Reading Cheever: lay those poetic explosives with care

Today’s text is taken from The Journals of John Cheever, pg 106 (Vintage Paperback edition):

He throws sticks into the water, which is a perfectly clear, shallow, and rippled scarf of light.

The trick with prose – or a trick – is to withhold the poetry, and lay it like you’d lay a mine, some way ahead of the reader. Let them enjoy the walk, strolling through the amiable woodland of your paragraphs, hearing a bird but not seeing it, feeling the sun in dappled patches rather than full on… then: boom!

Reading submissions to a Creative Writing course last week, I came across far too many stories that showered the reader with fireworks, right from the first page. As you might expect, many of them (these were apprentice writers) were more squibs than the mesmerising explosions they may have been aiming for, showing the ooh-ing, aah-ing reader with adjectives and adverbs.

But, I thought, later, reading some of Cheever’s journals, any one of those audacious adjectives, or those at-full-stretch descriptions, if placed with care, might have had the poetic power of Cheever’s “scarf of light”.

“Scarf of light”: Is it a great phrase, on its own terms, in any context, or does it depend on what leads up to it, both in terms of that very carefully structured phrase and, more generally, in the paragraphs that lead up to it?

I think probably the former (“scarf”, such an underused, unpoetic word, does much to defuse the potential clunker “light”), but still it benefits from its delicate handling.

It’s not that ‘less is more’, but that the more less you use, the more the more you leave in will glow.

Writers are often told to grab the reader’s attention from the word go. (The First Five Pages, etc). But, I think, the trick for the first page, the first paragraph, the first line even, is not to dazzle, or to seduce, but to give confidence. Make the ground underfoot seem springy and solid; give the sense that the going will be easy; give them enough of a glimpse of the view ahead that they will think it will be worth the trek. Don’t sprinkle the path with orchids and butterflies from the very first step. Set them off, let them enjoy the stroll, with expectation of poetry to come.


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