“Marriage is a book in which the first chapter is written in poetry
and the remaining chapters in prose.”
– Beverley Nichols (1898 – 1983), British writer;
attributed in The Quote Verifier, by Ralph Keyes
In high school I wanted to write poetry. All my succeeding chapters have been in prose.
Most of my work life has been helping other people write better prose: clearer, shorter, punchier. Most of my leisure time has been trying to help my own self write better prose: snappier, funnier, memorablier.
Taking an Exit on a Snowy Evening
Two lanes diverged in an exit knot,
And conscious I must not both o’erpass
As just one driver, quick I thought
And glanced down one as far as I ought
To where it bent by the overpass;
Then took the other, as just as bare,
But offering p’raps the safer game,
Because it was darker – from extra wear? –
Though as for that the traffic there
Had cleared them really about the same,
And both that evening equally lay
In snow that tires had packed down (whack!).
Oh, I held my choice to avoid the tway!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I could ever change back.
I shall be blogging this with a sigh
Right here and very shortly hence
Two lanes diverged in an exit knot, and I—
I took the one more travelled by,
And that made really no difference.
This exercise has reminded me that inspiration may be necessary, but is hardly sufficient. As Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”
Incidentally–while poking around in quotations about poetry and prose–it has also reminded me that my first reading or hearing may miss the point, and that subsequent hearings tend to “hold my choice” (or “keep the first,” as Frost said).
“You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.”
– Mario Cuomo (1932 – 2015), Governor of New York from 1983 to 1994,
attributed in The Quote Verifier
I had always heard Cuomo’s adage as meaning that governing was harder than campaigning, but my experience with prose and poetry is the opposite. Maybe all he meant was that they were different: that governing was more, well, prosaic.
Given that people are still talking about the meaning of “The Road Not Taken,” 100 years after Frost published it, it’s good for me to be open to rethinking old understandings.
Finally, if I ever had any doubts about the value of “clearer, shorter, punchier,” this account of what Edison likely actually said helps put those to rest, too.
An associate of Edison said he’d once asked him what genius was. “Well,” replied Edison, “about 99 percent of it is a knowledge of the thing that will not work. The other 1 percent may be genius, but the only way that I know to accomplish anything is everlastingly to keep working, with patient observation.”
– The Quote Verifier, by Ralph Keyes
It’s not exactly poetry, is it?