What is “prose style”?

Wallace Stevens thought that writing should have nothing to do with the size or scope of your intellect, but be “a revelation in words by means of words.” That’s something like what prose style means to me: the treatment of words – rather than the author or anything else – as the portal to revelation.

Put another way, greatness is not an attribute of writers but of prose. Take this from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek which, though written in the first-person, feels beamed straight from Emerson’s “transparent eye-ball” onto the page:

I have stared at that one spot on the creek bottom for so long, focusing past the rush of water, that when I stand, the opposite bank seems to stretch before my eyes and flow grassily upstream. When the bank settles down I cross the sycamore log and enter again the big plowed field next to the steers’ pasture.

Listen to the creek-like babble of words: the light patterning of sibilants (“stared… stand… seems… settles… steers”) set against short vowel sounds (“spot… bottom… long… log”). The syntax ebbs and flows, one clause folding into another as the speaker’s perspective changes.

Dillard’s focus on the water, when she looks up, makes the opposite bank seem to swim; the grass is transformed into water just as the static prose itself seems to flow. The technical name for this experience – when an image, no longer there, remains imprinted on your vision – is illusory palinopsia. We look up from the page and find the world itself rearranged, or in the process of rearranging itself.

In the second shorter, punctuation-less sentence, Dillard switches back to the present tense and we re-enter the world of brute action, of balancing on slippery logs and fording streams. But the journey/crossing has already been enacted on the level of prose.

For Michel de Montaigne, good prose is easily defined: bad writers don’t think about what they write, OK writers think as they write, and great writers think before they write. But Dillard tears up this trifecta. Of course, she must have thought before she started writing – and thought a lot – but to place all the emphasis on the prior act of thought misses the point.

However many hours of observation and note-taking and research might have preceded it, the writing is the thought. And the thing that needs to be said – the important thing – is what emerges in the act of saying it. It’s a revelation “in words by means of words”.

We’re surrounded by stereotypes and slogans, dead language which promises clarity – a quick route to sense and an even speedier return to the important business of ourselves. Thinking or looking too hard at something – anything – is disorienting: the world swims; a sense of palinopsia sets in.

But this, more than comfort or pleasure, is what great prose induces. That moment of confusion, of mental re-adjustment, when for a split-second the distinction between the page and the world seems total and transparent, flowing. Prose is what’s printed on the page; prose style is the imprint it leaves on the world.

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