September 16, 2011

The Poet Speaks: Helen Mallon on "The Delight of Sheer Language"

I have the great pleasure today to introduce you to poet and guest blogger Helen Mallon. We met first through this blog when I was writing my memoir "live." She followed, read, commented, encouraged and lived the journey with me. I didn't know where she lived but I knew her. Then I was invited to Rosemont College as the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. On the last day of my visit, I gave a public talk, closed with the last, ever so brief story in The Woman Who Never Cooked. Outside the theater, I signed books and there was the angelic, lithe Helen. And here she is today. At the end of her piece, you can read my review of her book of poems Bone China and click to buy it. Her brief bio, she is ever so humble, appears after her essay so that you may click also on a new, eStory she's written.

The Delight of Sheer Language
My first experience of delight in sheer language came from my mother’s yearly reading of the doggerel about Saint Nicholas: “’Twas the night before Christmas…” Now these lines feel stale, but to a 5-year-old, they conjured a world pregnant with meaning. “As leaves before the wild hurricane fly…” made me quiver. I saw something that our ordinary moonlit nights promised, yet never quite revealed: “The moon on the breast of the newfallen of snow/Gave the luster of midday to objects below.” For me, ignorant of clich√©, the reference to the snow’s “breast” transformed winter hillsides into something living.  The new word “luster,” half-understood, tinged the landscape with silver foil.

For me, well-chosen language is a union of sensuality and meaning. The effect is most striking in poetry, but in the fiction I love most, sentences also have a physical quality that makes them say more than can be put into words. As Eudora Welty wrote of herself as a child in One Writer’s Beginnings: “The word ‘moon’ came into my mouth as though fed to me out of a silver spoon.”

I began my writing life as a poet, and although I have migrated to fiction, I respond in prose to the kind of economical writing found in poetry, in which every word hefts (say) three times its own sensual weight. The fiction writers I most respond to have a love affair with language itself that is sheer poetry in its effect.

The writing of novelist-poet Michael Ondaatje is so beautiful it’s actually distracting. When I begin one of his novels, it takes a while to extricate myself from the seductive currents of his prose and, shaking off water, become immersed in the story. Otherwise, I might spend an hour on a single page.
Spare language, of course, can be no less “poetic.” Part of the ache in Kent Haruf’s novel Plainsong comes from his use of toned-down language to convey intensity. Here he describes breakfast in a household in which the mother has retreated to her bedroom in a depressive fog:

Kent Haruf
Ike picked at something in his eggs and put it at the rim of his plate.  He looked up again. But Dad, he said.
Isn’t Mother coming down today either?
I don’t know, Guthrie said. I can’t say what she’ll do. But you shouldn’t worry. Try not to. It’ll be all right. It doesn’t have anything to do with you.
He looked at them closely. They had stopped eating and were staring out the window toward the barn and corral where the two horses altogether were.

In the spare logic of Haruf’s voice, each phrase lends grave dignity to the family’s sadness. The situation is grim, but each simple action—Ike places something precisely on the rim of his plate, both boys stare out the window in mute defiance of their father’s insistence that “they shouldn’t worry”—is a distillation of emotional unease through concrete images. Through Haruf’s clean imagery, our identity with the boys is almost physical.

Because language is often reduced to a tool which we humans use in our drive to get through life, it’s easy to forget that the “how” of language controls the “what.” The music of words in a story, whether measured and few, or torrential and rushing, gives us a sense—if just for a moment—that messy, jagged life itself can be poetry.

Memoir offers a close take on this notion. Presumably the writer didn’t have to labor to find the story, so how it’s told becomes primary. Here Mary Tabor’s dreamlike prose comes to mind.  Her recent memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story was first incarnated as the spontaneous expression of an online journal, recorded as it happened. A fearless spontaneity is apparent in her readiness to layer literary and pop culture references into her own story of love lost (and found). These disparate references reflect the sometimes tentative, sometimes bold quality of the journey she began when her husband announced that he wanted to be alone. The associative leaps she employs, common in poetry, are not verbal decorations.

I must find the way through all the screens on the stage that slide one in front of the other. I want to shout, “Fire.” Like the clown in the theatre who called out to the laughing crowd while the coulisses burned, while the crowd applauded, disbelieving. I slide the scenery panels of my life through the backstage grooves while they burn and no one sees the fire.

These juxtapositions bring deep cultural resonance to the personal events portrayed. Here prose ranges over life in the service of a poet’s heart.

As in my naive childhood vision of winter transformed by the sensuality of language, prose writers who embrace the devices of poetry create new meanings out of events both ordinary and tragic.

Connect with Helen Mallon: Helen W. Mallon is the author of Bone China, poems. Her eStory, “Did You Put the Cat to Bed?” is available from Books to Go Now.  Helen lives in Philadelphia.

Here is my review of Bone China: I discovered Helen Mallon when she discovered the memoir I was writing "live" as a blog and she wrote me—a gift I treasure for who Mallon is. I bought her beautifully bound book of poems and was deeply moved: "Trustee" and "Inheritance," touched me with razor sharp precision before I visited one my grown children. The poems in their brevity range across the exigencies of existence—an accomplishment that startles. Mallon's poems cut to the heart of the matter like "light shot off smashed glass." This is a voice worth hearing. Buy Bone China on Amazon.


  1. Lovely to meet you, Helen. And I love the cover to Haruf's book ... have had his book on my "read list" for way too long. Mary is a gracious spirit, one I'm pleased to know. And, yes, I agree words, beautifully written, can be a great source of joy. I wrote a blog post not long ago called Glorious Literary Lines. I focused on several lines from Annie Proulx's memoir, Bird Cloud. I'll definitely be looking up your work, Helen. Have a lovely day! --Daisy @ SunnyRoomStudio

  2. Yes, I want to be able to savor the sensuality of the language, and the novels that stay with me in time, rise to this level. It's tricky, because the beauty and power of the prose should exist on another entire layer than the plot in terms of craft, yet this layer must not distract from the trajectory of the story. A fine, fine line. In YA, which is what I write, Franny Billingsley's CHIME rises to this level of prose poetry.

  3. Catherine Stine,

    Indeed, Helen has written a beautiful essay here on language, its sheer delight and its power. But not only that: What she wrote is so generous to other writers and to me. I am in her debt for this guest post.

    And in yours for taking the time to comment.

  4. Dear Daisy, Thanks so much! I was quite honored when Mary asked me to write a guest post. Your support means a lot, and mutual love of language can be like a shared bottle of excellent wine, even in virtual space! I'm grateful & will certainly check out your work as well.

    I wonder if there is more latitude in adult fiction than in YA for lyrical writing? I hope not! Thanks for visiting!!

    I'm grateful for all your "nudges" and your great heart!

  5. A very true and well-expressed essay on the often-breathtaking power words.

  6. Thank you, Lauren, for stopping by and in one swift eloquent sentence giving all a summary of Helen's achievement here.

  7. Helen, this is lovely. So gracefully written. Now I have a better understanding of just why I was so captivated by that road that was "a ribbon of moonlight" in the Highwayman. Jill M.

  8. Lauren, thanks so much!! I often turn to eating words when ice cream just doesn't cut it.

  9. Jill, Yes, that ribbon gives the highwayman such a glint of romance, I'd swear he was wearing a kilt!


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