ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 01, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 53

Prose and poetry: Random thoughts on the Gratiaen award

For the first time since the inception of the Gratiaen award, not a single work of prose was short - listed. Poetry had a field day, five collections of poems being nominated.

This was worrying and it prompted me to clarify my ideas on writing – How does one assess a novel? Expressive language used to create a distinct and often indefinable style is essential. It fleshes out the bare bones of a narrative. It is in a sense the “haute couture” which clothes the character.

The characters and the personal relationships must be authentic. The situations they are involved in, credible. There is no longer the over-riding concern with a ‘plot’ which tends to be more subtle. Increasingly novels with an exotic setting in which the characters react to a current historical climate are becoming popular (Khaled Hosseini’s best selling novels set in Afghanistan are illustrative of this trend). A reader’s interest has to be sustained over an average of 150-500 pages until the ultimate climax is reached.

A novel usually takes an average of 1-3 years to write, the initial draft goes through one or more revisions. It is time consuming, and often saps the energy of the writer. To use the analogy of a painting, it is comparable to an oil painting where bold and delicate brush strokes combine to create a compelling picture on life’s canvas.

And poetry? The incubation period for an idea to “hatch” varies from several days to a few minutes. Language is of paramount importance; it has to be precise, with no superfluous verbiage and should succinctly express the central theme of the poem. It should flow rhythmically.

The initial draft is put away for a variable period. On going back to it, one sees it in a fresh light, more objectively. The flaws become obvious. The rough- cut gem is given a final polish before it sees the light of day.

The final draft which could average 15-50 lines must be of immediate appeal to the reader. To use the analogy of a painting again it is a finely etched cameo in no way comparable to an oil painting.

Which brings me to the Gratiaen Award. I found that the judges stressed on the ‘impact’ of the work as an important criterion.
Is the impact of a novel comparable to the impact of a poem? A novel’s impact is not instantaneous; It takes time to seep into the consciousness. Its emotional impact is but a small segment of the spectrum of a broad-based response to the various aspects of the novel.

Poetry, on the other hand, provokes an immediate subjective, emotional response. Can two diverse terms of writing be judged by the same yardstick? It is time that two prizes are awarded, one for prose and one for poetry. I am sure there are patrons of the arts who would gladly come forward to donate another award.

This is no way detracts from the writing of the Gratiaen award winner, Vivimarie Vanderpoorten.She has a uniquely sensitive style of writing well crafted, intensely personal poetry, and certainly deserves the award. Congratulations!

By Premini Amerasinghe

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