her art: I believe the artist should have the final say in what genre classification their work falls into. That is, until they sell it to a publisher and marketing gets involved, heh!


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