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Ann Charters edits The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. The new Compact Tenth Edition is now available.
The topic of poets writing short stories is nothing new, but what makes them do it? The difference between poetry and prose “has to do with music,” the New York poet Ted Berrigan said, as quoted in the anthology Beats at Naropa (2009). If Edgar Allen Poe had been alive when I was creating The Story and Its Writer, I would have asked him to comment on my topic, since he is the greatest American poet to have written prose tales. What makes Poe’s stories different from the work of other contemporary prose writers, such as Hawthorne and Melville, also known for their brilliant way with words?
In “The Philosophy of Composition," Poe asserted his belief, shared by most readers during his lifetime, that poetry is the highest literary achievement. He followed this statement by ranking the prose tale as the next best, probably because his own talents did not include writing novels. We know what made Poe write his short prose tales – he made his living as a journalist, and his stories were so popular that he could sell them easily to earn his daily bread.
Music can be found in both of Poe’s tales included in The Story and Its Writer. In “The Cask of Amontillado,” the last sound Montresor hears in the final paragraph of the story is “a jingling of the bells” from the carnival cap that Fortunato wears on his head. The reader has heard them three times earlier, while Montresor slowly leads his intoxicated victim through “the damp ground of the catacombs” in his family’s burial vault.
In ”The Fall of the House of Usher,” music is pushed to its limit – which is silence. At the start of the story, Usher’s psychological condition is so “morbid” that he can listen only to string instruments, as he strums “the wild improvisations of his speaking guitar.” The narrator tells us that his friend’s “long improvised dirges will ring forever in my ears,” while including six stanzas of his ballad “The Haunted Palace” that linger forever on the page. Midway in the story, sounds replace music to signal the deteriorating circumstances. The last sound Usher hears is his sister’s “low moaning cry” just before his own death, and only the final words of the story bring a welcome silence.
More than a century after Poe, Sandra Cisneros, the author featured in a new Casebook in the new Compact Tenth Edition, wanted to write stories “like poems, compact and lyrical and ending with reverberation.” The four stories from The House on Mango Street are each as short as a poem, and in them Cisneros’ language is as fluid as music. Not for her is Poe’s morbid, death-obsessed fantasies. Her short fiction is rooted in the here-and-now, as she explores the emotional world of a young, vulnerable Chicana girl finding her way in an unfriendly American landscape.
Cisneros’ voice is her instrument in The House on Mango Street. Memory is her material. Her family’s ethnic background and poverty contribute to her emotional distress. Her lyrical voice courageously rises in song as she expresses her triumph as a gifted storyteller over her low position on the social totem pole. Her vocabulary – and her music – is as strong and as supple as the lyrics of a folksong.
Recently I found a slender volume of short stories on the shelf of a local bookstore by another poet, the Nobel Prize winner Louise Gluck. On the cover of her book, Gluck calls Marigold and Rose (2022) “A Fiction.” It brilliantly exemplifies another way that poets write short stories. It isn’t a fantasy tale or a story based on the author’s memory of her feelings. Gluck’s way is to dramatize the thoughts of her imagined characters, not their actions or their emotions.
Marigold and Rose are the two characters in her stories; they are fraternal twin girl babies less than a year old. Like Esperanza, Cisneros’ narrator, they are nurtured by a supportive family. Gluck is interested both in their instinctive closeness to each other as twin sisters, and in their marked differences as personalities, even as young as they are. Her short fiction sings a different tune, expressing subtle harmonics more than flowing melodies (as in Poe and Cisneros's stories). Get hold of a copy of Marigold and Rose, and enjoy.
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